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Tilting at Windmills

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June 30, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

ROMNEY FOR VEEP?....Will we soon have Mitt to kick around again?

In a surprise to many Republican insiders, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is at the top of the vice presidential prospect list for John McCain. But lack of personal chemistry could derail the pick.

"Romney as favorite" is the hot buzz in Republican circles, and top party advisers said the case is compelling.

Like most liberals, I think this is a great idea because it would provide lots of good material for future blog mockery. Still, that's just a personal insta-reaction, and I wouldn't be too quick to write this off as a dumb move. Yes, there's the whole Mormon/evangelical thing, and God knows McCain doesn't need even more problems with the evangelical community. But Romney helps him with conservatives, helps him with fundraising, is unlikely to make any serious gaffes, and can hold his own in a debate. Personal chemistry aside, he might be a fairly shrewd choice.

Kevin Drum 8:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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By: Kevin Drum

CHART OF THE DAY....From Andrew Gellman, here's a scatterplot of the social and economic attitudes of adults in the 48 continental U.S. states. (For some reason, Alaska and Hawaii are missing.) There's nothing super surprising here, but it seemed like interesting data to share. Note, for example, that there are several "conservative" states that are relatively liberal on the economic scale (West Virginia and Kentucky), but there are no "liberal" states that are socially conservative. Make of that what you will.

A second graph in the same post breaks down attitudes in each state between Democrats and Republicans and shows that there's far more overlap in social attitudes than in economic attitudes. Discuss.

Kevin Drum 2:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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CLARK ON McCAIN....Today's outrage of the hour involves Wesley Clark. On Face the Nation yesterday he noted that John McCain doesn't really have any wartime command experience:

SCHIEFFER: Can I just interrupt you? I have to say, Barack Obama hasn't had any of these experiences either, nor has he ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down.

CLARK: I don't think getting in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to become president.

Andrew Sullivan is unhappy about this:

Wesley Clark is now and always has been a Clinton-type, but this is pretty revolting. This kind of personal attack was repulsive coming against Kerry from the far right. And it's repulsive the other way round. Both Kerry and McCain served their country honorably; and their records should be revered, period. You can make an argument against McCain's foreign policy experience and judgment on its merits. Do it and leave this crap out of it.

Hold on a second. In the 2004 campaign Kerry made his military record a major part of his campaign, and conservatives pointed out that his naval service 30 years ago didn't necessarily mean he had a strong national security record today. Sure, the Swift Boat attacks were way over the line, but the pushback on "military record = national security chops" was perfectly legitimate politics.

Clark isn't doing anything different here. There are some other, less savory attacks coming from the left that may merit Andrew's ire (see here), but Clark's point is a fair one. It's fair for him to make it and it's fair for McCain's supporters to push back on it. There's nothing out of line here.

Kevin Drum 12:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (162)

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RUMORS AND REPORTS OF RUMORS....A reader recommends this Washington Post story as an antidote to today's McClatchy story about the hard times that Republican attack groups have fallen on. Bottom line: maybe conservatives don't need to spend millions of dollars on Swift Boat-style attacks because fringe lunatics are doing all the same work for free. All hail the internet!

Kevin Drum 11:52 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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By: Kevin Drum

CORRELATION, CAUSATION, AND BLOGGING....Kieran Healy is annoyed:

You only have to hang around the world of social science research- or policy-related blogging for a few hours before you come across someone willing to snottily inform you, or some other luckless interlocutor, that although the finding of this or that paper may appeal to you, nevertheless don't you know that Correlation Is Not Causation. Often this seems to be the only thing they know about statistics.

I grudgingly admit that it's a plausible-sounding rule, and in the textbooks and stuff. But, to be honest, I read it too many times in various posts and comments threads the other day, and in my raging pique I found myself thinking that the next time it happened I would say, "That's completely backwards: in fact, causation is just correlation" and fling a copy of Hume's first Enquiry at their head. Or at the screen, I suppose, but that image is less satisfying, because now who's the crank on the internet, etc.

OK, he's kidding. Sort of. But not really. Bloggers are fond of yelling "correlation is not causation" at any piece of research that comes to a conclusion they find distasteful, but what they almost never do is actually read the paper in question, which invariably addresses most of their concerns: research methodology; alternate explanations; potential intervening variables; results of similar studies in the past; shortcomings in the data set; etc. That's not to say that researchers always take every possible problem seriously enough, or that social science papers don't deserve heightened scrutiny. But it is to say that if, in 30 seconds, some possible problem with the research program occurs to you, it's almost a dead certainty that the person with a PhD who performed the study also thought of the same thing. And discusses it in the paper.

At least, that's what's I've found on virtually every occasion when I've cracked open one of these things. The discussion isn't always great, and sometimes it leaves a variety of questions hanging, but it's almost always there. It's true that correlations don't always imply causation, especially if the research is poorly done or the statistical analysis is mangled, but it also turns out, surprisingly enough, that people with doctorates mostly understand this stuff almost as well as bloggers who read the New York Times.

Kevin Drum 11:44 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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DEPRESSED....McClatchy reports that conservative attack groups are in hibernation this year:

There's no 2008 equivalent to the 2004 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which spent $22 million attacking Democrat John Kerry. Prominent groups and donors that played key roles in independent conservative 527 groups four years ago say they're sitting out this election. And while they've raised more than they did at this point four years ago, the independent pro-Republican groups still lag more than $50 million behind pro-Democratic groups.

....At this stage four years ago, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth had been up and running for more than a month, ripping Kerry's Vietnam record. It started airing its big ads that August.

Another pro-Republican group, Progress for America, aired its first ad criticizing Kerry's national-security record and credentials four years ago this week, the first $1 million salvo of what would be a $35 million barrage in key states.

Today, there are no such groups on the Republican side.

My naive explanation for this is that convervatives are just massively depressed this year. Continuing to try to defend George Bush is a bummer; John McCain isn't really their guy; they don't think they can win; Barack Obama is so talented he scares them; rich people don't feel like wasting their money on a loser; evangelicals are sort of wondering why God has forsaken them; and overall, they're as tired of the war as anyone. Basically, they're having trouble getting out of bed this morning.

Which is all great news. On the other hand, my wife, who hangs out more regularly with normal people than I do, cautions me constantly that she thinks McCain has a better chance than I'm giving him credit for. My analytic side continues not to believe her, but her instincts aren't bad on this kind of thing. So I'll hold off on breaking out the champagne until November.

Kevin Drum 11:04 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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ADVISING THE IRAQIS....Here's a piece of news that will surprise exactly no one:

A group of American advisers led by a small State Department team played an integral part in drawing up contracts between the Iraqi government and five major Western oil companies to develop some of the largest fields in Iraq, American officials say.

....In their role as advisers to the Iraqi Oil Ministry, American government lawyers and private-sector consultants provided template contracts and detailed suggestions on drafting the contracts, advisers and a senior State Department official said.

"Detailed suggestions" indeed. I think that's what Michael Corleone called it too.

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

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June 29, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

BRINKSMANSHIP IN IRAN....In the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh reports that the Bush administration is stepping up covert action against Iran:

Late last year, Congress agreed to a request from President Bush to fund a major escalation of covert operations against Iran, according to current and former military, intelligence, and congressional sources. These operations, for which the President sought up to four hundred million dollars, were described in a Presidential Finding signed by Bush, and are designed to destabilize the country's religious leadership. The covert activities involve support of the minority Ahwazi Arab and Baluchi groups and other dissident organizations. They also include gathering intelligence about Iran's suspected nuclear-weapons program.

As Hersh acknowledges, operations to destabilize Iran are nothing new. However, this one is bigger and deeper than any of our previous programs, and the question it immediately raises is: are we doing this to prepare the ground for a military strike later in the year? Coincidentally, this week Laura Rozen asked five Middle East experts whether recent actions suggest that either an American or Israeli strike is in the offing, and for the most part they were skeptical:

I still think a strike is still less rather than more likely....Very, very unlikely....The recent war rhetoric coming out of Israel seems more geared towards ensuring that America keeps its military option on the table, than towards signalling that Israel itself is prepared to take military action....I think the likelihood that the US attacks Iran before Bush leaves office to be quite low....

On the other hand, as Danny Postel points out, "One thing we do know is that the intellectual runway is being slicked for an attack....The writing on the wall looks deadly serious to me. I'd rather fall for the hawks' propaganda than awake one morning to find out that I'd underestimated the threat. But even if it is just posturing, it's a very dangerous game with potentially cataclysmic consequences."

Both pieces are worth reading to get a broad picture of what's really going on. And if you have any questions for Laura's panel of experts (Daniel Levy, Yossi Melman, Trita Parsi, Danny Postel, and Jacqueline Shire), they'll be guest posting and taking questions all week over at the Mother Jones blog. Head on over if you want to join in the chat.

Kevin Drum 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (63)

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June 28, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA....By the way, the clear winner from my book thread the other day was Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. I'll try to gather together some of the other widely recommended books from that thread later, but this one must have gotten at least a dozen shoutouts just in the first 50 comments alone. It's a great choice since it's otherwise not the kind of book I'd notice, which means I'm almost certain to learn some interesting new stuff. Thanks, everyone!

Kevin Drum 4:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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FIREFOX 3....So I installed Firefox 3 a couple of days ago and everything seems....fine. Memory use is definitely better, which was one of v2's biggest problems, and everything else seems to work about the same as always.

Unfortunately, one thing that still seems to work the same as always — though I'm not 100% sure of this — is the fact that certain web pages can pretty much freeze up Firefox completely. As near as I can tell, the problem lies in the Flash plugin, which is occasionally allowed to go haywire and suck up 98% of the system's resources, thus bringing not only Firefox to its knees, but everything else too. Whose fault this is I can't really say, since I imagine that the OS, Firefox, and the plugin should all prevent this kind of thing from happening.

Anybody else have this problem? Or any other observations, good or ill, about Firefox 3? Comments are open.

Kevin Drum 3:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (84)

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TAIBBI ON McCAIN....One of the nice things about not being famous is that it makes it unlikely I'll ever end up in Matt Taibbi's crosshairs. John McCain, however, is not so fortunate:

McCain enters the general election in the form of a man who has jettisoned the last traces of his dangerous unorthodoxy just in time to be plausible in the role of the torchbearing leader of the anti-Obama mob, waving the flag and chanting, "One of us! One of us!" all the way through to November. He now favors making the Bush tax cuts permanent, he's unblinkingly pro-life every time he remembers to mention abortion, and he's given up bitching about torture. With his newfound opposition to his own attempts to reform immigration policy and campaign finance, McCain is perhaps the first candidate in history to stump against two bills bearing his own name.

McCain's transformation is so complete that at a recent town-hall meeting in Nashville, when asked to name an author who inspired him, the candidate — who once described televangelists of the Jerry Falwell genus as "agents of intolerance" — put none other than Joel Osteen at the top of his list. "He's inspirational," McCain said.

Standing at the meeting, I didn't write Osteen's name down in my notebook — apparently because my brain refused on some level to accept that McCain had actually said it. Of all the vile, fake, lying-ass, money-grubbing shyster scumbags on the face of this planet, there is perhaps none more loathsome than Osteen, a human haircut with plastic baseball-size teeth who has made a fortune selling the appalling only-in-America idea that terrestrial greed is actually a form of Christian devotion.

That's some good beach reading right there. Enjoy!

Kevin Drum 3:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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"RESPONSIBLE, GRADUAL"....Over at The Corner, Peter Hegseth says:

Recent reports and rumors have indicated that Senator Obama plans to aggressively move to the middle on Iraq in the coming months.

Hmmm. I haven't heard these rumors. But then, I wouldn't have, would I?

Is anybody else writing stuff along these lines? Hegseth himself doesn't provide any evidence aside from a slight change of wording in yesterday's Obama speech. All I can say is, if it's true it's going to make the backlash over his FISA stand look like a cocktail party squabble.

Kevin Drum 12:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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DOBSON'S DIATRIBE....Peter Wehner, former aide to George Bush and a well-known evangelical Christian, writes in the Washington Post today about James Dobson's recent temper tantrum over Barack Obama's religious views:

If Christian conservatives want to be taken seriously, they need to make serious arguments and speak with intellectual integrity. In this instance, Dobson didn't. He has set back his cause and made some of us who are evangelicals and conservatives wince.

Good for him for saying so. Dobson's outburst would have made me wince too if he were on my side.

Kevin Drum 1:51 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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June 27, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

CDS WATCH....Clinton Derangement Syndrome is alive and well. Here is Kathryn Jean Lopez on Hillary Clinton's "mortification" during her appearance with Barack Obama today:

I may be crazy. But Bill Clinton is not going to let himself be humiliated. He's in talks with McCain before long if he's not already. He's going to salvage his name before this election is over. Like I said ...

This tops even Andrew Sullivan's CDS, and that ain't easy to do.

Kevin Drum 8:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....More summer catblogging today! On the left, Domino strolls around the garden looking for a good place to roll around so she can track lots of dirt into the house. On the right, Inkblot is up on our west-facing wall because he knows the late afternoon light is flattering to his muscular physique. And who are we to damage his self esteem by telling him otherwise?

Kevin Drum 3:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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NORTH KOREA'S NUKES....Barron YoungSmith comments favorably on North Korea's decision to blow up the cooling towers of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor:

This is a momentous step because it's largely irreversible: North Korea will never again be able to kick out inspectors and start reprocessing plutonium in a matter of days, as it did in 2003.

Of course, we don't know if Kim's decision was affected by the fact he now has a nuclear arsenal. North Korea may very well renounce its nuclear program, but keep the 8-15 bombs it produced during George Bush's "I'm not talking to you" phase (cir. 2001-2006).

That's true. On the bright side, though, North Korea's 2006 nuclear test was a major league dud. Now, obviously even a poorly-designed nuclear bomb isn't something you want going off in your backyard, but a low-yielding nuke too heavy to deliver via ICBM isn't really all that great a deterrent. It's not out of the question that the North Koreans might eventually decide to declare their arsenal of bombs and trade them away as long as we keep John Bolton at bay and continue talking.

Kevin Drum 2:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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LETTING ADDINGTON OFF THE HOOK....Here is Dana Milbank's take on David Addington's congressional testimony yesterday:

There he sat, hunched and scowling, at the witness table in front of the House Judiciary Committee: the bearded, burly form of the chief of staff and alter ego to the vice president — Cheney's Cheney, if you will — and the man most responsible for building President Bush's notion of an imperial presidency.

David Addington was there under subpoena. And he wasn't happy about it.

Could the president ever be justified in breaking the law? "I'm not going to answer a legal opinion on every imaginable set of facts any human being could think of," Addington growled. Did he consult Congress when interpreting torture laws? "That's irrelevant," he barked. Would it be legal to torture a detainee's child? "I'm not here to render legal advice to your committee," he snarled. "You do have attorneys of your own."

OK, so Addington is not only an arrogant prick, he's the kind of person who revels in being an arrogant prick. We've seen the type before and we'll see it again: smart, well-briefed, and completely convinced of his own self-righteousness.

But there's another aspect to this that never gets the attention it deserves: the Judiciary Committee members knew the kind of person Addington was. They knew he was smart and well-briefed and arrogant — and therefore difficult to question. But they all insisted on their ten minutes of glory anyway. Obviously the Republican members wouldn't have given up their time in order to put Addington under more pressure, but why weren't the Democrats willing to give up their collective time and turn it over to a staff member who was Addington's equal and could have grilled him for a consecutive hour or two? That's the only way it was even remotely plausible that they'd get anything useful out of him.

Instead we had a bunch of amateurs tossing easily evaded questions at him for a few minutes apiece. It was tailor-made to allow Addington to get away with saying nothing, and that's exactly what he did. Next time the politicians ought to pack away their egos and let someone else take the stage.

Kevin Drum 2:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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TAKING YOUR GUN AWAY....Mark Kleiman hopes that with the Heller case removing the threat that "the government is going to take away your guns," maybe there will be less resistance to moderate gun control measures that really do reduce crime:

With any luck, taking the "gun confiscation" card out of the political pack might actually reduce the fervor of the opposition the NRA can whip up to sensible measures such as requiring background checks for gun sales by private individuals (the current rule that requires them only for purchases from gun dealers), computerizing data on which dealers are selling the guns that get used in crimes, and developing and deploying technology that would allow police to identify, from a bullet or a shell casing found at a crime scene, when, to whom, and by whom the gun that produced that metal was lawfully transferred.

I hope so too, but I doubt it. Unfortunately, my sense is that the gun confiscation argument never had all that much impact on centrist gun owners in the first place. It only appealed to an extremist fringe that's fueled by an inchoate rage against pointy-headed DC bureaucrats — a rage that's not going anywhere just because of one Supreme Court decision. After all, these are the guys who are so far off in lala land that they're convinced it's the United Nations that's going to take their guns away. We all know the Supreme Court can't stand up to the Secretary General (thanks to pointy-headed DC bureaucrats who are in on the game), so Heller is really pretty meaningless, isn't it? The fight goes on.

Anyway, that's my guess. Plus there's the fact that the NRA has to keep raising money, and tamping down fears of gun confiscation probably isn't high on their list of fundraising strategies. Logic says Mark ought to be right, but I suspect in practice that Heller will have no effect at all on the lunatic fringe.

UPDATE: Plus, in fairness, Heller was a 5-4 decision and the gun lobby will be able to say with some justice that it could get overturned pretty easily. Thus we need to keep our guard up, eternal vigilance in the price of liberty, etc. etc.

Kevin Drum 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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SEAN HANNITY SETS FLIP-FLOP WORLD RECORD....Taking shots at Sean Hannity is sort of like winning a pub quiz against the town drunk: there's just not much sport in it. Still, he does outdo himself sometimes. Via ThinkProgress, here he is yesterday talking about President Bush's deal with North Korea:

HANNITY: The news today brings a clear foreign policy victory for the Bush administration. But will the press report it that way? Joining us now for analysis, former ambassador to the U.N. and a Fox News contributor, John Bolton. What do you think this means?

BOLTON: I think it's actually a clear victory for North Korea. They gain enormous political legitimacy....In return, we get precious little. I think this is North Korea demonstrating again that they can out-negotiate the U.S. without raising a sweat.

HANNITY: Boy I tell you they've done it time and time again, and I'm sorta perplexed, Mr. Ambassador, to understand why we keep going back to the well knowing that they haven't kept the agreements in the past. Whatever happened to Reagan's "trust but verify"?

That was the shortest lived foreign policy victory in history.

Kevin Drum 12:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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CAP AND TRADE....Matt points to a GAO letter today which suggests that it's possible to create a cap-and-trade program that's not regressive. The chart on the right gives you a sense of the problem: low-income houses spend 22% of their income on energy, while high-income households spend only 4% of their income on energy. If you raise the cost of energy, you hurt the poor far, far more than the better off.

Two things are worth noting. First, utility costs are a bigger problem than gasoline. On a percentage basis, the poor pay 7x as much for utilities as the well off, while they pay only 4x as much for gasoline. What's more, unlike gasoline, there are seldom any reasonable alternatives for utility expenditures.

Second, there are always tradeoffs. Using the money from permit auctions (or carbon taxes) to rebate other taxes is indeed progressive if the rebate is fairly flat, but only if you pay taxes in the first place — which many of the poor don't. For the very poorest, then, a tax rebate scheme would still be regressive: you'd essentially be hitting them with a big new energy tax without any offset at all. Conversely, a more targeted approach, like expanding funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, helps the poor more directly but removes the incentive to use less energy.

The answer, then, is almost certainly a bit of this and a bit of that. No single solution targets assistance to the poor ideally, but a basket of solutions (payroll tax rebates, energy assistance, more funding for mass transit, etc.) can do a pretty good job. It won't be perfect, but a well-designed program can make a cap-and-trade program pretty progressive.

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

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WIDENING THE WEB....You'll soon be able to buy your own custom internet domain name, but sadly, the price tag will be high. I was thinking maybe I could snag .drum, or failing that, .kevin or .kevindrum or .kevindaledrum or something. But with the application fee expected to be around a hundred grand or so — and that's assuming you don't get into a bidding war with some other glory hound — I guess I'll pass for now. Still, watching everyone else fight over this ought to be fun. Here's hoping they don't bring down all the tubes doing it.

Kevin Drum 11:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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MY FRIENDS....I don't know in general if Mark Halperin's advice to John McCain is good, but I'll second this particular nugget:

9. Never say "My friend(s)..." again.

Where did McCain pick up this habit? It doesn't make him sound like one of the guys, it makes him sound like he's about to put the arm on you at a Turkish bazaar. It's weird.

Kevin Drum 11:16 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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June 26, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

OIL UPDATE....Welcome to summer!

Crude oil jumped above $140 a barrel to a record as Libya threatened to cut output, OPEC's president said prices may reach $170 by the summer and the dollar weakened.

....A decision by the ECB to increase interest rates in July may cause the dollar to decline and prompt investors to buy more oil, [Chakib] Khelil, who is also the Algerian oil minister, told the Paris- based television channel. Prices would ease toward the end of the year, he said.

Threats against Iran would also support prices during the summer, he said. A political crisis that would stop Iran's oil production would push prices over $200 a barrel, to possibly $400 a barrel, he said.

On the bright side, Khelil doesn't actually think a political crisis is likely. He says he's pretty sure oil prices will stay under $200 a barrel. Comforting words indeed.

Kevin Drum 3:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (87)

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MORE COLIN POWELL RUMORS....The last time I read about the possibility of Colin Powell supporting Barack Obama, I clicked the link and was disappointed. He's said some diplomatically encouraging things about Obama in the past, but in the latest go-around all he said — again — is that he'll vote for the best man when November rolls around. Eh.

Today, though GOP gossipmonger Robert Novak resurrects the rumors:

The prototypal Obamacon may be Larry Hunter, recognized inside the Beltway as an ardent supply-sider....Explaining his support for the uncompromisingly liberal Obama, Hunter blogged on June 6: "The Republican Party is a dead rotting carcass with a few decrepit old leaders stumbling around like zombies in a horror version of 'Weekend With Bernie,' handcuffed to a corpse."

While he never would use such language, Colin Powell is said by friends to share Hunter's analysis of the GOP. His tenuous 13-year relationship with the Republican Party, following his retirement from the Army, has ended. The national security adviser for Ronald Reagan left the present administration bitter about being ushered out of the State Department a year earlier than he wanted. As an African American, friends say, Powell is sensitive to racial attacks on Obama and especially on Obama's wife, Michelle. While McCain strategists shrug off defections from Bruce Bartlett and Larry Hunter, they wince in anticipating headlines generated by Powell's expected endorsement of Obama.

So here's an interesting question: how would the liberal blogopshere react if Powell endorsed Obama? Powell remains broadly popular, and there's no question that a Powell endorsement would be a huge boost for Obama. On the other hand, lefty bloggers as a group mostly loathe Powell and would groan at the possibility of him having any influence in an Obama administration. That's sure not change we can believe in.

So: yowls of protest, or a collective shrug because the world isn't a perfect place and you gotta do what you gotta do if you want to win a presidential election? My guess: it all depends on just how bitterly Powell denounces the Republican Party in his hypothetical endorsement speech. If he sounds a bit like Larry Hunter, liberals will break out the balloons. If he plays the diplomat, expect some grousing.

Kevin Drum 1:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (107)

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McCAIN'S MOMENTUM....Theda Skocpol thinks that Barack Obama needs to get his act together:

Although Obama seems to be "up" in current national polls, McCain is actually doing a much better job of shaping the agenda to his advantage. He has used strong symbols (it does not matter if they are "gimmicks") to portray himself as activist on gas prices and the environment and put apparent distance between himself and Bush. And he has managed to paint Obama as an ordinary schemer on campaign finance. Abetted by the media's proclivity for dramatic gestures and horse race analysis, the McCain camp has done what it needs to portray their man as a fighting underdog focused on real-world issues. Meanwhile, Obama's "economic tour" has gone little noticed — and his campaign seems not to understand how very difficult it will be to get the media to convey the economic stakes in this election to ordinary voters.

The rest is worth reading, even though I think she's probably overreacting to the fact that Obama is just in a different phase of his campaign than McCain. Having just won his primary, he needs to spend time consolidating his victory, unifying the base, and getting some unpopular decisions (like opting out of public financing) out of the way now. Sure, he's giving up some momentum to McCain, but it's better to do it now than later.

Kevin Drum 1:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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COLD DEAD HANDS....Since I'm time zone challenged, I've only now heard the (not unexpected) news that the Supreme Court handed down a ruling in the DC gun rights case today; that it was written by Antonin Scalia; and that for the first time it finds that the Second Amendment provides an individual right to own handguns. So that's that: the one-worlders at the UN can't take away your guns anymore.

I'm basically OK with this. My personal, layman's view has always been that both the history and the wording of the Second Amendment point toward a limited, personal right to bear arms, not merely the right for a militia to be armed. On a practical level I'm less sure whether this is a good thing, since I've never gotten into the policy weeds of handgun control and whether it's effective. Still: a right's a right. The wording of the Second Amendment suggests to me that the government can regulate guns a bit more than they can regulate, say, speech, but that they can't flatly ban them.

On another note, this is the latest in a whole bunch of high-profile 5-4 Supreme Court rulings this term. I wonder if that means that the composition of the court will be an even bigger campaign issue than it otherwise would be? My guess is yes.

Kevin Drum 12:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (113)

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NORTH KOREA UPDATE....McClatchy and others report that we're making some fairly remarkable progress on the North Korea front:

North Korea on Thursday will provide a long-awaited declaration detailing its nuclear weapons programs, a potential breakthrough in a 17-year-long effort to rid the Stalinist state of nuclear arms, U.S. officials said.

North Korea's tally of its weapons work, which initially will be delivered to China, the chair of the six-nation nuclear talks, will trigger a rapid series of events in the normally slow-moving diplomacy that eventually could lead to the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and the isolated communist nation.

Also on Thursday, President Bush is expected to announce that he intends to remove North Korea from the U.S. government's list of nations that sponsor terrorism and waive it from the provisions of the Trading With the Enemy Act, which bars almost all commerce.

As early as Friday, North Korea plans to demolish the cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, with the head of the State Department's Korea desk, Sung Kim, on hand to witness.

In addition, Joe Klein reports that a source tells him "that there will be more encouraging developments from North Korea in the weeks to come." This progress started in earnest after North Korea's failed nuclear test in 2006, and I'm still a little mystified about exactly why that triggered it. Presumably the Chinese put their foot down in some way at the same time that Christopher Hill managed to convince George Bush to muzzle the Cheneyite dead-enders and let him engage in serious diplomacy. So far, it seems to be working.

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June 25, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

BOOK BLOGGING....It's kinda slow around here today, so how about if I put you guys to work for a change? I've been in a fiction phase for the past month and I'm ready to switch back to nonfiction for a while. Got any recommendations? I don't happen to be in the mood for either political books or history at the moment, but anything else is fair game. I want to learn something new about some interesting institution, movement, or field of knowledge. What have you got for me?

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SONG OF NORWAY....I don't drive very much, and when I do it's mostly quick trips around town. With rare exceptions, a round trip to LA — about a hundred miles — is the longest distance I travel.

So I'm sort of smitten by the idea of an electric car, and in the LA Times this morning auto reviewer Dan Neil sings the praises of the City, an electric car from a Norwegian company called Think. It gets 112 miles on a charge, meets all relevant safety standards, drives nicely, and might be on sale in Southern California in 2009. As usual with these things, though, he saves the bad news for last:

In any electric car program, the crucial component is the battery. Think has settled on three suppliers: MES-DEA, which produces a molten sodium battery, and A123Systems and EnerDel, which produce varieties of lithium-ion batteries. The MES-DEA battery yields 28 kilowatt-hours, while the EnerDel and the A123Systems batteries produce 26 and 19 kWh, respectively. Any of the three are expensive. At current market prices, Think's City could cost up to $35,000, more than half of that tied up in the battery.

For that reason, Willums proposes to sell the cars for $20,000-$25,000 and lease the batteries to owners, for a $150 to $200 monthly "mobility fee." All battery maintenance and replacement costs would be covered, and there could be ways to compensate owners for the costs of the electricity to charge the cars.

It could be worse, but 35 grand for a two-seater with a 112-mile range is definitely an early adopter kind of car. On the bright side, at least Dan Neil got a trip to Oslo out of the deal.

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FAN FAVORITES....Just curious: is there any plausible prospect for Barack Obama's running mate who hasn't been immediately and widely trashed throughout the liberal blogosphere? Nobody comes immediately to mind.

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CREATING THEIR OWN REALITY....The Bush White House has apparently adopted a bold new strategy for denying that greenhouse gases are an environmental threat: refusing to open email from the EPA that says they are. College freshmen around the world are rejoicing that one of their favorite excuses for avoiding class assignments now has official sanction.

Having failed to get the White House to read its original report, the EPA has decided to punt on fourth and long:

Over the past five days, the officials said, the White House successfully put pressure on the E.P.A. to eliminate large sections of the original analysis that supported regulation, including a finding that tough regulation of motor vehicle emissions could produce $500 billion to $2 trillion in economic benefits over the next 32 years. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

Both documents, as prepared by the E.P.A., "showed that the Clean Air Act can work for certain sectors of the economy, to reduce greenhouse gases," one of the senior E.P.A. officials said. "That's not what the administration wants to show. They want to show that the Clean Air Act can't work."

And it can't! Not in BushWorld, anyway.

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THE RENTAL NON-BUBBLE....Ezra Klein is puzzled that although housing prices skyrocketed over the past eight years, rental prices have stayed steady as a rock:

Obviously, no one's shocked to see we had a housing bubble, but I'm a bit surprised that rents were totally unaffected. In theory, the run-up in costs should've made it relatively more profitable for landlords to sell, thus depleting the rental stock, and forcing renters to stay competitive by paying more. That didn't happen, though I'm not sure why.

A couple of guesses here. First, part of the housing bubble was caused by low interest rates, something that doesn't affect rental rates. In fact, low interest rates generally help to keep rental rates low. Second, the housing bubble took a lot of renters off the market: home ownership rates went up a couple of points and rental rates went down a couple of points. That kept pressure on landlords to keep rents low. Third, there might be a psychological effect, at least in the short term: as long as property prices are rising smartly, landlords might be willing to accept lower rental rates. You're more likely to accept a lower cash flow ROI if you think there's a big capital gain coming your way a few years down the road.

Anyway, just guessing here. The fact that the housing/rental ratio was going up so fast was one of the signs that pointed to a housing bubble in the first place, so maybe the easiest thing to say is simply that a bubble in one market doesn't necessarily suggest there should be bubbles in other markets. After all, if you have bubbles everywhere, that's just inflation.

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RECESSION?....In a battle of local economic forecasters, UCLA says we're not in a recession but Chapman University says we are: "Chapman economists believe overall U.S. spending will decline through most of 2008. Consumer spending will fall $100 billion, representing a full percentage-point decline in real growth of gross domestic product." The good news: nationally, they think the recession will be mild and the economy will start to turn up by the end of the year. The bad news: California's recession still has a couple of years to run.

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THE OTHER WAR....Is Afghanistan the next Iraq? It's starting to look that way.

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AL KIBAR UPDATE....The latest — report? speculation? gossip? let's go with gossip, shall we? — the latest gossip about that Syrian nuclear facility that the Israelis bombed last year is that it was actually a joint Syrian-Iranian operation:

[An] Israeli adviser told the Guardian: "The Iranians were involved in the Syrian programme. The idea was that the Syrians produce plutonium and the Iranians get their share. Syria had no reprocessing facility for the spent fuel. It's not deduction alone that brings almost everyone to think that the link exists."

On Monday the German magazine Der Spiegel quoted "intelligence reports" as making similar claims. A Syrian government spokesman dismissed them as "nonsense". But Der Spiegel said that the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, was considering withdrawing support for the Iranian nuclear programme.

Is this true? Or just part of the ongoing campaign from Israel to soften up world opinion for an airstrike against Iran's nuclear facilities? Who knows. But David Ignatius claims that the peace talks between Israel and Syria are quite serious, and that the destruction of the Al Kibar facility actually helped things along:

(5) What about Syria's secret nuclear reactor, which was destroyed by the Israelis on Sept. 6, 2007?

Oddly enough, that attack on what CIA analysts called the "Enigma Building" may have helped the peace talks. The Israelis felt that their decisive action helped restore the credibility of their deterrence policy. The Syrians appreciated that Israeli and American silence allowed them time to cover their tracks. Finally, the fact that Assad kept the nuclear effort a secret, and that he managed the post-attack pressures, showed Israelis that he was truly master of his own house, and thus a plausible negotiating partner.

This stuff is above my pay grade. I really can't judge how much truth there is to it. But I thought I'd pass it along for those who are interested in the latest Middle East gossip.

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June 24, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

URL UPDATE....Spencer Ackerman has moved (again!). He's now part of the Firedoglake borg:

http://attackerman.firedoglake.com

He's got a very cool new banner, too.

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HOUSING UPDATE....Standard & Poors reported today that "annual declines in the prices of existing single family homes across the United States continued to worsen in April 2008."

Oddly, though, there might be a ray of hope in the actual numbers. The chart on the right shows the monthly percentage changes in the Case-Shiller 20-city index, and recent months have followed the usual seasonal pattern of bottoming out in winter and then picking up steam in spring and summer. However, that seasonal pattern is unusually pronounced this year, and it looks as if the sharp drop of early 2008 is being followed by an equally sharp recovery. Prices are still going down, but it's possible that a few months from now they'll come close to flattening out — in nominal terms, anyway.

Then again, maybe I'm grasping at straws. The mortgage market still sucks, millions of loans are still due to reset over the next two years, prices remain considerably over their historical values, etc. etc. Still, it's a housing chart with a trend line going up! When was the last time you saw that? Enjoy it while you can.

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THE DOJ SCANDAL....While I was at lunch it occurred to me that I hadn't checked in at The Corner to see what they thought about the Justice Department's affirmative action program for young conservatives, so I headed over there after I got back. Nothing. So then I checked Google Blog and Memeorandum. Nothing again from conservative sites. As near as I can tell, the story has been officially blacked out in the right-wing blogosphere.

There's nothing all that surprising about this. Liberals prefer to spend their time documenting conservative embarrassments and conservatives prefer to spend their time documenting liberal embarrassments. Still, this appears to be one scandal that no one on the right is even making an effort to defend. I was at least hoping to find something humorous enough to get a mocking blog post out of.

How about TV? Anybody watching Fox today? Have their talking heads weighed in on this?

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SAY WHAT?....Shorter Richard Cohen: It's OK for John McCain to pander and flip-flop today because 40 years ago he refused to pander or flip-flop to his North Vietnamese captors. Roger that.

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CHART OF THE DAY....This one comes from a report of the Justice Department's inspector general. It shows the approval rate in 2002 of applications for DOJ's honors program, a civil service initiative for hiring recent law school graduates into the department. As a civil service program it's supposed to be nonpolitical, but as you can see, the approval rate for applicants who belonged to the liberal American Constitution Society was 0%. The approval rate for applicants who belonged to the conservative Federalist Society: 93%.

The exact same trend shows up when you look only at "highly qualified" candidates; when you look at Democratic vs. Republican affiliations; when you look at the SLIP summer intern program; and when you look at the years 2003-2006. The official response from DOJ, however, appears to be that it's all just a big coincidence. At least one guy who was inadvertantly sucked into this project isn't buying it:

Daniel Fridman began his career with the Department in December 2004....[In] September 2006 [Michael] Elston assigned him to work on the Screening Committee along with Elston and Esther Slater McDonald.

....Fridman learned that McDonald was obtaining additional information about candidates on the Internet when he saw notations by McDonald providing information that was not contained in the candidate's application. When Fridman asked McDonald how she obtained the additional information, she told him she conducted searches on Google and MySpace.

....Fridman said McDonald also circled or otherwise identified items on candidates' applications about which she apparently had concern, such as membership in certain organizations like the American Constitution Society, having a clerkship with a judge who was perceived as a liberal, having worked for a liberal Member of Congress, or having worked for a liberal law school professor.

....We asked Fridman to review a sample of approximately 50 applications of deselected candidates who had outstanding academic records. Fridman said that he would have voted yes on each of the candidates....At the end of the interview, Fridman stated:

I'm still kind of reeling from the résumés that you . . .showed me . . . people from Harvard, Yale, Stanford who were deselected. There were a lot of them. And I am shocked and very disappointed about that. . . . I didn't know that this was going on. I thought that this was being conducted in good faith. I was conducting my reviews in good faith and making my recommendations based on merits and what I thought were the people [who] were going to be the most qualified candidates for the Department. And I'm sickened by this. And I'm not happy that I'm associated with this.

You can read the rest here.

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FROM THE ANNALS OF IMMORTAL LEADS....I know that British sports writers have different traditions than American ones, but check out Steve Bierley's lead in the Guardian on Roger Federer's opening round match at Wimbledon on Monday:

Lord Cardigan he may be called if he wins his sixth successive Wimbledon a week on Sunday, though should his challenge falter over the next fortnight then Roger Federer's cardigan may fall into the same disrepute as the eponymous aristocrat's ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade.

Yeesh. (And in case you're wondering, Federer won.)

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JAMES DOBSON IS UPSET....TPM reports that James Dobson is upset at Barack Obama for distorting the Bible. So I got curious: what was Dobson's beef? Turns out what really got him mad was a two-year-old speech in which Obama talked about religious pluralism and mentioned Dobson in passing:

Even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would it be James Dobson's or Al Sharpton's?

Obviously this was just a way of illustrating the fact that even Christians often disagree with each other, but Dobson decided it was insulting because it implied that he's on the right and Sharpton is on the left. And anyway, it's offensive to even mention him in the same breath as Sharpton. I guess it doesn't take much to get under Dobson's skin these days.

(The rest is about whether the Old Testament really applies to Christians etc. etc. Feel free to listen to the whole thing if you have a greater tolerance for this kind of discussion than I do.)

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IRAQ UPDATE....So how are things going in Iraq?

Two new government reports, one by the Pentagon, pointed Monday to encouraging security improvements in Iraq, but were decidedly pessimistic about prospects for political and economic progress and warned that costly military gains will remain fragile.

One report, by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, concluded that many political reconciliation efforts have stalled, that Iraq's security forces remain largely unable to operate without U.S. assistance, and that its central government has not fulfilled commitments to spend its own money on reconstruction efforts.

....The Pentagon...acknowledged problems throughout Iraq. The quarterly report on progress also cited continued dissatisfaction among Iraqis over essential services such as water, electricity, sanitation and healthcare and said government officials in Baghdad "lack the ability" to advance needed rebuilding projects.

The security gains are real. Whether they're permanent is harder to say. And political reconciliation continues to look pretty bleak. Read the whole thing for more.

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THE BIGGEST LITTLE INDUSTRY ON THE WEB...."Community standards" is the current Supreme Court-approved yardstick for deciding if something is obscene. But how do we know what the standards of a particular community really are? Defense attorney Lawrence Walters has an idea:

In the trial of a pornographic Web site operator, the defense plans to show that residents of Pensacola are more likely to use Google to search for terms like "orgy" than for "apple pie" or "watermelon."...."Time and time again you'll have jurors sitting on a jury panel who will condemn material that they routinely consume in private," said Mr. Walters, the defense lawyer. Using the Internet data, "we can show how people really think and feel and act in their own homes, which, parenthetically, is where this material was intended to be viewed," he added.

I don't have anything special to say about this. It just made me laugh and I thought I'd share. I hope he wins.

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TOO MUCH FREE MARKET?....Do airlines need to be re-regulated? Former American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall says yes: "A dollop of regulation, along with new government policies and appropriate investment, would help the carriers get back on the right track." More here.

Via Cheryl Rofer.

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June 23, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

THE B PRIZE....Speaking at Fresno State University today, John McCain offered a new plank in his energy plan:

Presumed Republican presidential nominee John McCain on Monday proposed a $300 million prize to develop a car battery that will "leapfrog" today's plug-in hybrids.

....His $300 million car battery prize is meant to spur creativity among automakers to make energy-efficient products. "This is one dollar for every man, woman, and child in the U.S. — a small price to pay for helping to break the back of our oil dependency — and should deliver a power source at 30 percent of the current costs," he said.

McCain didn't offer any details about what it would take to win his prize, but that's OK. I'm sure his campaign boffins can come up with something reasonable on that score. And even though it's mostly a stunt, I don't really have a problem with proposing prizes like this. If it doesn't work no harm is done, and if it does work it's a cheap way of spurring innovation.

But what I'm curious about is why conservatives are so ga-ga over the whole prize concept in the first place. Prizes for spaceflight, prizes for batteries, prizes for cancer cures, prizes and more prizes. They really seem to love the idea, despite the fact that there's no special reason to think it will work. And the numbers they toss out are always ridiculously low. It's not as if battery development is currently some kind of big government boondoggle, after all. Lots of private sector companies are working on new battery technology, and they're doing it because the potential market is worth tens of billions of dollars. An extra $300 million isn't really much of an incentive at all.

So why the enthusiasm? I guess it seems more free market-ish than doling out research grants, but if you're dedicated to market solutions why would you think the market needs the extra boost in the first place? It's all very strange. But relatively harmless, I suppose, and possibly worth experimenting with.

Speaking of batteries, though, here's a question. Lots of energy technologies (coal, wood, oil, uranium, etc.) seem like great ideas until you scale them up to service a planet of 6 billion people. Then it suddenly turns out that they create lots of problems. So how about batteries? What would happen if we needed to manufacture not a few thousand car-sized batteries a year, but a few billion? Could we do it? What would it take? Are there disposal issues when we reach that kind of scale? I can't find anyone talking about this, but I have to believe that if we managed to electrify our energy economy this would become a pretty serious issue. Anyone know anything more about this?

UPDATE: That was quick! Stuart Staniford emails to say that he took a look at "some aspects" of battery scaling a while back, which, knowing Stuart, probably means he kept himself to under 10,000 words on the subject. Sure enough, here it is. Scroll down to "Building Four Billion Plugin Hybrids."

Short version: get ready for Peak Lithium. The best battery technologies use lithium, and the world has about 13 megatons of lithium reserves, which if fully used would be enough to power 4 billion cars for 55 miles per day. Not bad, but it's obviously a constraint (and this assumes that we recycle the lithium from used batteries very efficiently).

For a more alarmist take, see William Tahil's "The Trouble With Lithium." On the bright side, though, Tahil suggests there are alternative battery technologies that might be better anyway. And who knows? Maybe John McCain's $300 million prize will spur some basement inventor to invent a battery that runs on seawater.

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MY PLACE IN THE BLOGOVERSE....I don't truly understand what this means, but the pretty picture below is a link map of the political blogosphere. I'm categorized as a "liberal infopit" (that's the light blue color) and my immediate neighbors are ThinkProgress, the Huffington Post, Brad DeLong, War and Piece, and the Hotline blog. You can play with the map here (warning: it takes a while to load the first time). Search for your own blog or someone else's and get a map centered on that blog. Zoom in and try to figure who's linking to whom. A brief explanation of the whole thing is here. Have fun!

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MAKING STUFF UP....Bob Somerby praises New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg:

Michael Bloomberg did a remarkable thing last Friday; he went to Florida and told Jewish voters that people frequently make sh*t up. His statement was blindingly obvious, yet truly remarkable; given the history of the past twenty years, it's amazing how rarely voters are given similar warnings. People will lie to you, Bloomberg said.

It's not just voters, either. I was on a jury in a drunk driving case several years ago, and the defendant had a very pricey lawyer who cross examined the state witnesses pretty effectively and then put an expert witness on the stand who threw up a considerable (and impressive!) haze of doubt about whether breathalyzers really worked, whether the particular breathalyzer in this case was properly calibrated, etc. etc. He was very good, but still, when it was all said and done, we had a pretty open-and-shut case: the guy was drunk, he was driving, he got caught.

But our deliberations lasted a surprisingly long time anyway. There were a few different reasons for this, but several hours into it I realized that one of them was something I hadn't expected: a lot of the jurors simply didn't distinguish the quality of the testimony. It didn't occur to them that some witnesses had a greater incentive to lie or twist the truth than others. There was just a big mass of testimony, and their job was to assume it was all true and then try to make sense of it.

The problem was that this wasn't an episode of Law & Order: there were no sulky gangbangers or stammering girlfriends on the stand in this case. All the witnesses on both sides wore suits (or uniforms) and spoke intelligently, so none of them seemed obviously unreliable. Eventually someone tackled this head on and suggested that, appearances notwithstanding, some of the witnesses really had no reason to lie or exaggerate, whereas some of the others pretty plainly did. After that, the logjam started to clear. But it took someone to make this point explicitly before some of the jurors figured out what was going on.

Is this an allegory for how much of the press works today? That's left as an exercise for the reader.

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COFFEE WOES....On the ground reporting from Phoebe Connelly:

I'm here at the Personal Democracy Forum, and sad to report that they aren't allowing coffee into the auditorium.

Say what? Is it just coffee? All liquid refreshment? Only liquid refreshment in cups larger than 3.5 ounces?

I've never in my life been to a conference that didn't allow coffee into its main hall. What's going on here? Inquiring minds want to know.

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VEEP GOSSIP....According to Joe Klein, John McCain's top three picks for vice president all have big problems: One is pro-choice, one is named Bush, and one was born in Cuba. So now he's down to the B list. Very sad.

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BREACHING THE WALL BETWEEN EDITORIAL AND BUSINESS....I don't normally comment about advertising on the site, but I'd just like to take this chance to thank the Obama campaign for buying ad space here. I was really, really tired of opening my browser every morning and seeing those annoying John McCain ads plastered all over. Ahmadinejad's mug didn't do much for me either. Not only is Obama obviously more to my taste ideologically, but his ads are way better looking than McCain's. Thanks, guys.

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THE NEW MEDIA WORLD....Over at TPM, David Kurtz writes that until last week, "I had never met any of our staff in person, including Josh, even though I've worked at TPM in one capacity or another for approaching two years now, the last 10 months as managing editor." Andrew Sullivan calls this a telling example of how the new media world works.

But is it? Or is it just a return to the really old media world — not to mention the really old business world in general, when business agents in far flung places like, say, California communicated with headquarters via letter or telegraph, and met in person with their bosses once or twice a decade. Or maybe never.

I've only visited Washington DC twice in the four years I've worked at the Washington Monthly. But when my grandfather ran a Los Angeles ad agency that handled West Coast advertising for Mobil Oil, I'll bet he didn't meet his bosses in New York more than a handful of times in 20 years. And he didn't have email or cheap long distance either. Maybe the new media world is more back-to-the-future than it really is new.

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ATTACK IRAN?....In the past, conservatives have complained that we liberals are obsessed with the idea that George Bush is going to launch a military strike on Iran. And I admit that after reading the tenth or twentieth article about this with no attack forthcoming, I began to think that maybe they had a point. Maybe we should all lay off the Seymour Hersh pieces for a while and calm down.

But they can't have it both ways. If conservatives themselves are going to start pushing this storyline, then they really need to stop complaining about liberal scaremongering. As a growing number of wingers start suggesting that the mere election of a Democrat would be sufficient provocation to launch an attack, we're entering John Birchesque territory that makes liberal warnings look positively restrained. Time to clean up the nutjobs in your own movement, folks.

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OBAMA vs. McCAIN ON THE ECONOMY....Fortune magazine has parallel interviews about the economy with John McCain and Barack Obama in the current issue, and the PR email they sent me highlights their answers to this question:

What do you see as the gravest long-term threat to the U.S. economy?

Obama: If we don't get a handle on our energy policy, it is possible that the kinds of trends we've seen over the last year will just continue. Demand is clearly outstripping supply. It's not a problem we can drill our way out of. It can be a drag on our economy for a very long time unless we take steps to innovate and invest in the research and development that's required to find alternative fuels. I think it's very important for the federal government to have a role in that process.

McCain: Well, I would think that the absolute gravest threat is the struggle that we're in against Islamic extremism, which can affect, if they prevail, our very existence. Another successful attack on the United States of America could have devastating consequences.

It's as if McCain is trying to become a parody of himself here. Is his answer to every question "Islamic extremism"? And while Fortune's readership undoubtedly skews conservative, does McCain really think they're going to buy this?

Two things are remarkable here. First, that McCain genuinely seems to believe that Islamic extremism poses not just a threat, but a threat to the very existence of the West. This is science fiction territory. Second, that he apparently can't come up with any better answer to Fortune's question about economic threats. Not energy, not high taxes, not runaway entitlement growth, not healthcare, not globalization, not any of a dozen plausible answers that would have gone down fine with his base. Instead, "His eyes are narrowed. Nine seconds of silence, ten seconds, 11." And then he came up with Islamic extremism.

It's been pretty obvious for a while that McCain is going to try and turn the entire election into a referendum on national security, painting Obama as a 21st century Neville Chamberlain. This seems like an early sign of just how far he's planning to take this. Luckily, Obama seems to be ready for it.

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June 22, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

BOUMEDIENE v. BUSH....Via TalkLeft, conservative law professor Richard Epstein explains something that should be obvious to everyone but apparently isn't: the Supreme Court decision in Boumediene v. Bush was not about giving habeas corpus rights to enemy combatants. It was about giving prisoners habeas corpus rights to settle the question of whether they're enemy combatants in the first place:

Enemy prisoners of war are never granted [habeas corpus], either in the United States or abroad. What matters is whether a prisoner is or is not an enemy combatant.

The defendants in Eisentrager, German war criminals, admitted being enemy combatants. The six plaintiffs in Boumediene, accused of plotting an attack on the American Embassy in Bosnia, claim they are not. They should be entitled to challenge both the government's definition of an enemy combatant and the factual basis of their arrest. And they should be able to do so, as the court stressed, under standard habeas corpus procedures that allow them to present evidence and confront witnesses, and not under the paltry procedures outlined by the 2006 Military Commissions Act.

We already know for a fact that a large number of the original Guantánamo detainees weren't enemy combatants at all. They were swept up by mistake or as a result of longstanding tribal grudges. Given that, it's not hard to believe that at least some of the remaining prisoners are noncombatants as well.

And it's worth remembering that the government's burden of proof here is fairly low. They don't have to prove that any of the detainees committed any specific act. They merely have to present enough evidence to convince a court that the detainees remaining in Guantánamo are genuine enemy combatants. That's a pretty minimal showing, and given the government's actions over the past seven years it's hardly an unreasonable requirement. Epstein again: "Boumediene v. Bush is not a license to allow hardened terrorists to go free. It is a rejection of the alarmist view that our fragile geopolitical position requires abandoning our commitment to preventing Star Chamber proceedings that result in arbitrary incarceration."

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THE FISA COMPROMISE....The aspect of the FISA compromise that's gotten the most attention is its grant of retroactive immunity to the telephone companies that cooperated with the NSA's post-9/11 domestic spying program. Like everyone else in the liberal blogosphere, I think retroactive immunity is a bad idea that sets a bad precedent, but as I've mentioned before, this isn't a hill I'm willing to die defending. Sure, the telcos may have made the wrong call, but they were caught in a genuinely tough bind in the days after 9/11. The real bad guys here are George Bush and his enablers, who refused to go to Congress after the immediate post-9/11 emergency was over and get legislative approval for the NSA surveillance program.

For my money, then, telecom immunity is a little bit of a sideshow. The rest of the bill matters a lot more. So what's in it?

For starters, the most positive aspect of the bill is that it make clear that FISA and the criminal wiretap laws are the exclusive means by which electronic surveillance may be conducted. It's true that the old FISA bill says the same thing, and in any case it wouldn't surprise me if Bush issued a signing statement saying he disagrees with this section, but still, at least it's something.

However, there are also several negative aspects of the bill aside from telecom immunity, and two of them stand out to me. First, the old FISA allowed NSA to conduct a wiretap for up to 72 hours while waiting for FISA approval. The new bill extends this to a week, allows the surveillance to continue during appeals, and permits the government to use any of the information it collects even if the FISA court eventually rules that the tap is unlawful. This pretty obviously opens the door to some fairly serious abuse in the future.

Second, and more fundamentally, the bill gives wholesale approval for NSA to conduct bulk monitoring of electronic communications (primarily email and phone calls). This is the issue that catapulted FISA into prominence in the first place, and it's getting surprisingly little attention this time around. As near as I can tell, this is because bulk monitoring is now widely accepted on both sides of the aisle. For example, in his interview with Jake Tapper last week, Barack Obama made a point of correcting him on this score:

TAPPER: There has not been a terrorist attack within the U.S. since 9/11. And [the Bush administration says] the reason that is, is because of the domestic programs, many of which you opposed, the NSA surveillance program, Guantanamo Bay, and other programs. How do you know that they're wrong? It's not possible that they're right?

OBAMA: Well, keep in mind I haven't opposed, for example, the national security surveillance program, the NSA program. What I've said that we can do it within the constraints of our civil liberties and our Constitution.

At this point we have to engage in a bit of guesswork since the details of the NSA program are classified, but the basic problem is the same as it's always been: NSA's program isn't targeted at particular people or even particular organizations. Nor is it targeted solely at foreign-to-foreign communications since modern communications technology makes it very difficult to be sure where a particular message originates or terminates. Rather, it's based on complex computer algorithms, something that's genuinely uncharted territory.

To repeat something I said a couple of years ago, the nice thing about probable cause and reasonable suspicion and other similar phrases is that they have a long history behind them. There are hundreds of years of statutory definition and case law that define what they mean, and human judges interpret them in ways that most of us understand, even if we disagree about which standard ought to be used for issuing different kinds of wiretap warrants.

But the NSA's domestic spying program doesn't rely on the ordinary human understanding of these phrases. Instead, it appears to rely primarily on software algorithms that determine whether or not a person is acting in a way that merits eavesdropping. The details are still murky, but what the NSA appears to be doing is very large scale data mining on virtually every phone call and email between the United States and overseas, looking for patterns that fit a profile of some kind. Maybe twice or three-times removed links to suspected terrorist phone numbers. Or anyone who makes more than 5% of their calls to Afghanistan. Or people who make a suspiciously large volume of calls on certain dates or from certain mosques. Stuff like that.

Then, if you happen to fit one of these profiles, your phone is tapped and an NSA analyst decides if you're really a terrorist suspect. This apparently happens tens of thousands of times a year and most are washed out. Perhaps a thousand or two thousand a year are still suspicious enough to pass on the FBI, and most of these wash out too. At the end of the year, five or ten are still of enough interest to justify getting a domestic wiretap warrant.

Is this useful? Maybe. But we're not listening in on al-Qaeda's phone calls to America. We're tapping the phones of anyone who fits a hazy and seldom accurate profile that NSA finds vaguely suspicious, a profile that inevitably includes plenty of calls in which one end is a U.S. citizen. But the new FISA bill doesn't require NSA to get a warrant for any of these individuals or groups, it only requires a FISA judge to approve the broad contours of the profiling software. This raises lots of obvious concerns:

  • The algorithms that determine NSA's profiles are almost certainly extremely complex and technical — far beyond the capability of any lawyer to understand. So who gets to decide which algorithms are legitimate and which ones go too far? NSA's computer programmers?

  • What happens to the information that's collected on the tens of thousands of people who turn out to be innocent bystanders? Is it kept around forever?

  • Is this program limited solely to international terrorism? Are you sure? If it works, why not use it to fight drug smuggling, sex slave trafficking, and software piracy?

  • Since this program was meant to be completely secret, what mechanism prevents eventual abuse? Because programs like this, even if they're started with the best intentions, always get abused eventually.

The oversight on this stuff is inherently weak. After all, no court can seriously evaluate algorithms like this and neither can Congress. They don't have the technical chops. Do the algorithms use ethnic background as one of their parameters? Membership in suspect organizations? Associations with foreigners? Residence in specific neighborhoods? Nobody knows, and no layman can know, because these things most likely emerge from other parameters rather than being used as direct inputs to the algorithm.

For all practical purposes, then, the decision about which U.S. citizens to spy on is being vested in a small group of technicians operating in secret and creating criteria that virtually no one else understands. The new bill requires annual review by Inspectors General of the government's compliance with targeting and minimization procedures, which is better than nothing, but stronger amendments aimed at limiting the targeting of U.S. citizens were specifically rejected. See David Kris here for more.

In the end, everyone seems to have decided that bulk monitoring of electronic communications is OK, and that the new bill provides adequate oversight and minimization procedures. I'm not so sure myself, since I don't trust procedures like this to stay robust. In any case, I'd say this is the core issue, not telecom immunity, and it deserves more attention. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like it's going to get it.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Samuel Popkin, political science professor at UC San Diego, on potential problems with Cindy McCain's business activities:

"You can't run a beer company out of the White House."

Oh, I don't know about that. Considering what's been going on there over the past seven years, I'd say that running a beer company out of the White House might raise its moral tone a bit.

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June 21, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

FROM THE ANNALS OF DIPLOMACY....I've long wondered in a vague way (i.e., vague enough that I never bothered trying to find out the answer) why Coordinated Universal Time is abbreviated UTC. I suppose I figured the initials must have come from the translation of the phrase in some foreign language, probably French, but today Becks points me to a Wikipedia entry that sets me straight:

The International Telecommunication Union wanted Coordinated Universal Time to have a single abbreviation for all languages. English speakers and French speakers each wanted the initials of their respective languages' terms to be used internationally: "CUT" for "coordinated universal time" and "TUC" for "temps universel coordonné". This resulted in the final compromise of using "UTC".

Now all we have to do is make up a language in which this is the correct acronym and we'll be all set.

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June 20, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....As spring waves goodbye and summer approaches, the ratio of outdoor catblogging to indoor catblogging is sure to increase. So let's get started. On the left, we have a mega-closeup of Domino conked out in the 90-degree heat in the backyard patio. On the right we have Inkblot conked out in the lovely shade of the backyard garden.

Only five hours until the summer solstice! Tick tick tick.....

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HECKSCHER-OHLIN LOGIC....Via Henry Farrell, Kevin O'Rourke comments on the rejection of the EU's Lisbon Treaty in a recent Irish referendum. It turns out that the well off overwhelmingly voted in favor of the treaty while the working class overwhelmingly voted against it:

There are at least two ways of interpreting such patterns. The first would hold that well educated voters are more politically sophisticated and better able to understand the issues involved in a complex amendment to the institutional underpinnings of the European Union. The second interpretation is that, on the contrary, both rich and poor are capable of correctly discerning where their economic interests lie, and vote accordingly. The argument would be that globalisation generally, and European integration more narrowly, has overwhelmingly favoured skilled workers, at least in affluent countries such as France, Ireland and the Netherlands. Unskilled workers, by contrast, feel under threat from Romanian (or Asian) competition, or immigration from Eastern Europe and further afield. And while those of us who are more fortunate might regret it, it is hardly surprising that — in accordance with Heckscher-Ohlin logic — they vote accordingly....My bet is that the gap between middle-class and working-class voting patterns has a lot more to do with different interests, real or perceived, than with supposed differences in political sophistication.

I'm generally in favor of liberalized trade myself, but the odds are high that this has nothing to do with my ever-so-nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the underlying economics. It's far more likely that it's because liberalized trade benefits me considerably while holding out no serious risk of doing me any harm. Ditto for Tom Friedman. Blue collar schlubs aren't the only ones who vote in accordance with Heckscher-Ohlin logic.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY....From New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, speaking at the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, on the continuing whisper campaign that Barack Obama is Muslim:

"Let's call those rumors what they are: lies. They are cloaked in concern for Israel, but the real concern is about partisan politics....This is wedge politics at its worst, and we've got to reject it — loudly, clearly, and unequivocally."

Good for him. Via Taegan Goddard.

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TALKIN' ABOUT ENERGY....In an era of $4 gasoline, is it political suicide to advocate policies that would send that price even higher? Or is it better to go into full pander mode and insist that there's no "cap" in your cap-and-trade plan; that a gas tax holiday is sound public policy; that offshore drilling is suddenly a great idea; and that maybe you'll take a second look at drilling in ANWR?

John McCain pretty clearly believes in the pander approach, but what about Barack Obama? He seems to be sticking to his energy guns so far, but there's a lot of people who think this is a political loser. The public is pissed, this storyline goes, and it doesn't want airy wonkery. It just wants lower gas prices.

But here's an alternative suggestion: go the full monty in the other direction. Make a major speech in the "no easy solutions" vein and attack McCain for panicking and pandering. The basic pitch would be this: in the long tem gasoline prices are going to go up no matter what we do. But this can happen in one of two ways.

First, it can happen by simply doing nothing and allowing demand to increase — as it will after the initial shock of $4 gas wears off and people go back to their old driving habits. This will lead to higher wellhead prices for oil, and the beneficiaries will be OPEC and big multinational oil companies.

Second, it can happen via a concerted effort to raise the price of energy via a cap-and-trade plan. This will reduce demand and lead to stabilized oil prices. The net price of oil will still go up thanks to the cost of auctioning off emission permits, but the additional money goes into American coffers, where it can be used to improve mass transit; fund clean energy research; reduce the impact on the poor; and help offset other taxes.

I'm not the kind of person who can figure out a way to explain this that appeals to ordinary voters. But Obama is. The basic question is, who would you rather see benefit from higher oil prices: Saudi sheikhs or the American treasury? Because that's pretty much your choice.

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CLINTON AND OBAMA....Hillary Clinton, following her gracious and wholehearted speech supporting Barack Obama earlier this month, is making good on her promises. She's holding calls with her fundraisers urging them to support Obama; setting up joint meetings to introduce Obama to some of her key contributors; and will be campaigning with Obama next week. Steve Benen has the details.

Hillary haters, take note. Yes, it was a tough campaign. No, Hillary isn't trying to sabotage either the party or Obama's chances to win the White House. OK?

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HABEAS BEGINS....Abdul Rahim Abdul Razak al Ginco is the first prisoner from Guantánamo Bay to file for a habeas corpus hearing following the Supreme Court's decision in Boumediene v. Bush last week. McClatchy has his story.

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June 19, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

CHART OF THE DAY....This is from the Department of Transportation and shows the number of vehicle miles traveled in the United States. As you can see, travel in the past 12 months is down noticeably, the first time this has happened since 1983. Travel in April is down 1.8% compared to 2007, and cumulative travel for 2008 is down 2.1% compared to 2007.

This isn't a huge drop, but hey — it's a drop. One odd tidbit is that the drop is roughly the same across all regions except for one: the Northeast, where travel increased 1.4%. Not sure what's going on there. Also from the DOT press release:

The Secretary noted that data show midsize SUV sales were down last month 38 percent over May of last year; car sales, which had accounted for less than half of the industry volume in 2007, rose to 57 percent in May. She said past trends have shown Americans will continue to drive despite high gas prices, but will drive more fuel efficient vehicles consuming less fuel. "History shows that we're going to continue to see congested roads while gas tax revenues decline even further," she said.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Metrolink broke its single-day ridership record Tuesday and Caltrans announced that freeway use was down 1.5%. Baby steps.

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THINKING OUT LOUD ABOUT OIL....Is oil in a speculative bubble? There are a couple of memes making the rounds on this score: First, that the "real" fair market price of oil ought to be around $70/barrel or so, and second, that the speculative bubble sending the price up to $130/barrel has been fueled by the "Enron loophole," a measure passed in 2000 that exempted online energy commodity trading from federal regulation.

On the first issue, I'm confused: I have no idea how you'd figure out the "real" price of oil even in theory. I suppose you could make historical arguments about oil prices, or perhaps compare the prices of different forward contracts and look for inconsistencies, but those strike me as the kinds of strategies that can be used to prove whatever you set out to prove. So count me as skeptical that they can tell us very much. At the very least, claiming that $70 is the right price because that's how much it costs to pump a marginal barrel of oil is silly. If demand increases but nobody has any more oil to pump, then the price will get bid up regardless of the cost of production.

Now, that doesn't mean there isn't a bubble. Maybe the global savings glut, which powered the housing bubble, is now being redirected to oil. But unlike housing, where there are analytical tools and historical trends you can use to get at least a sense of whether prices are way above their fundamentals, oil bobs up and down all the time. And since there's no truly reliable data on how much production capacity the world has (hell, there's not even any truly reliable data on how much oil is actually produced on a monthly basis), there's no way of setting any kind of baseline. So who knows?

On the second issue, I'm also confused, though a little less so. But here's the thing: the Enron loophole has been closed. I can't quite figure out if it got closed last month or last week (there was a technical glitch with the farm bill it was attached to), but in any case, it's been closed. It will be several months before the CFTC can actually implement regulation and oversight of online trading, but if this is really a factor in driving up oil prices then even the prospect of near-term regulation ought to have a dramatic effect on speculative buying. But in fact, nothing much has happened lately. Oil prices are down today based on news out of China, but for the most part prices have just jumped around sort of randomly in the $130-140 range over the past couple of weeks. There's been nothing dramatic at all. So my initial feeling is that the Enron loophole theory doesn't hold water.

In any case, this is mostly a long-winded way of shrugging my shoulders and saying, "eh." I just felt like noodling over this stuff in public. Based on my general knowledge of the oil industry and its constraints, I've long believed that the steady rise in oil prices since 2003 has been basically driven by supply and demand. But I have to admit that the huge increase over the past five months has had a bit of a bubbly feel to it. Aside from a few interesting tidbits, though, I haven't really come across much solid evidence to back that up. But I'll keep looking into it.

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McCAIN PANDER WATCH....Steve Benen has updates from the past two weeks of John McCain's flip-flops. The total now comes to 48 — though it might be higher by the time I hit the "Save" button on this post. Pandering to the Republican base is hard work.

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TAGUBA ON TORTURE....Anthony Taguba — not a Nation columnist, not a Code Pink activist, but the major general (now retired) who investigated the Abu Ghraib scandal four years ago — writes about the victims of our officially sanctioned torture policy:

In order for these individuals to suffer the wanton cruelty to which they were subjected, a government policy was promulgated to the field whereby the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice were disregarded. The UN Convention Against Torture was indiscriminately ignored.

....After years of disclosures by government investigations, media accounts, and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.

More here from Andrew Sullivan.

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HEALTHCARE REFORM....Is Max Baucus the most important man in America? Maybe! See Ezra here, Matt responding here, and Ezra re-responding here.

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TELECOM IMMUNITY UPDATE....The ACLU just sent me an email with a link to a draft of the "compromise" FISA bill, and it looks even worse than anyone expected. I'm no expert in parsing legislative language, but basically the bill lays out several ways that telecoms can claim retroactive immunity for assisting the intelligence community, and one of them is that the assistance was:

the subject of a written request or directive, or a series of written requests or directives, from the Attorney General or the head of an element of the intelligence community (or the deputy of such person) to the electronic communication service provider indicating that the activity was — (i) authorized by the President; and (ii) determined to be lawful;

Judicial review is limited to a secret review that the request was made.

So that's that. Not even a fig leaf. If the president requested it and the AG certified it was legal, then telecom immunity is absolute. Some compromise. Neville Chamberlain would be proud.

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SUING OPEC....A trio of law professors take to the pages of the LA Times today to argue in favor of a bill allowing the government to sue OPEC for antitrust violations:

The cartel's economic effect on the U.S. has been devastating, dating from the oil embargo in the 1970s, which led to the first U.S. fuel shortage since World War II, to today's unstoppable escalation of pump prices. Just in the last three years, crude prices rose from $54 to nearly $140 a barrel — which means U.S. spending on imported oil has gone from about $185 billion a year to an expected $440 billion this year.

....Imagine suing OPEC members for the amount they overcharged for petroleum products the U.S. government purchased. Then triple that amount....Imagine criminal charges filed against key cartel individuals when they come to the U.S.

Imagine! For starters, imagine just how popular this would make us in the Arab world. If we believe in truth-in-advertising, we really ought to rename this the "Al-Qaeda Recuitment Act of 2008." Or maybe "Smoot-Hawley II."

Snark aside, what's ironic is that this proposal has gained currency at precisely the time that OPEC's cartel power is pretty much gone. Cartels are designed to artificially reduce supply and keep cartel members from competing against each other and driving prices into the ground. Today, though, demand for oil is so high that no collusion is needed. OPEC members are pumping at full capacity and prices are skyrocketing anyway.

Plus there's this: at the risk of being needlessly contrarian, it's worth remembering that OPEC's history includes more than just production limits. Saudi Arabia and others opened their taps and overproduced in 1979-80, keeping the price spike caused by the Iranian revolution from being even more devastating than it was. They did the same in the mid-80s, driving oil prices into the ground. This helped ruin the Soviet economy and helped the West win the Cold War. Ditto again during the Gulf War and after 9/11. OPEC hasn't exactly been America's best friend or anything, but those triple damages might be a wee bit harder to calculate than OPEC's detractors think.

There just aren't any quick fixes here. Speculation may be playing a role in the recent runup of oil prices, but it's probably a small role and has nothing to do with OPEC in any case. Basically, the problem is just supply and demand: supply is maxed out while demand keeps going up. Result: high prices. Suing OPEC won't change that.

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KANDAHAR UPDATE....Yesterday I was puzzled by reports suggesting that the Taliban was preparing for a major, straight-up battle with NATO forces near Kandahar. Today, Afghan and NATO forces swept through the area and it turned out the Taliban didn't want to stay and fight after all:

Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi told journalists that the army had regained control of 10 villages that had been overrun by the Taliban after hundreds of militants escaped in a prison break at the main Kandahar jail last week.

Azimi said the fleeing Taliban had seeded the area with land mines at a time when villagers were about to begin harvesting their crops. Thousands of refugees had fled the district earlier this week as fighting loomed.

Azimi said 56 members of the Taliban had died in the coalition offensive. The governor of Kandahar province, Asadullah Khalid, put the figure of killed and wounded insurgents in the hundreds. NATO did not confirm either of those estimates.

"We don't have a definitive assessment, though casualties were inflicted," NATO spokesman Mark Laity said.

Taliban commanders acknowledged only six fighters were killed.

That's a lot less puzzling. The Taliban staged a dramatic jailbreak, took over some territory, and then melted away when the real battle started. In other words, the usual.

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FISA UPDATE....The House vote on the "compromise" FISA bill might come as soon as Friday. Details here from bmaz.

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THE END GAME IN IRAQ....Lt. Col. David Kilcullen, a retired Australian army officer who has worked closely with Gen. David Petraeus, believes it's important for the United States to get out of Iraq. "Our large-scale presence, although essential for current stability, also creates an angry reaction," he told David Ignatius this week, "and therefore can't be a permanent solution. We need to focus on what General Petraeus has called 'sustainable security.' " The key to this, he says, is drawing down to a small, nimble residual force:

The continuing U.S. presence in Iraq will depend on Special Operations forces — both the "black" SOF that will hunt terrorists and the "white" SOF that will train and fight alongside the Iraqis. We will also need a strong intelligence presence. As uniformed troops decline, the need for CIA paramilitary forces and case officers will increase.

This sounds like an appallingly bad idea. A small number of residual training forces might — might — be workable. But can you imagine what's likely to happen if we have a few thousand "black" special ops forces and CIA paramilitary units roaming around the country? Does anyone seriously think that would turn out well? Either for us or for the Iraqis? It sounds like a recipe for almost certain disaster to me.

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June 18, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

TORT REFORM ON STEROIDS....Via Josh, I learn that Blackwater has filed a motion in a lawsuit claiming that since the mishap they're being sued for (a plane crash) happened in Afghanistan, the lawsuit should be adjudicated via sharia law, not U.S. law. That's ironic enough on its own merits, but the explanation is even better:

In April, Blackwater asked a federal judge in Florida to apply Islamic law, commonly known as Shari'a, to the case. If the judge agreed, the lawsuit would be dismissed. Shari'a law does not hold a company responsible for the actions of employees performed within the course of their work.

Is it really true that corporations aren't responsible for the negligence of their employees under sharia law? If it is, I think we can shortly expect mass conversions to Islam among American CEOs, followed by a plank in the Republican Party platform demanding that sharia be adopted across the board in federal courts. This is a tort reformer's wet dream.

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MORE DRILLING....A reader asks:

I'd be interested in your take on what impact extra drilling would have on gas prices and on our dependence on foreign oil.

The short answer is: not much. The immediate, direct impact would, of course, be zero, since it takes years to bring new oil sources online. But what about the indirect impact that new drilling permits might have on perceptions of future supply? Might that help lower oil prices in the near term?

Maybe, but it's unlikely. Take ANWR first. A recent EIA study took a look at the impact that drilling in ANWR would have, and they concluded that it would probably reduce oil prices by 75 cents a barrel in 2025. A change that small two decades in the future almost certainly wouldn't have any effect on commodity traders today.

Offshore drilling is a little harder to get a handle on. Offshore reserves are larger than ANWR, which means their impact on oil prices would also be larger. The problem is uncertainty: even if the federal ban on offshore drilling were rescinded, that doesn't automatically mean there would be any additional offshore drilling. It just means individual states would get to decide what to do. California and Florida are unlikely to allow much offshore exploration, and other states on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts are question marks too. So the question is: how would traders react to a highly uncertain new source of oil that would come online a decade in the future? Answer: there are already lots of uncertain new sources of oil that might come online a decade from now, and oil is selling for more than $130 a barrel anyway. One more uncertain future source of moderate size probably wouldn't have a big effect.

Bottom line: opening up new drilling both offshore and in ANWR would produce more oil and result in modestly lower oil prices once production ramped up a decade from now. You can decide for yourself whether you think the environmental costs are worth it, but the likelihood of this having any impact on oil prices today is tiny.

CORRECTION: Offshore oil reserves affected by the federal ban are estimated at 18 billion barrels, which is indeed larger than ANWR. However, EIA projects that offshore production rates would be about half of ANWR production rates, which means that lifting the ban on offshore drilling would probably have an even smaller effect on future oil prices than ANWR's 75 cents a barrel in 2025. In other words, "tiny" was probably the wrong word in my concluding sentence above. "Minuscule" is more like it.

Note also that over half of that 18 billion barrels is off the California coast and wouldn't be available for drilling unless the California legislature approved it. That's pretty unlikely. (Though given California's continuing epic financial meltdown, anything is possible.)

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MORE CURVEBALL....At this point, we already know as fully and completely as we ever will that "Curveball," the Iraqi source who convinced German and American intelligence that Saddam Hussein had an active bioweapons program, was a complete fraud. At least, that's what I thought until today, when I read John Goetz and Bob Drogin's piece about Curveball in the LA Times. "Complete fraud" really sells the guy short. His real name is Rafid Ahmed Alwan, and Goetz and Drogin caught up with him recently and managed to squeeze a series of short interviews out of him. They also talked to a few of his friends and colleagues:

His direct supervisor was Hilal Freah, a British-trained engineer and friend of Alwan's mother. Freah, who now lives in Jordan, viewed himself as Alwan's mentor but had trouble trusting his protege.

"Rafid told five or 10 stories every day," Freah said in an interview. "I'd ask, 'Where have you been?' And he'd say, 'I had a problem with my car.' Or, 'My family was sick.' But I knew he was lying."

He had a gift for it and "was not embarrassed when caught in a lie," Freah said.

At the Djerf al Nadaf warehouse, laborers treated seeds from local farmers with fungicides to prevent mold and rot. But Alwan convinced his BND [German intelligence] handlers that the site's corn-filled sheds were part of Iraq's secret germ weapons program. He worked there, he told them, until 1998, when an unreported biological accident occurred.

In fact, Alwan had been dismissed three years earlier, in 1995, after inflating expenses and faking receipts for tools, supplies and lamb for a party.

"I fired him," Freah said. "He was corrupt and he was found stealing." But the family friend gave Alwan one more chance.

There's way more in exactly the same vein. Alwan's response? "I'm not guilty," "Everything that's been written about me isn't true," "I'm not the source of these problems," "I'm an honest man," etc.

The whole thing is fascinating. Alwan is obviously a talented fabulist and con man, sort of the Jayson Blair of prewar intelligence, but German and American intelligence were simply too invested in believing him to root out the obvious holes in his tall tales. It's a story worth reading.

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OBAMA'S FOREIGN POLICY BRAIN TRUST....I'm not on Barack Obama's mailing list, but Matt is, and he's got the complete list of Obama's recently named "National Security Working Group." Turns out it's.....kind of dull: Albright, Christopher, Nunn, Perry, Hamilton, etc. etc. Pretty much the collection of Democratic worthies you'd expect.

It's probably silly to try and read too much into this kind of list, but still, it's hard to see it and not recall Hamilton Jordan's infamous remark in 1976: "If, after the inauguration, you find a Cy Vance as secretary of state and Zbigniew Brzezinski as head of national security, then I would say we failed. And I'd quit.'" After the inauguration, of course, Cy Vance was secretary of state, Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security advisor, and Jordan didn't quit.

UPDATE: Several people have suggested that it's more revealing to look at who was left off than who was included in the list. Among the more obvious exclusions: Richard Holbrooke, Samantha Power, Bill Richardson, and Brzezinski. Draw your own conclusions.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE LATEST POLLS....Over at FiveThirtyEight — a site that's endlessly fascinating and therefore a site to be generally avoided if you want to get any work done — Nate Silver says that he predicted the unity bounce following Hillary Clinton's withdrawal from the race "would be worth 4-5 points to Obama in the popular vote, bringing him northward of 320 electoral votes." And sure enough:

That is almost exactly where we have Barack Obama's numbers after a series of new polls from Quinnipiac. In Pennsylvania, Obama leads by 12 points — up from 6 last month. His Ohio lead is 6 points — he had trailed McCain by 4 points before. And then there is Florida, where Quinnipiac has Obama ahead by 4 points. Barack Obama has never before led a Florida poll — not against John McCain, nor against Hillary Clinton — so this is something of a watershed moment.

Well, even I'm not optimistic enough to think that Obama is going to carry Florida. But who knows? Cuba has been steadily losing salience as a political hot button for years, and if all the Republicans start campaigning on the idea of letting Texaco build thousands of oil platforms right off Miami Beach, you never know. Maybe Obama will start to look pretty good to Floridians.

Kevin Drum 12:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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By: Kevin Drum

AFGHANISTAN....The news from Afghanistan these days isn't just bad, it's weird:

Local officials and villagers [near Kandahar] said the Taliban, who pushed into the area Sunday night, were laying mines, blocking roads and culverts and destroying footbridges, apparently preparing to do battle with arriving Afghan and Western troops.

....A Taliban field commander in Arghandab, reached by telephone, said his fighters were determined to hold their positions. He said his force had been bolstered by hundreds of prisoners who escaped Kandahar's main prison last week in a Taliban-staged break.

This doesn't make sense. Even several hundred Taliban fighters don't stand a chance in a straight-up fight with NATO forces. What are they thinking?

Well, apparently they're thinking that things have changed and they do have a chance of winning a set-piece battle with NATO forces. And we might be thinking the same thing. Fred Kaplan reports a piece of news I missed last week:

Gen. Dan McNeill, who recently finished a 16-month tour as NATO commander in Afghanistan, said last week that we need 400,000 troops to control the country. There are now just 110,000 (including 58,000 from the still-green Afghan National Army) and few prospects for recruiting many more — none for remotely approaching McNeill's desired head count.

Kaplan suggests that our only real solution lies in thinking outside Afghanistan itself and trying to broker a regional "grand bargain" with Pakistan and Iran. "It is hard to imagine what the outlines of such a deal would look like," he says, and I'd call that an understatement. But if McNeill is right, and we have only a quarter of the troops it would take to stabilize the country on our own, we might want to get started on thinking about this.

Kevin Drum 12:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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By: Kevin Drum

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Mark Fallon, deputy commander of the Defense Department's Criminal Investigation Task Force, reacting to administration proposals to torture Guantanamo detainees back in October 2002:

"This looks like the kind of stuff Congressional hearings are made of. Someone needs to be considering how history will look back at this."

Kevin Drum 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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June 17, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

FISA COMPROMISE UPDATE....Negotiators in the House and Senate are apparently close to announcing a compromise FISA bill that they hope to pass by early July. Over at The Caucus, Carl Hulse wonders how the compromise is going to fly with the party faithful:

The question for the negotiators will be whether the final product is seen by Democrats opposed to the immunity for the phone companies as conceding too much or whether backers of warrantless surveillance will view the compromise as too weak.

Let's check in with the lefty side of things. Glenn?

[T]here is a major new campaign beginning today aimed at [Steny] Hoyer and a handful of other key members of Congress who enable telecom immunity and warrantless eavesdropping....All the money raised will be spent exclusively on ad campaigns aimed at the short-term vulnerabilities of those in Congress responsible for delivering this indescribably tyrannical package of surveillance powers to the President and the accompanying corrupt gift to lawbreaking telecoms.

Hmmm. Doesn't seem to be going over too well.

But what is the compromise? That's a little harder to figure out, but apparently the idea is to let the FISA court rule on whether telecoms who participated in the NSA spying program should be immune from civil lawsuits. This sounds like a decent compromise — let the courts decide! — but the catch is that the only thing they'll be allowed to rule on is whether the telecoms received letters from the president assuring them the program was legal. Since we already know that they did, in fact, receive such letters, the court ruling is a foregone conclusion: the telecoms will receive immunity.

If this is really what's going on, then the whole thing is just the thinnest of fig leaves, not a real compromise at all. Which raises a question: what will Barack Obama do? He's been consistently opposed to telecom immunity in the past, so presumably he'll vote against it. But will he just cast a no vote and then bemoan the bill's eventual passage, or will he expend some real political capital to try to keep it from passing? Wait and see.

UPDATE: Glenn emails to say that the latest compromise would let a regular federal court decide if telecoms received letters from the president. So instead of the rulings being made in secret, we'd all get to watch the kabuki dance in public. Much better.

Kevin Drum 9:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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McCAIN AND ABORTION....John McCain's reputation for cross-party moderation has been so ingrained for so long that a lot of people simply assume he holds positions he doesn't. In particular, an awful lot of centrist voters assume that McCain has fairly centrist views on abortion. So what happens when they find out that, in fact, McCain's actual position is pretty much identical to James Dobson's? A new Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll of battleground states provides a clue:

Once balanced information about Obama and McCain's respective positions on choice is introduced, Obama gains 6 points overall, with his lead in battleground states expanding from a net 2 points (47-45 percent) to a net 13 points (53-40 percent).

....Despite the fact that the national focus seems to be on the economy, among pro-choice Independent women, pro-choice Republican women, and liberal to moderate Republican women, the issue of abortion produces a larger advantage for Democrats than the economy, the war in Iraq, or health care. Moreover, among these three groups critiques on McCain's anti-choice position are the strongest attacks against him, trumping attacks on the economy, the war, and special interests.

This kind of stuff is more than normally tricky, since you can almost always get a fair number of people to change their view by reading some carefully chosen critiques of whatever issue you're polling about. Still, in this case GQR's statement was fairly straightforward: Obama believes abortion is a personal decision and supports Roe v. Wade, while McCain is pro-life and wants to overturn Roe v. Wade. All by itself, that produced a 6-point swing.

Abortion is unlikely to be a major issue in this year's election, but it's not a big effort to simply make sure that voters know McCain's actual position: He thinks abortion should be illegal, and if he becomes president he'll do his best to appoint Supreme Court justices who think so too.

Kevin Drum 4:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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By: Kevin Drum

POLITICS AS USUAL....So Barack Obama tells Jake Tapper that we can fight terrorists and follow the constitution at the same time ("for example, the first attack against the World Trade Center, we were able to arrest those responsible, put them on trial"), and we get the standard talking point reaction from the McCain team. You know the drill: naive, September 10th mindset, etc. etc. All the usual dumb little campaign comments.

But wouldn't it be nice if we could have a real conversation about this? We could compare, say, the amount of terrorism we've stopped via police work, intelligence, international cooperation, financial interdiction, and so forth, and compare it to the amount of terrorism created by our military intervention in Iraq. And then we could talk about how the real September 10th mindset is the one that says it doesn't matter what other people think of us because, you know, we've got the biggest military in the world and we can squash 'em all like bugs anyway.

I say: bring 'em on. Let's talk about who's naive vs. who's learned some lessons from 9/11. The sooner the better.

Kevin Drum 1:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (127)

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By: Kevin Drum

TORTURE UPDATE....Here's the latest on the torture front from an ongoing Senate investigation:

Memos and other evidence obtained during the inquiry show that officials in the office of then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld started to research the use of waterboarding, stress positions, sensory deprivation and other practices in July 2002, months before memos from commanders at the detention facility in Cuba requested permission to use those measures on suspected terrorists.

....The new evidence challenges previous statements by William J. "Jim" Haynes II, who served as Defense Department general counsel under Rumsfeld and is among the witnesses scheduled to testify at today's hearing. Haynes, who resigned in February, suggested to a Senate panel in 2006 that the request for tougher interrogation methods originated in October 2002, when Guantanamo Bay commanders began asking for help in ratcheting up the pressure on suspected terrorists who had stopped cooperating.

So it turns out that all this was the fault of a few bad apples after all. Unfortunately, they were the ones running the country.

Kevin Drum 1:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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By: Kevin Drum

VA TESTING....From the Washington Times:

The government is testing drugs with severe side effects like psychosis and suicidal behavior on hundreds of military veterans, using small cash payments to attract patients into medical experiments that often target distressed soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, a Washington Times/ABC News investigation has found.

I'm having a hard time figuring out if this story has uncovered something genuinely troubling, or if it's a trashy piece of sensationalism. The Times reports that the VA is involved in several studies that target returning veterans with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), but that's because the VA is trying to figure out how to treat PTSD — as it should. It's also true that many anti-depressants, as well as other psychiatric drugs, have cognitive side effects in some patients that are sometimes severe. But that doesn't mean these drugs shouldn't be tried as PTSD therapies or that conducting clinical studies on PTSD patients is improper, and the Times doesn't suggest that. So what's the VA doing wrong?

It turns out that the entire rest of the story boils down to one thing: a single vet out of a group of 143 who suffered a psychotic episode while using the anti-smoking drug Chantix. Here's the timeline: in November the FDA issued a warning that Chantix patients should be monitored for "behavior or mood changes" and the VA passed this warning along to the clinicians involved in the Chantix study. In early February the FDA issued a formal alert, and in late February the VA sent a letter to patients in the study telling them about Chantix's side-effects.

Now, it's possible that the VA should have acted more quickly here, and it's also true that their warning letter to patients seems to have underplayed the problems (it warns of "anxiety, nervousness, tension and depression," but doesn't mention suicidal thoughts). Still, it was only three months between the initial preliminary warning and the letter sent out to participants, and only one person out of 143 in the VA study reported suicidal thoughts.

So I'm not sure what to think of this. Is the VA genuinely being careless with vulnerable vets? Or did they act properly and the small incidence of side effects is simply unavoidable in these kinds of studies? I'd like to hear from some people with serious experience in this kind of thing before I make up my mind.

Kevin Drum 12:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA vs. McCAIN....According to a Washington Post poll, Obama remains ahead of McCain:

The new survey shows Obama running ahead of McCain by 48 percent to 42 percent among all adults. Among registered voters, the margin is essentially the same — 49 percent to 45 percent. At this point four years ago, Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry held identical leads over President Bush among all adults and among registered voters.

But Obama isn't Kerry and 2008 isn't 2004. I don't think we'll the same kind of endgame fade that we saw in the last election. On the other hand, Republicans are still Republicans and there's almost certainly some kind of loathsome swift boating awaiting us down the road. I can't wait to see what they come up with this time.

Kevin Drum 11:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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June 16, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

THE DOUBLE TALK EXPRESS....Does a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade plan mean that greenhouse gases would be capped? You'd think so, but in a press conference this morning we learned that apparently John McCain thinks otherwise.

Is McCain confused again? Maybe, but more likely it's just politics as usual, a way of being all things to all people. He wants credit for taking climate change seriously but he also wants credit for being business friendly, so he offers up a cap-and-trade plan and then insists that it doesn't actually involve a cap. This is garden variety double talk, but he can get away with it because he knows that no one in the press corps will actually challenge him on an issue of substantive policy.

And while I'm on the subject, there's another clip from the same press conference here. Am I crazy or does McCain look like he's been up for 30 hours straight? Especially toward the end, he's just rambling semi-coherently.

Kevin Drum 11:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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PATTI SOLIS DOYLE, TAKE 2....It turns out that Barack Obama's hiring of Patti Solis Doyle is even more interesting than I thought at first. Perhaps because I deliberately pulled back from campaign coverage during the final couple of months after Texas and Ohio, I didn't realize that Solis Doyle had become so estranged from Hillary Clinton after she was fired as Hillary's campaign manager. Far from her hiring being a conciliatory gesture, the developing conventional wisdom is that Team Obama is sending the same kind of message to Team Clinton that the Tattaglia family sent to the Corleones in The Godfather:

"It's a slap in the face," Susie Tompkins Buell, a prominent Clinton backer, said in an interview. "Why would they put somebody that was so clearly ineffective in such a position? It's a message. We get it." She said it was a "calculated decision" by the Obama team to "send a message that she [Clinton] is not being considered for the ticket."

Other Clinton insiders also seethed. "Who can blame Obama for rewarding Patti? He would never be the nominee without her," one person who has worked for both Clintons and remains close to them said. The sentiment reflected what another person in the immediate Clinton orbit described as "shock" that Obama would send such a strong signal that he is not considering Clinton as his runningmate so soon.

Another Hillary supporter puts it even more bluntly: Hiring Solis is the "biggest fuck you I have ever seen in politics."

If this is true, it's beyond bizarre. Obama has every incentive in the world to make nice with Hillary, and nothing in his past behavior suggests that he's given to gratuitous insults like this. Either the conventional wisdom is wrong, or else there's a much deeper game going on than anyone thinks.

Kevin Drum 5:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (160)

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By: Kevin Drum

TIGER vs. ROCCO....Man, that was a helluva U.S. Open playoff today. No spoilers (though I won't make any promises about what you'll find in comments), but that was some great golf.

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REPLACING RUSSERT....Jonah Goldberg says that Tim Russert "executed his vision honorably, honestly, and with complete professionalism," but he'd still like to see Meet the Press go back to its roots:

All of that said, I think the show should return to a panel, at least for the time being. What's wrong with bringing three or four hard-hitting journalists to ask questions the way they used to? This is not only the best way to get a more diverse line of questioning (I would love to see Byron York or Steve Hayes on there asking questions no one else would ask), but it would help forestall some truly awful choices that seem to be in the hopper.

Now, this is not going to happen. TV journalism long ago become entirely personality driven, and that's not going to change. And yes, if MTP did go back to a panel asking questions, we liberals would have a slightly different set of people we'd like to see getting airtime.

Still, just as a topic of conversation, what about it? I sort of doubt that having three journalists instead of one would really make much of a difference, but I'd be fairly enthusiastic about having one good moderator plus a couple of specialists each week. If the topic were economics or taxes, you'd have a harder time getting away with the usual BS if you were sitting across from Paul Krugman or Dean Baker. If the topic were FISA or Guantanamo, Jack Balkin or Erwin Chemerinsky might be able to dig a little deeper than Andrea Mitchell.

The danger, of course, is that the show would turn into a slightly higher rent version of the late unlamented Crossfire. Or that experts aren't always good questioners. Maybe that's not worth the risk. It's worth a thought, though.

Kevin Drum 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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By: Kevin Drum

PATTI SOLIS DOYLE....This is genuinely fascinating: Barack Obama has named a chief of staff to his eventual vice presidential nominee, and his choice is longtime Hillary Clinton confidante and former campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle. What's fascinating is not just that he made the choice he did, but that he made it even though he must know that it's going to whip up a frenzy of media speculation. Is this part of a rapprochement with Hillaryland? A payoff for endorsing him? A none-too-subtle wink to Hillary's supporters that maybe she's his choice for VP? A sign of genuine admiration for Solis Doyle's administrative talents? Beats me, but speculation is bound to run rampant.

Also of interest: when I looked up "confidante" to make sure I had spelled it right, I learned that it properly refers only to a woman. I had always thought it referred to anyone in which you regularly confided. You learn something new every day.

UPDATE: I missed this just before I left on vacation, but Ben Smith reported a few weeks ago that Solis Doyle has been talking with the Obama campaign for a while. Today, Smith adds, "Clinton fired her in February, and many of her backers view Solis Doyle as a bit of a traitor for having signaled that she'd move to Obama before the primary was over." So I guess the signal Obama is sending here is even more nebulous than I thought.

UPDATE 2: For what it's worth, CQ's Jonathan Allen quotes a source who says there's nothing nebulous about it:

A Clinton insider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told CQ Politics that the subtext is clear. "Translated subtitles aren't necessary," the insider said. "There is no other way to interpret this other than '[Expletive] you.'"

Kevin Drum 1:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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GOP VEEP TALK....I agree: John McCain choosing Rudy Giuliani as his running mate would be great news for liberal bloggers. I'm 100% behind this.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Ezra Klein, cutting through the fog on why CEOs don't like unions:

The evidence is clear that unions reduce company profits, because they force firms to share more of the haul with their labor....In the end, everyone is basically battling for their self interest, and their interests conflict. CEOs want higher pay. Workers want higher pay. Workers use unions. CEOs use public relations campaigns that smear unions, often under the guise of concerns about "productivity."

Countries can have too much unionization and they can have too little unionization. Britain in the 70s had too much. Maybe we did too, and maybe we still do in the public sector — though obviously that's debatable. But in the private sector, and especially in the private service sector, we don't have enough. Maybe president Obama can start to restore a better balance.

Kevin Drum 12:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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THE END OF THE FREE RIDE?....Today, most internet users pay a flat monthly fee that doesn't change regardless of their activity level. According to Time Warner, the result is that 5% of their customers account for over half of their network's overall capacity, and they're now planning to make that 5% pay for the privilege:

Time Warner Cable [] began a trial of "Internet metering" in one Texas city early this month, asking customers to select a monthly plan and pay surcharges when they exceed their bandwidth limit. The idea is that people who use the network more heavily should pay more, the way they do for water, electricity, or, in many cases, cellphone minutes.

That same week, Comcast said that it would expand on a strategy it uses to manage Internet traffic: slowing down the connections of the heaviest users, so-called bandwidth hogs, at peak times.

AT&T also said Thursday that limits on heavy use were inevitable and that it was considering pricing based on data volume. "Based on current trends, total bandwidth in the AT&T network will increase by four times over the next three years," the company said in a statement.

The enormous boom in long-haul fiber construction in the late 90s, followed by the dotcom bust, left us with so much overcapacity that for the past decade there's been no point in charging for bandwidth. It was, literally, too cheap to meter. However, that era is coming to an end, as is the era of exponential growth in broadband subscribers, which drove the buildout of local switches and routers by cable companies. But if demand for video is driving demand for more bandwidth, then someone's got to pay for it, and that means either we keep the flat-rate system and everyone's price goes up equally, or else we start charging for it, just like we charge for electricity, water, telephone calls, and interstate highway use.

Short of some kind of massive government investment in public, high-speed fiber to the home — which seems unlikely — I'm not sure how we avoid this. Reliable, high-def video delivery requires a ton of infrastructure development, and someone's got to fund it. One way is to ditch net neutrality and allow phone companies to give priority to their own digital video services. Another is "traffic shaping," which penalizes users of specific high-bandwidth services, like BitTorrent. A third is to remain content neutral and simply charge for bandwidth regardless of its source.

There may be a fourth choice I'm not thinking of, but in the near term it's hard to see how flat-rate charging stays alive as we start bumping into infrastructure constraints. If that's the case, I guess my vote would be for the content neutral option. It seems like the least worst of the three.

Kevin Drum 11:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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WOMEN FOR OBAMA....Are Hillary Clinton's supporters so bitter that they plan to vote for John McCain over Barack Obama? Maybe a few of them are, but it's hardly a widespread sentiment:

Now that the Democratic marathon is over, Clinton supporters [] are siding heavily with Obama over McCain, polls show. And Obama has taken a wide lead among female voters, belying months of political chatter and polls of primary voters suggesting that disappointment over Clinton's defeat might block the Illinois senator from enjoying his party's historic edge among women.

...."There are women still struggling with a real sense of grief that Hillary is not the nominee," said Maren Hesla, who runs campaign programs for Emily's List, a group that promotes female candidates who support abortion rights. But that sense "will grow smaller with every day that passes from the nomination battles."

....An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found a wide gap last week: Women favored Obama over McCain, 52% to 33%. The survey also found that voters who cast ballots for Clinton in the Democratic primaries preferred Obama over McCain, 61% to 19%.

Carly Fiorina is not going to be enough to reverse this trend. Women in general, and Hillary's supporters in particular, are going to vote for Obama by a wide, wide margin when November rolls around.

Kevin Drum 1:16 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (109)

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June 14, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

OPEC OIL....Matt Yglesias:

Saudi Arabia has a plan to boost their oil production in the near future. According to the NYT's Jad Mouawad that "was seen as a sign that the Saudis are becoming increasingly nervous about both the political and economic effect of high oil prices." But couldn't we just see it as a sign that you can make more money than ever selling oil these days so it became worth the Saudis' while to find ways to boost production? That's the market in action.

Actually, I wonder if you can see it that way. My take is that spare capacity is so tight these days that a country like Saudi Arabia could make more money by cutting production than by raising it, even if they did it without any cooperation from the rest of OPEC. If they cut production by, say, a million barrels a day, that would represent 10% of their capacity. But my guess is that in the current market a reduction of that size would increase prices by more than 10%. Maybe by a lot more. In other words, it would be a net win for the Saudis. What's more, it would have the added benefit of allowing them to implement better, more conservative oil field management, which would have paybacks down the road.

Now, in the long-term this kind of behavior really would lead to reduced demand. What's more, in the medium term the Saudis might be concerned about the possibility of sparking a serious global recession that would hurt them as badly as it would hurt everyone else. But in terms of pure short-term revenue maximization, all of OPEC would likely be better off if they cut production a percent or two. The fact that they haven't probably means they really are nervous about the "political and economic effect of high oil prices."

Kevin Drum 8:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (93)

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ENERGY....Ross Douthat on John McCain's energy/climate change policy:

McCain's embrace of cap-and-trade didn't happen in a vacuum: It was an attempt, albeit a misguided one, to break with the heads-in-the-sand approach to energy and climate change that far too many conservatives have been taking for far too long. And the right-wing zeal for drilling in ANWR has been part of the problem, not part of the solution: It's licensed conservatives to posture about energy independence while sidestepping the global-warming debate entirely. If the argument for drilling in ANWR were embedded in a broader Jim Manzi-meets-Shellenberger-and-Nordhaus approach to the dual imperatives of cheaper and cleaner energy, then I'd be all for it. But for the most part, that isn't how it's being framed. It's just "drill here, drill now, pay less," full stop. Which is bad policy and bad politics.

ANWR's weird totemic quality has always baffled me. As near as I can tell, the environmental damage from drilling in the tiny portion of ANWR at issue would be pretty modest. At the same time, taken on a global scale, the amount of oil there is small potatoes. Basically, it just doesn't matter all that much. So why the 30-year blood feud?

Partly, I suppose, because it has become a totemic issue. Liberals don't really like to address energy supply issues and conservatives don't like to address either efficiency or conservation issues, so instead they just posture endlessly over ANWR and call it a day.

Personally, I'd look at ANWR as a bargaining chip. I don't have much interest in drilling there, but I'd be willing to trade it away if Republicans were willing to support a serious climate policy in return. This means cap-and-trade (or a carbon tax) in order to price the externalities of carbon properly; it means serious research into clean energy technologies (and, yes, regulation of dirty technology); and it means real efforts to spur greater energy efficiency. John McCain has made only a few small nods in these directions so far, but at least he acknowledges that we're dealing with a real problem here, not a phony conspiracy cooked up by a sinister cabal of liberals, Hollywood stars, and climate scientists. Even if it accomplishes nothing else, his candidacy will represent a major step forward if it merely makes it acceptable in Republican circles to admit that climate change is a genuine issue and that our energy problems won't be solved solely by drilling test wells everywhere on the planet.

Kevin Drum 7:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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POPCORN SCIENCE....As a regular moviegoer and an equally regular consumer of movie popcorn, I'm intrigued by Felix Salmon's summary of recent research done by local UC Irvine professor Richard McKenzie:

McKenzie did a fair amount of real-world research on the popcorn front, and his most important finding (as far as I'm concerned) is that if you're in a cinema which gives you a choice between buying a medium bag of popcorn and a large tub of popcorn, there's a greater-than-50% chance that the medium bag will actually contain more popcorn than the large tub.

Now that's an academic with his research priorities in order. The tub is still a better buy if you plan to get refills, he says, but otherwise you're better off with a bag. In an email, McKenzie explains why:

Oh, one last point of little consequence: The prospects of getting more popcorn in the medium than the large is higher here [in Irvine, I assume –ed], since the medium is a bag with flexible sides and the tub has rigged sides. [Actually, that's not universally true here, but it's true in Edwards Theaters, which dominates the market in Orange County and positively monopolizes the market for theaters within five miles of UCI –ed again] Both mediums and large sizes in Winston-Salem are bags with flexible sizes. There I always got more in the large (not much more!). Here, a little more than half the time I got more in the medium. It all depends on the clerks, and how she/he holds the bags and then chooses to literally stuff the bags by pressing the popcorn down. But then the ounce measures are not a firm indicator of value, since a higher weight can mean more bottom of the popping cabinet crumbs and un-popped kernels.

Note the careful disclaimer at the end about the possibility of unpopped kernels distorting McKenzie's measurements. That's the kind of rigor I like in my science. All it's missing is a chart.

Via Tyler Cowen. More here and here.

Kevin Drum 1:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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AMERICA IN IRAQ....Prime minister Nouri al-Maliki continues to publicly disparage U.S. proposals for a long-term presence in Iraq ("The Iraqi government, if it wants, has the right to demand that the U.N. terminate the presence of international forces on Iraqi sovereign soil") while his deputies continue to make more soothing noises in private. I continue to think this is more a negotiating posture than a genuine breakdown, but it's stuff like this that gives me pause:

"All the politicians are trying to prove that they care more about Iraqis than they do about Americans — otherwise they know the people and the voters will not support them," said Ala Maaki, a senior lawmaker with Iraqi's largest Sunni political party. "I think we could see al-Maliki and Moqtada Sadr trying to one-up the other today and see who can take the strongest stand against the Americans."

Sure, Ala Maaki is part of the opposition, but he's basically right: Maliki is doing what he's doing because there are elections coming up and he's trying to demonstrate his nationalist street cred. Now ask yourself: regardless of whether or not Maliki is posturing, what does it say about our long-term prospects in Iraq when pretty much every party feels like their winning campaign strategy is to appeal to anti-American sentiment among the public? With whoever's the most anti-American most likely to win? Nothing good.

(Also worth noting: unlike the leader of the most powerful democracy in the world, Maliki actually plans to allow his parliament to vote on the agreement. But following a provincial election in which both sides have spent months fanning anti-American sentiment, what kind of mood is parliament going to be in when they finally get a look at whatever Maliki manages to negotiate? Perhaps....a bit testy?)

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

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THE TRAINS, THE TRAINS....How desperate are conservatives getting at the prospect of running against Barack Obama? Well, 25 years ago (!), while working in New York and wondering what to do with the rest of his life, Obama remarked that he wasn't interested in a humdrum office life. "He always talked about the New Rochelle train, the trains that took commuters to and from New York City, and he didn't want to be on one of those trains every day," said Jerry Kellman, the community organizer who recruited Obama to Chicago. NRO's Jim Geraghty is not amused:

[T]here's a fine line between rejecting that life and looking down at that life. Because some people are just fine with jobs that require them to take the New Rochelle train. Some people actually prefer it to the stress, the risk, the time away from family, the constant demands from strangers. And the world needs these people — who get up every morning, go to work to do jobs with no glamor and little or no prestige, wages modest or worse, and whose names never appear in the newspaper. These folks receive a round of applause when they dance at their wedding, and at their retirement party, and that's about it.

We can't all be touted as secular messiahs, surrounded by adoring throngs. Very few us get crowds chanting our name on a regular basis. Scarlett Johansson doesn't e-mail us, and Jennifer Lopez doesn't visit our offices.

Never mind the small towners who "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment." Obama didn't want to be a suburban commuter.

That's right: Obama is not only a latte-sipping elitist who looks down his nose at God-fearing, salt-of-the-earth, heartland breadwinners, he's a Gucci-wearing elitist who looks down his nose at mortgage-paying, little-league-coaching, lawn-mowing B&Ters from Westchester. And so are you if reading Geraghty's misty-eyed ode to the man in the gray flannel suit didn't bring a lump to your throat.

Crikey. And there's still 143 days to go.

Kevin Drum 12:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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June 13, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....Is it Friday already? And not a moment too soon.

On the left, Domino is lounging in her usual midday spot: a nice square of sunshine coming in through the skylight. On the right, Inkblot is in his usual early evening spot: rolling around on the carpet saying, "I'm so cute, won't you please, please, feed me?" Thanks to last night's basketball game — about which the less said the better — dinner was a little late and he was milking the self-pity routine for all it was worth. You'd think his last meal had been days ago, not the couple of hours since he polished off the dry food.

On another note, I'm pleased to report that catblogging is spreading to even the most august publications! Over at the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman wisely ignores the blogging advice from FT's management ("Do not write about your cat") and explains why history's finest leaders have been cat lovers. Also: a picture of his cat, Louis. Hopefully other FT bloggers will tell The Man where to stick his guidelines and follow suit.

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LOOKING BACK....Paul Krugman:

You can make a very good case that Barack Obama was the right person for the Democrats to nominate, and Hillary Clinton the wrong choice. But the way we got there was terrible. The raw sexism, in all too many cases coming from alleged progressives — see above [an odious Oliphant cartoon –ed] — was part of it. So, too, was the inability of many alleged progressives to see that the news media created the narrative of Hillary Clinton as race-baiter in much the same way that, 8 years ago, they created the narrative of Al Gore as congenital liar — by assembling a montage of quotes taken out of context and willfully misinterpreted.

There's no question that Hillary made her share of mistakes and gave Obama supporters plenty of legitimate reasons to dislike her. And I'd cavil a bit about the race-baiting: yes, the narrative careened out of control at some points, but some of the incidents were real, not merely willfull misinterpretations from the press.

That said, plenty of liberals really ought to take a long look in the mirror now that the race is over. It was an unhappy experience for me watching people I know and respect turn into minor league versions of Richard Mellon Scaife over the past few months. Living through that once was quite enough, thankyouverymuch. Twice was excruciating.

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MR. STRAIGHT TALK....Let me get this straight. John McCain isn't in favor of Social Security privatization. He's just in favor of allowing workers to divert a part of their payroll taxes into private accounts.

And me? I don't like chocolate ice cream. I merely crave frozen dairy treats flavored with the fermented extract of the tropical cacao tree.

Sheesh.

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APOLOGIES....The Wall Street Journal reports on increased scrutiny of the news media:

In this campaign cycle, television news organizations have issued at least 10 apologies in total over on-air expressions. On Tuesday, a Fox News anchor, E.D. Hill, said she regretted suggesting that a celebratory hand gesture between Barack and Michelle Obama might be a "terrorist fist jab." On Monday, NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell apologized for calling southwest Virginia "redneck country."

....Employees at Time Warner Inc.'s CNN and General Electric Co.'s MSNBC, and a contributor to Fox News have all confused "Obama" and "Osama" in the last year in one form or another, and apologized for the mistake.

The most-recent dust-up began Wednesday afternoon during a segment on Fox News by commentator Michelle Malkin about conservative attacks on Michelle Obama. At the bottom of the screen, a headline said, "Outraged Liberals: Stop Picking on Obama's Baby Mama!"

Off the top of my head, I can add Chris Matthews to this list (for claiming that the only reason Hillary Clinton was a serious candidate was because "her husband messed around") as well as David Shuster (for saying that Chelsea Clinton was "being pimped out in some weird sort of way") and Keith Olbermann (who basically suggested that somebody needed to beat Hillary senseless to get her to drop out of the race). And then there was Bill O'Reilly's apology for saying, "I don't want to go on a lynching party against Michelle Obama unless there's evidence." That's ten. I don't know for sure if it's the same ten that the WSJ counted, but it's probably close.

Notice a pattern? Aside from Andrea Mitchell's crack about Virginia, which was offensive in a nonpartisan way, every one of the apologies has been about an offensive remark aimed at a Democrat. Funny, that.

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OCCUPATION....Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki plays hardball:

He says the initial framework agreed upon was to have been an accord "between two completely sovereign states." But he says the U.S. proposals "do not take into consideration Iraq's sovereignty."

The prime minister said Friday "this is not acceptable." The American demands "violate Iraqi sovereignty. At the end, we reached a dead end."

Well, there are dead ends and there are dead ends. Until Maliki tells us in no uncertain terms that he wants all U.S. troops to withdraw ASAP, I imagine that talks will continue.

At the same time, the U.S. requirements really are so fundamentally incompatible with Iraqi sovereignty that it's not clear what kind of agreement can be reached. Both Bush and Maliki are pretty seriously constrained by institutional and political realities at home, and there really might not be any acceptable middle ground. This is, unfortunately, what comes of occupying a country while insisting over and over that you're not really occupying a country. At some point, you just can't keep up the charade.

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FL/MI....Hey — funny thing. Suddenly no one seems to care what the rules are for seating delegates from Michigan and Florida. One day it was a matter of bedrock principle and fundamental human rights, the next day, pffft. Did something happen to take it off the radar?

(Note for the unwary: sarcasm mode cranked up to 11 in this post.)

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INFLATION....This month's inflation news:

Consumers began to feel the full effects of soaring fuel and food prices last month, with inflation leaping upward 0.6% in May — driven by a huge one-month rise of 8.5% in the price of petroleum-based products, the Labor Department reported today.

....Still, prices for goods other than food and fuel remained relatively stable, rising just 0.2% for the month. Investors were heartened by the so-called core inflation rate, and stocks rose on the news with the Dow Jones industrial average rising more than 130 points in early trading.

If "investors" were heartened by the moderate rise in the core inflation rate, they shouldn't be. For technical reasons, the Fed in recent years has focused on core inflation when it sets interest rates (and its use is controversial even there). But that's not because it's somehow more real than the broader measure embodied in the headline CPI rate. It's not. Basically, unless you think that food and petroleum are currently in bubble mode (and I won't take you seriously on this unless you're willing to put some money behind that bet), then the inflation rate last month was 0.6%. That is, an annual rate of about 7%. That's high by anybody's measure.

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THE PARTY OF OBSTRUCTION....The Senate's manual of procedures is full of arcane charts that describe how many amendments a bill is allowed to have at any one time. (Details here for the masochistic.) Different bills have different rules (seven amendments is the usual maximum, but it varies), and if you fill up all the slots it prevents anyone else from offering amendments. This is called "filling the tree," and it was a rarely used tactic until the mid-90s, when Bob Dole rediscovered it and made it into a standard tool of GOP governance.

Which, apparently, was fine with conservatives. And continued to be fine as long as they were in power. Last year, however, Democrats took over the Senate and Arlen Specter introduced a resolution to ban the practice. It failed. Robert Novak picks up the story with this week's climate change bill:

On Monday, Specter deplored Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's use of a parliamentary device called "filling the tree" to prevent the Republican minority from offering amendments to a bill....The device was used last week when Reid called up the bill to control global warming, producing the state of futility that has haunted Reid's year and a half as majority leader.

....What followed illustrates the decline of the Senate under Reid. The Senate fell far short of the 60 votes needed to close debate on the bill. While Reid blamed Republican intransigence, 10 Democratic senators — including five-term liberal stalwart Carl Levin of Michigan — wrote Reid last Friday telling him they "cannot support final passage of the bill" because of its economic impact on their states. Reid set aside climate change and moved to the bill imposing an excess profits tax on oil companies. He next asked the Senate to close off debate Tuesday and end the non-filibuster, an effort that predictably fell short of the needed 60 senators.

Even for the feckless Senate, last week was extraordinary. When Republicans contended Reid broke his pledge to confirm three of President Bush's appeals court nominees by Memorial Day, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell retaliated by requiring the entire climate-change bill to be read into the record (consuming over 10 hours). A half-century ago when I covered the Senate under Lyndon B. Johnson, such an event would have been headline news. Last week, it was barely noticed.

Novak is eager to blame Reid, of course, but the Senate's decline began long ago, and mostly under Republican rule. The GOP has perfected the art of filibustering, withholding consent, abusing the markup procedure, and just generally obstructing virtually everything that comes before the Senate, regardless of how important it is. The normal give-and-take of legislative compromise isn't in their playbook these days.

So sure: Reid is playing the game too. But he didn't make the rules. He just learned them from their masters.

UPDATE: More on the climate change fiasco here from Ron Brownstein.

Kevin Drum 11:22 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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June 12, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

BEER WARS....Evan Newmark of the Wall Street Journal explains why workers should welcome a foreign takeover of Anheuser Busch:

InBev offers Anheuser Busch shareholders a lot of money and its employees a new-and-improved management team....And it's a tight ship focused on cost-cutting and profits. Just like any company — American, Belgian or Brazilian should be.

Am I the only one who thinks workers are going to be less than reassured by the prospect of a "new-and-improved management team" that's "focused on cost-cutting"? Newmark might want to take a second crack at this.

In any case, his main point is that "it would be politically untenable for Obama to welcome a takeover," so John McCain should take the bait and position himself as a champion of free trade, even if it does mean letting a Belgian company run by a Brazilian dude take control of good 'ol American Budweiser. After all, who better to take a stand on this than a guy who dumped his first wife 30 years ago in order to marry a wealthy heiress who now owns one of the largest Anheuser Busch distributors in the country?

On second thought, somebody may need to call rewrite on this script. It's not really working, is it?

FWIW, my prediction is that, contra Newmark, Obama can stay neutral on this with no problem. It's not a trade deal, it won't send jobs overseas, and it's not a tax scam. It's just an acquisition of a beer company. Nothing in Obama's record, or the record of his economic advisors, suggests to me that he'll try to demagogue this.

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BUT DON'T CALL HIM McBUSH....The Tax Policy Center today released an exhaustive comparison of the tax plans of Barack Obama and John McCain. The money graph (literally) is below, slightly edited for space. Bottom line: If you're really rich and think that George Bush's tax cuts for the rich didn't go nearly far enough, John McCain is your man.

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STATUS OF FORCES....Andrew Sullivan ponders the real reason that the Bush administration wants a long-term presence in Iraq:

What I fear is that the Bush administration and many neo-conservatives are claiming one thing, while planning for another; and after the last eight years, the trust level is low. I fear they want a permanent presence in Iraq to reassure Israel; and to pursue the option of war with Iran. I fear the bases are there to detain, contain or attack the regional Shiite power, Iran, and to reassure the regional Sunni powers that the US military will protect them. If this is the agenda, please let us know. Let the American people examine and debate it. Have McCain own this position rather than refer to it as a premise as if we already know what it is.

What is there to say except, duh? The purpose of having overseas military bases is....military. Just don't forget that Syria is part of the mix too.

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SMEARS....Today the Obama campaign unveils "Fight the Smears," a website dedicated to real-time debunking of, um, smears. Seems like a great idea, but I wonder what it's going to look like once they have more than four smears debunked? You're going to have to scroll for miles if they just keep adding new stuff to the top.

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PENN SPEAKS....Michelle Cottle wants us to read Lisa DePaulo's Q&A with Mark Penn in GQ:

I highly recommend giving the piece a read, if for no other reason than to confirm all of your preexisting biases about what a spectacular egomaniac Penn is.

I'm on it! Actually, though, I found this passage a little more interesting than Penn's obsessive self-defense:

You wanted to hit [Obama] harder?
Well, I wanted to question the basic underpinning of his campaign.

....Why didn't you?
Well, I started down that road.... President Clinton took on the Iraq back-and-forth. But the rest of the campaign didn't want to tackle Iraq. They always felt that that was a losing proposition for her, and they always pulled it back.

....Why do you think the rest of the team was afraid to go after him?
I think they thought that her position on Iraq wasn't strong enough to sustain a debate on Iraq.

Or popular enough.
Right. But her position, remember — we went through the early discussion of "Was it a mistake? Should she apologize?" Of course, the rest of the team wanted her to apologize. [laughs] And you know, she weathered that extremely well. She didn't apologize, because she had given a speech outlining her position. On that day. And that speech held up. It actually explained why she voted for Iraq and why it was a sincere vote at the time.

So does this mean that Penn and Bill Clinton were the team members primarily responsible for keeping Hillary from being more forthrightly contrite about her vote to authorize the war? I wouldn't flat out say that this was the key issue that allowed Obama to beat her, but it certainly ranks in the top two or three.

As for the rest, it's true that Penn spends most of the interview deflecting blame from himself. On the other hand, he also makes some fairly trenchant points about the difference in media treatment between Obama and Clinton that ring pretty true to my ears. Among other things, he brings up the driver's license issue, the tears in New Hampshire, and the media's general infatuation with all things Obama. And he also has this to say about the Obama campaign:

Look, there's no question that the Obama campaign took comments that could not in any way, shape, or form in an objective reality be seen as racist, and they told surrogates to characterize them that way.

Apparently the healing process still has a ways to go. Still, the whole thing is worth a read. Underneath the spin there's some interesting stuff.

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GUANTÁNAMO....Justice Anthony Kennedy has decided to rejoin the forces of light and justice:

Foreign terrorism suspects held at the Guantánamo Bay naval base in Cuba have constitutional rights to challenge their detention there in United States courts, the Supreme Court ruled, 5 to 4, on Thursday in a historic decision on the balance between personal liberties and national security.

"The laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the court.

I wonder, in practice, what this will mean? As near as I can tell, there's not a single country in the world willing to take these prisoners even if they get a trial and are judged innocent. This means that we either release them in the United States or — what? Dump them on a military cargo plane and release them in Afghanistan, where no one can stop us from doing it? There's no question that the court did the right thing today, but I wonder what the end game is here?

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LOSING GROUND....Is al-Qaeda coming apart at the seams? Two recent articles say so: Lawrence Wright's "The Rebellion Within" in the New Yorker, and Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank's "The Unraveling" in the New Republic. Don't go getting your hopes up too much here, but both pieces are worth reading.

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TOO MANY SIGNS....In the Atlantic, John Staddon argues that the U.S. has too many traffic signs and tries to control driver behavior too strictly. I've read about this before, and up to a point it seems like it makes sense. Does the main loop in my neighborhood really need stop signs every 200 yards? (Answer: no, dammit!) Do British style roundabouts work better than traffic lights? (Probably.) And this:

Speed limits in the U.K. are also simpler and better. They are set by road type, so drivers know what limits to expect on highways, rural roads, and urban roads — usually without any signs to tell them. These limits are relatively high, set assuming optimum driving conditions, in contrast to the U.S. limits, which seem to be set with something in between the best and worst conditions in mind. (Precisely where on this spectrum U.S. limits fall seems to vary from road to road, engendering mistrust of the signs in some drivers.) Nonstandard speed limits in the U.K. are rare, so you tend to take them quite seriously when they appear, and they are posted frequently — so you don't risk missing them if you're, say, watching the road ahead of you.

OK, I'll buy this. But as someone who just got back from a driving trip around England, let me add a couple of things. First, it wouldn't kill them to occasionally throw up a speed limit sign for the benefit of tourists who don't already know the rules for each specific kind of road. Second, the Brits might not have as many stop signs and speed limit signs as us, but what they do have is an insane blizzard of signs informing you that a speed camera is watching you. I never actually saw one of these cameras (they must be artfully hidden), but the signs were plastered over every road in the country.

And as long as I'm venting a bit here, what is it with Europeans and compass points? Their road signs tend to be gloriously well designed and easy to decipher, but they never include the words north, south, east, or west. So when you get to a crossroad, all the sign tells you is that one direction takes you to, say, Chard, and the other direction takes you to Axminster. Unless you've memorized the map, or happen to be a local who doesn't really need the sign in the first place, you don't know which direction to go. (If you're lucky, one of the cities on the sign is the one you want to go to, which makes things easy. Usually it's not.) But although I might not know every town and village in the area, I always know from a quick look at a map which general direction I want to go. So why not add the words north and south here? Some sort of EU-wide directive to banish directional notation, or what?

On a more positive note, villages in Britain also have seemingly random obstructions placed in the middle of the streets occasionally, and I was charmed to find out that these weren't, in fact, random obstructions designed to catch you unaware, but were actually carefully placed "traffic calming" schemes. Nice name! Still, it just goes to show that driving in the UK isn't quite as free and easy as Staddon suggests.

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June 11, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

BUGABOO OF THE DAY....The latest Republican hysteria attack: China is drilling for oil in Cuban waters! Even Dick Cheney says it's true!

But it's not. Surprised?

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OBAMA THE CENTER LEFTY....Is Barack Obama selling out the left by hiring center-lefty Jason Furman as his economic policy director? Ezra Klein says no:

Obama's social and economic policy has been relentlessly center-left, focused on tax cuts and renewable energy credits. His health plan was the only one of the major three to not even attempt universality. This stuff is no surprise. Obama has many virtues, but his domestic policy has been consistently center-left. Those who're shocked simply haven't been paying attention.

That's right. Obama has been consistently good on domestic issues, but he's also been thoroughly mainstream. There's never been anything boldly innovative or risky about his domestic proposals.

But that's OK. It's not 1932 and the public isn't calling out for a complete re-ordering of the political system. What's more important than Obama's general direction, I think, is understanding what his priorities are. What's he going to fight for starting on Day 1? And I have to confess that I don't have much of a handle on that.

If, for example, Obama successfully withdraws from Iraq, passes a climate plan that looks something like his campaign proposal, and implements his healthcare plan, that would constitute a stunningly successful first term even if you think he's too much of a milquetoast in every one of these areas. But are these the three things he's most likely to fight hardest for? I don't know. He's consistently solid in almost everything, but that very consistency makes it hard to figure out what he's really passionate about. Now that the primary is over, maybe we'll start to find out.

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LITMUS TEST....Scott Lemieux on the veepstakes:

I could see a case for Joe Biden if he hadn't been in favor of the war. As it stands, I think it would be crazy to pick someone almost exclusively for foreign policy message who inevitably blurs the popular message of the Democratic candidate.

I just don't see that. Do we really think that being opposed to the war in 2002 should be a litmus test for VP consideration in 2008? There's an awful lot of rank-and-file Dems who supported the war, and this implicitly suggests that they should all still be in purdah even if they came to their senses years ago. That kind of insistence on ideological purity strikes me as a good way to lose votes, not gain them.

(Yeah, yeah, Drum, and you were one of those people in 2002. Of course you don't think this should be a litmus test. True enough. But do you really want to send a message that supporting the war was not just a mistake, but something so heinous that it makes you unfit for higher office? I don't think so.)

Anyway, it's a sign of how bored we all are that we're all chattering about this so much. I'm sure I'll keep chattering too, but just for the record: I don't think it matters much who Obama chooses. He isn't likely to carry even a single additional state because he did or didn't choose Biden or anyone else as his running mate. And to make it worse, even if his VP pick does make a difference, campaigns are such nonlinear events that it's impossible to predict that difference ahead of time. It's sort of a fun discussion to have, but every possible candidate has a dozen pros and a dozen cons that seem a lot more important at the time than they really are. In the end, VPs rarely swing either particular regions or particular demographics, so Obama's choice probably isn't as important as a lot of people think it is.

And as long as I'm making grand pronouncements that quite possibly might make me look like an idiot in the near future, here's another one: among the states Bush won in 2004, I think Obama will win Ohio, Iowa, Virginia, Colorado, New Mexico, and maybe even Arkansas. That's even accounting for the fact that he'll lose a few points in some of those states for purely racial reasons. This might officially make me the most optimistic Obama supporter in the world, but there you have it.

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100 YEARS....Matt Lauer asked John McCain this morning if he now had a better idea of when U.S. troops could come home from Iraq. "No," McCain said, "but that's not too important."

100 years redux? Actually, yes, because McCain said exactly the same thing he said the last time he got in hot water over this: he's OK with keeping troops in Iraq forever as long as it becomes as peaceful as garrison duty in Okinawa or Germany. Unfortunately, in typical McCain style, that's where he stops. He never explains how Iraq is going to be fully pacified when a large and growing majority of its residents are outraged at the idea of a long-term U.S. presence. He just doesn't get the Catch-22: he wants Iraq to become Okinawa Jr., but as long as we're there the violence is never going to stop and Iraq will stay Iraq. Casualties will never be reduced to zero.

And there's a broader question anyway: even if casualties did drop to zero, would we really want a long-term neocolonial presence in Iraq anyway? Why? To protect the oil? That was pumping just fine before we were there. To fight al-Qaeda? They're in Pakistan. To ensure a presence in the area? We already have bases in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and elsewhere. How the hell many do we need?

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QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Owen Cargol, then president of Northern Arizona University, explaining his locker room conduct to a fellow employee:

In a subsequent e-mail to the employee, Cargol described himself as "a rub-your-belly, grab-your-balls, give-you-a-hug, slap-your-back, pull-your-dick, squeeze-your-hand, cheek-your-face, and pat-your-thigh kind of guy."

Uh huh. You'll be unsurprised to know that Cargol was considered an ideal choice by the Coalition Provisional Authority to become the first chancellor of the American University of Iraq last year. Via Henry Farrell.

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LONG-TERM BASES....The Washington Post reports that the Iraqi government — not the faction that hates us, but the faction that supposedly likes us — is pretty unhappy about the status-of-forces treaty the Bush administration is trying to negotiate with them:

"The Americans are making demands that would lead to the colonization of Iraq," said Sami al-Askari, a senior Shiite politician on parliament's foreign relations committee who is close to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "If we can't reach a fair agreement, many people think we should say, 'Goodbye, U.S. troops. We don't need you here anymore.' "

....In Iraq, the willingness to consider calling for the departure of American troops represents a major shift for members of the U.S.-backed government. Maliki this week visited Iran, where Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, urged him to reject any long-term security arrangements with the United States.

I guess my honest opinion is that this is probably negotiating bluster more than anything else. Maliki, in fact, does need us in Iraq, and he knows that we know it. Still, as recently as last year Maliki wouldn't even have offered up bluster, so things really have changed since then. And the biggest change is this: public opinion in Iraq, stoked largely by the Sadrists, is now so opposed to a long-term American presence that Maliki feels like he has to win some significant concessions on this score merely to keep from being tossed out of power. Needless to say, this bodes poorly for our long-term chances in Iraq.

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June 10, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

CULTURE OF DEBT....This isn't exactly what I've come to expect from David Brooks, but today he decries the fact that "the social norms and institutions that encouraged frugality and spending what you earn have been undermined" and then goes on to name names:

The agents of destruction are many. State governments have played a role. They aggressively hawk their lottery products, which some people call a tax on stupidity.

....Payday lenders have also played a role. They seductively offer fast cash — at absurd interest rates — to 15 million people every month.

Credit card companies have played a role. Instead of targeting the financially astute, who pay off their debts, they've found that they can make money off the young and vulnerable. Fifty-six percent of students in their final year of college carry four or more credit cards.

Congress and the White House have played a role. The nation's leaders have always had an incentive to shove costs for current promises onto the backs of future generations. It's only now become respectable to do so.

Wall Street has played a role. Bill Gates built a socially useful product to make his fortune. But what message do the compensation packages that hedge fund managers get send across the country?

I doubt that I'd end up agreeing with Brooks 100% about how to address this problem, but this isn't a bad start. It's a worthwhile column to read.

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McCAIN ON ABORTION....One of the inexplicable side effects of John McCain's maverick reputation is the number of people who believe — or, perhaps, desperately want to believe — that he's basically pretty moderate on abortion rights. Columnist Froma Harrop is one of them, but Steve Benen sets the record straight:

First, Harrop is willing to gamble, but pro-choice Democrats have to know better....[Harrop] concludes that McCain's voting record of complete and total opposition to reproductive rights for nearly a quarter century is insincere, and once in the White House, he'll suddenly transform into a moderate. This is sheer fantasy.

Second, McCain is going to great lengths to prove how completely wrong Harrop really is. Indeed, McCain is telling anyone who will listen that he'd be even further to the right than Bush on this issue, subtly criticizing Griswold, and by extension, the very notion of a right to privacy.

....And third, it's utterly foolish to narrowly focus the inquiry to the Supreme Court. McCain is practically desperate to stack the court with more far-right justices — his active support for Bork wasn't an accident — but if we take a more general look at McCain and women's issues, we see that McCain will maintain the global gag order, supports the court's ruling on Ledbetter, has expressed no interest in civil rights protections for women, and has voted against everything from requiring health care plans to cover birth control to international family planning funding to public education for emergency contraception.

McCain tends to use soothing, nonconfrontational language when he talks about social issues, but his actual record on abortion is about as hardline conservative as you can get. A lot of moderates who like McCain seem to be averting their gaze from this and trying to persuade themselves that it's all just politics and the real McCain is a lot like them: not a big fan of abortion, maybe, but not really extreme about it either. Unfortunately, it ain't so. If McCain gets into office, his record is pretty clear: he'll do everything he can to reduce or eliminate access to abortion, starting with poor women and working his way up. Read Steve's whole post for more.

Kevin Drum 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (82)

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By: Kevin Drum

PERMANENT PRESENCE....Juan Cole on Saturday:

Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that the Da'wa (Islamic Mission) Party has decisively split. It is the party of the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The new branch, Da'wa- National Reform, has been formed by former PM Ibrahim Jaafari.... Al-Hayat estimated that at least 10 members of parliament have also defected to the new party led by Jaafari.

Those 10 members of Da'wa- National Reform in parliament have joined a new political bloc consisting of the Sadrists (30 MPs), the Iraqi List (24), National Dialogue (11), Islamic Virtue Party (Fadhila) (15). These 90 MPs oppose the soft partition of Iraq and generally have a strong Iraqi nationalist orientation. Several have expressed opposition to the US-Iraqi security agreement now being negotiated.

In Iran on Monday:

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki concluded a three-day visit to Iran after meeting Monday with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who warned that the continued presence of U.S. troops was "the main obstacle on the way to progress and prosperity in Iraq."

....Khamenei and other Iranian politicians have repeatedly urged Maliki's government not to sign a status of forces agreement being negotiated with the United States. The agreement would provide a legal framework for the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq after the United Nations mandate expires at the end of this year.

Later the same day in Washington:

The Bush administration is conceding for the first time that the United States may not finish a complex security agreement with Iraq before President Bush leaves office.

Faced with stiff Iraqi opposition, it is "very possible" the U.S. may have to extend an existing U.N. mandate, said a senior administration official close to the talks....Iraqi officials have raised a number of objections to the draft documents, both publicly and privately. And they are now suggesting that the latest proposal isn't even worth submitting to their parliament for approval.

On Monday two Iraqi lawmakers who saw the proposed draft said the document, put forward Sunday, said it seeks to address some of Iraq's concerns. It adds an explicit promise that U.S. forces in Iraq will not attack neighboring countries and that Iraqi authorities will be notified in advance of any action by U.S. ground forces, the lawmakers said.

....Hadi al-Amri, head of the Badr Organization, a pro-government Shiite party with close ties to Iran, said the latest draft was still unacceptable, and warned that the positions and interests of the two sides are so far apart that any kind of agreement is "impossible."

There's literally no one outside the Bush administration itself that supports any kind of permanent U.S. presence in Iraq. No one, that is, except for John McCain. But don't call him McBush just because he supports Bush's Iraq policy, Bush's tax policies, Bush's foreign policy, and Bush's social policies. That would be unfair.

Kevin Drum 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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By: Kevin Drum

SEBELIUS....Yesterday I mentioned Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius as a short-list contender to be Barack Obama's running mate. If you're curious to learn more about her, head over to the Huffington Post where Sam Stein runs down her pluses and minuses.

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By: Kevin Drum

CHARTERS IN LA....The California Charter Schools Association has released a study showing that charter schools in Los Angeles outperform city-run schools:

"It's pretty significant that seven out of 10 charters actually outperform their most similarly matched district public school," said Caprice Young, chief executive of the charter schools association, citing one finding in the report. She said the study was intended to answer the question parents are most likely to ask: How does their local charter school stack up against the nearest comparable regular schools?

....The study found that charters, on average, were improving their test scores at a faster clip than traditional schools. However, it also found a big difference in achievement between "mature" charters — at least 6 years old — and those more recently established. The older charters scored significantly higher, leading the association to call for patience in judging young charter schools.

There are at least a couple of huge caveats here. First, the study was done by a charter advocacy group. Second, trying to match up "comparable" schools is really, really hard. In fact, it's close to impossible, especially with small sample sizes, so even if CCSA's study is legit, its results still might be an artifact of differences in where the schools are located or in the specific ethnic makeups of their neighborhoods, rather than differences in teaching methods.

Still, it's encouraging news if the results can be confirmed. Done properly, charter schools have the potential to be a good deal. If they can figure out a way to outperform LAUSD schools, more power to them.

Kevin Drum 10:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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By: Kevin Drum

CRIME AND POVERTY....In the Atlantic this month, Hannah Rosin writes about a mysterious increase in crime taking place not in the inner cities of New York or LA, but in the suburbs of medium sized cities across the country. Cities like Memphis:

Memphis has always been associated with some amount of violence. But why has Elvis's hometown turned into America's new South Bronx? [Lieutenant Doug] Barnes thinks he knows one big part of the answer, as does the city's chief of police. A handful of local criminologists and social scientists think they can explain it, too. But it's a dismal answer, one that city leaders have made clear they don't want to hear. It's an answer that offers up racial stereotypes to fearful whites in a city trying to move beyond racial tensions. Ultimately, it reaches beyond crime and implicates one of the most ambitious antipoverty programs of recent decades.

Uh oh. I have a sinking feeling I can guess what's coming. And sure enough:

Early every Thursday, Richard Janikowski drives to Memphis's Airways Station for the morning meeting of police precinct commanders....A criminologist with the University of Memphis, Janikowski has established an unusually close relationship with the city police department. From the police chief to the beat cop, everyone knows him as "Dr. J," or "GQ" if he's wearing his nice suit. When his researchers are looking for him, they can often find him outside the building, having a smoke with someone in uniform.

....About five years ago, Janikowski embarked on a more ambitious project. He'd built up enough trust with the police to get them to send him daily crime and arrest reports, including addresses and types of crime. He began mapping all violent and property crimes, block by block, across the city. "These cops on the streets were saying that crime patterns are changing," he said, so he wanted to look into it.

....When his map was complete, a clear if strangely shaped pattern emerged....Janikowski might not have managed to pinpoint the cause of this pattern if he hadn't been married to Phyllis Betts, a housing expert at the University of Memphis.

....About six months ago, they decided to put a hunch to the test. Janikowski merged his computer map of crime patterns with Betts's map of Section 8 rentals. Where Janikowski saw a bunny rabbit, Betts saw a sideways horseshoe ("He has a better imagination," she said). Otherwise, the match was near-perfect. On the merged map, dense violent-crime areas are shaded dark blue, and Section 8 addresses are represented by little red dots. All of the dark-blue areas are covered in little red dots, like bursts of gunfire. The rest of the city has almost no dots.

Their basic conclusion is simple: the goal of Section 8 is to get rid of inner city high-rises and disperse poor residents into other parts of the city. Eliminate areas of concentrated poverty, goes the thinking (those where more than 40% of residents are poor), and you'll eliminate many of the pathologies associated with poverty too. But that turned out to be only half true. Crime did go down in the city cores where this happened, but the number of areas of moderate poverty (20-40% poor) went up, and the crime in these areas went up too. Inner city gangs simply reformed elsewhere.

This is a depressing story, and not one that has a conclusion yet. It's certainly not a blanket condemnation of Section 8, which may simply need more time to affect a problem that's been generations in the making. In fact, if you read the whole story one of the things that comes through is the need to expand programs like Section 8 so that people aren't simply being dumped into new neighborhoods, and to improve the use of "cops on the dots" policing programs that have been successful in larger cities. Still, sobering stuff, and worth a read.

Kevin Drum 10:23 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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By: Kevin Drum

ENDING THE ADDICTION....Amory Lovins on reducing our oil use:

MJ: So how could Washington best cut fuel consumption?

AL: ....For cars, the most effective thing would be a "feebate": In the showroom, less-efficient models would have a corresponding fee, while the more-efficient ones would get a rebate paid for by the fees. That way when choosing what model you want you would pay attention to fuel savings over its whole life, not just the first year or two. It turns out that the automakers can actually make more money this way because they will want to get their cars from the fee zone into the rebate zone by putting in more technology. The technology has a higher profit margin than the rest of the vehicle.

This is one of my favorite ideas, but I almost never it see it get any love. It's revenue neutral, it's progressive, it's simple to implement, it incentivizes good behavior without any draconian regulation, and it's highly effective. So why the low profile? Is it considered a political nonstarter? Or what?

Here's a further suggestion: require stickers to list the estimated cost of fuel consumption over a five year period. The estimate doesn't have to be perfect, just close enough to make it clear to consumers how much more one car costs than another over its life. Upside: it's free. Downsides: none that I can think of.

Kevin Drum 1:27 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (91)

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June 9, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

VEEP TALK....A couple of weeks ago Steve Teles wrote a post arguing that Jim Webb would be Barack Obama's best choice for vice president. You can read the whole thing here, but most of it boils down to the fact that Webb is a guy who can appeal to blue-collar, military-loving, Reagan Democrats, and Obama needs that. Today, Eve Fairbanks says that isn't really true:

Thanks to their analogous symbolic roles, Webb and Obama have one more politically important and bizarre similarity: They appeal to the same voters, wine-track Democrats who come out in unprecedented droves to vote for a black man or a hillbilly white because they want their party to be bigger than themselves. While you'd expect Webb to attract poor, rural beer-trackers, in his 2006 Senate race he didn't do any better than the previous Democratic candidate had among Appalachian voters in southwestern Virginia; instead, he was propelled to victory by Northern Virginia suburbanites — Obama's base.

This reinforces my skepticism about Webb as VP. My biggest issue with Webb is that I think he'd be too obvious a choice: the press corps would (probably correctly) immediately interpret it as a sign that Obama was picking Webb to shore up his military cred, and this would be a tacit admission that he agrees with McCain's fundamental criticism that he doesn't have CinC credentials. In much the same way that picking an ostentatiously young running mate would merely highlight McCain's age, picking an ostentatiously hawkish running mate would merely highlight Obama's lack of military experience.

But if Fairbanks is right, it's even worse that that: not only would Obama end up ceding ground he shouldn't, but in return he wouldn't actually get any help among the target audience. He'd just end up attracting the same people he already attracts.

Overall, I don't have any strong feelings about who Obama ought to pick right now — though I don't think either Hillary Clinton or John Edwards would be good choices (and I'm not sure either of them wants the job), and I'm not keen on Webb either. Based on a fairly low information "blink" kind of test, I guess my top picks right now are Joe Biden and Kathleen Sebelius. But I could be pretty easily converted to half a dozen other candidates too.

Kevin Drum 4:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (134)

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By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA vs. McCAIN....Gallup's latest Obama-McCain tracking poll shows exactly what you'd expect: now that Obama is firmly the Democratic candidate, he's making up considerable ground. There will be more ups and downs, especially around the conventions, but I'll bet that Obama never has much less than a five point lead for the rest of the campaign.

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THE AIR FORCE TAKES CENTER STAGE....Publicly, Defense Secretary Robert Gates says that his recent firings of the Air Force's top civilian and military leaders was due to a couple of incidents of mishandling of nuclear components. But Noah Shachtman says Gates's feud with the Air Force has roots that go back to his decision to prevent them from taking over almost all of the military's big unmanned aircraft:

Things only got more tense when Gates said that the future of conflict is in small, "asymmetric" wars — wars in which the Air Force takes a back seat to ground forces. Then Gates noted that the Air Force's most treasured piece of gear, the F-22 stealth fighter, basically has no role in the war on terror. And when a top Air Force general said the service was planning on buying twice as many of the jets — despite orders from Gates and the rest of the civilian leadership — he was rebuked for "borderline insubordination."

Relations between Gates and the Air Force chiefs soured further when the Defense Secretary called for more spy drones to be put into the skies above Iraq and Afghanistan. The Air Force complained that all those extra flight hours were turning the roboplane's remote pilots into virtual "prisoners." Gates then publicly chastised the service during the drone buildup, comparing it to "pulling teeth."

....Despite reports you may be reading elsewhere, this firing was not about nukes or missiles, well-placed sources say. "Far and away the biggest issue was the budget stuff, not the nuclear stuff. The UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] fight, the F-22 deal... Gates really didn't appreciate it," one of those sources tells Danger Room. Now, with the botched missile and nuke shipments, "the SecDef [Secretary of Defense] has good cover to do something that suits him bureaucratically."

This strikes me as an area that has the potential to put some distance between Barack Obama and John McCain on an important national security issue. What should be the role of the Air Force going forward? Do Obama and McCain buy in to the notion that air superiority over China and Russia should be a prime goal? Or do they agree with Gates that we'd do better to focus on other kinds of fights? This is one of those occasional issues that's fairly modest on its own merits, but that forces candidates to address big issues in order to get to an answer. And since the answer has to be fairly concrete, it limits the amount of tap dancing they can do on the bigger stuff too.

Politically, I don't know if either candidate stands to benefit from taking sides in this dispute. And who knows? Maybe it would turn out they agreed with each other. But it would be illuminating to find out.

Kevin Drum 2:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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By: Paul Glastris

ABUSE OF POWER PANEL... It's pretty clear, from news like this, that John McCain intends to pocket many of the constitutionally dubious powers that George Bush and Dick Cheney claimed for the executive branch. But what about Barack Obama? If he's elected president, will he A] publicly disavow these extra powers (like expanded use of signing statements to override Congress) that his predecessor claimed, or B] stay largely mum about those powers, neither using nor disowning them, thereby keeping them "in reserve" for use if and when he feels he needs them? If he chooses A, would that make it any harder for future presidents to assert such powers? If he chooses B, will that effectively strengthen his and any future president's claims to them? How much, in other words, should we be worried that the current administration's abuses of power will be baked into our system of government, no matter who prevails in November? And if we have good reason to be worried, what should we be doing now to prevent that from happening?

I don't have very well-informed answers to these questions. But they're among those l hope to ask at an event I'll be moderating tomorrow here in DC, and if you're in the area, you're invited to come. It's a panel discussion sponsored by Common Cause with four noted experts on executive powers, rule of law and other such matters--Stanley Brand, former counsel for the House of Representatives; Liz Holtzman, former Member of Congress and author of The Impeachment of George W. Bush; John Shattuck, CEO of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and former Assistant Secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor under President Clinton; and Jonathan Turley, law professor at George Washington University.

The event will be held from 11 AM to 1 PM at the Jack Morton Auditorium (where Crossfire used to be taped) at George Washington University, 805 21st St. NW, Washington. For more information, and to reserve a seat, click here. Should be an interesting discussion.

Paul Glastris 2:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE TOWNHALLS....Ezra Klein coments on the fact that neither Obama nor McCain has any interest in allowing the press to moderate their proposed series of townhall meetings:

This is possibly the first time in memory that the media's actually suffered for doing a bad job, They pissed off both candidates with their shoddy debate moderation during the primary campaign, and so now they're being shunted aside from the bigger prize: The townhalls in the general. It's sort of beautiful.

It is sort of beautiful. On the other hand, I'm going to wait and see how these things turn out before I cheer too loudly. As bad as the press performance was — especially in last year's MSNBC Hillary pile-on and this year's ABC flag lapel pin lollapalooza — it's possible that allowing the candidates to turn these townhalls into 90-minute commercials could end up pretty badly too. After all, recent debates aside, the most common reason for shutting out the press isn't a principled aversion to trivial questions, it's a highly practical aversion to being forced to answer difficult questions. The decline of the White House press room may be partly the press's fault, but it's even more the fault of presidential communications shops that have gotten astronomically more sophisticated about shutting down the media and limiting presidential exposure to highly controlled, camera-friendly events over the past few decades. This isn't a trend we should be celebrating.

Anyway, not saying this experiment will be a bust, and I think unmoderated townhalls are absolutely worth a try. But this isn't 1858 and these candidates aren't Lincoln and Douglas. Caveat emptor.

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

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By: Kevin Drum

WINNING OHIO....So how does John McCain win Ohio? In the previous post I basically said it was impossible, but as near as I can tell McCain has already settled on a strategy: he's going to run a very negative campaign in which he hammers on Obama as (a) naive about foreign policy, (b) unqualified to command the military, and (c) ready to surrender to al-Qaeda and squander the sacrifices of thousands of brave American soldiers. His supporters will help out with plenty of talk about terrorist fist jabs and "slips of the tongue" in which they call him Osama on national TV.

I don't think it'll work, but it's pretty obvious that this is the direction things are going. McCain seems likely to make this into a pretty ugly campaign.

Kevin Drum 11:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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By: Kevin Drum

McCAIN'S BOX....Peter Wallsten has a good piece in the LA Times today about John McCain's problem with social conservatives. He begins with an anecdote:

As the architect of Ohio's ballot measure against gay marriage, Phil Burress helped draw thousands of conservative voters to the polls in 2004, most of whom also cast ballots to reelect President Bush. So Burress was not surprised when two high-level staffers from John McCain's campaign dropped by his office, asking for his help this fall.

What surprised Burress was how badly the meeting went. He says he tried but failed to make the McCain team understand how much work remained to overcome the skepticism of social conservatives. Burress ended up cutting off the campaign officials as they spoke. "He doesn't want to associate with us," Burress now says of McCain, "and we don't want to associate with him."

The press has always made too much of McCain's alleged maverickiness. The LA Times itself tried to force feed this narrative to its readers yesterday, suggesting the McCain wasn't really all that different from Barack Obama. But as Matt Yglesias points out, even the Times was forced to concede that McCain holds doctrinaire conservative positions on, among other things, Iraq, Iran, health care, taxes, trade, abortion rights, and gun control. There's really just not much maverickiness there, and certainly not much similarity to Obama.

That said, though, there's no question that McCain's heart just isn't in it when it comes to social conservatism. On issues like gay rights and immigration he's pretty moderate for a Republican, and even on abortion, where his record is pure conservative, his rhetoric tends to be mild. He was obviously uncomfortable begging for Jerry Falwell's support last year, and although he was happy enough to get some high profile evangelical support this year from John Hagee and Rod Parsley, he was also happy to throw them under the bus pretty quickly when their odious views finally got picked up by the mainstream media and became a minor embarrassment. That experience will almost certainly cause McCain to keep even more of an arm's length from evangelicals during the campaign than he would have anyway.

Given all this, it's hard for me to see how he wins Ohio — the subject of Wallsten's piece. George Bush only won it by a whisker in 2004, and Obama is a much more formidable candidate than John Kerry was. Add to that GOP fatigue, fundraising woes, and the economic downturn, and then add to that lukewarm support from evangelicals for a candidate who's obviously not one of them, and it's hard to see how McCain doesn't run half a million votes or more behind Bush's numbers. Even if you cut that in half because there are some voters who just won't punch the button for the black guy, McCain is doomed. And if he doesn't win Ohio, there's no way he picks up enough votes elsewhere to make up for it.

In a nutshell, this is McCain's problem, and I don't see any way out of the box for him. His entire persona is based on being a moderate, reasonable guy, and if he keeps that up he loses a big chunk of the evangelical vote. But if he tries to move right and pick up the evangelicals, the independents will desert him in droves and vote for Obama. He just has no way of putting together a winning coalition.

Kevin Drum 11:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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By: Kevin Drum

TOMATOES....Say what you will about the MSM, but they still have their uses. Today the LA Times solves the mystery of why tomatoes suddenly disappeared from my local supermarket over the weekend:

Restaurants, fast-food chains and supermarkets across Southern California removed fresh red Roma, plum and red round tomatoes from their shelves and took them off their menus this weekend as the U.S. government warned of a widening outbreak of salmonella....Consumers may continue to eat cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, tomatoes sold with the vine still attached and tomatoes grown at home, the FDA statement said.

On the other hand, I suppose I could have just asked the produce guy, who was busily putting out tomatoes with the vine still attached, and he would have told me what was going on too. It just didn't occur to me.

Kevin Drum 10:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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June 8, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

HILLARY AS VEEP?....Big Tent Democrat is happy that Democrats are finally united behind a candidate, but warns of stormy weather ahead:

I'd like to interrupt this Unity Day message with a small reminder to the Barack Obama campaign and the Democratic Party — unless he picks Hillary Clinton as his running mate — the day he announces his Vice Presidential candidate will be a day of disunity.

....Obama is in a tight race with John McCain and needs a unified Democratic Party and if he is set on NOT picking Hillary Clinton as his VP, I hope he has a plan for re-unifying the Party the day after he insists on NOT unifying, indeed, in dividing the Party by not choosing Hillary Clinton as his VP.

BTD has been banging this particular drum for a long time, and I happen to think he's wrong about it. The party will unite just fine around any reasonable VP choice as long as Hillary supports the ticket and rallies her fans to the Obama campaign — and I think she will.

But I have a different question: what makes anyone think that Hillary wants to be Obama's VP? I just don't see it. On a social level, it's hard to picture someone of Hillary's age, experience, and temperament being willing to play second fiddle to a young guy like Obama. On a political level, she has more clout in the Senate than she would as vice president. On a personal level, Obama and Clinton (and their respective teams) just don't seem to like each other much.

Now, maybe she wants the VP slot anyway. Who knows? But I think she'd be more effective in the Senate, have way more freedom of movement, have more career opportunities, and would do more for the party by helping to hold down a second branch of government than she would by being Obama's shadow. Anyone disagree?

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By: Kevin Drum

PLAYING A WHOLE DIFFERENT GAME....After watching Rafael Nadal take apart Djokovic on Friday, I didn't really expect that he'd have much trouble dispatching Roger Federer today at the French Open. But one, three, and love? Holy cow.

Kevin Drum 11:47 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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June 7, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

BOTSWANA....Do I have any fans of Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series in the audience? Here's a tidbit about the books that I learned while I was on vacation.

The guy who runs the B&B we stayed at in Somerset used to work for a large multinational and was stationed in Botswana for many years. He still visits regularly and his son runs a tourist safari there. One evening we got to talking about Botswana and I asked him if the depiction in the books was accurate. His answer: "Dead on perfect." Just thought I'd pass that along.

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By: Kevin Drum

HILLARY'S SPEECH....I just finished watching Hillary's concession speech and it seemed pretty strong to me. I'm sure folks like Sullivan will find something to carp about (perhaps that the speech was, admittedly, a little heavy on self-congratulation), but it was basically a pretty good balance between appealing to her supporters (hence the self-congratulation) and throwing her full support behind Barack Obama. We all know Hillary isn't the greatest public speaker in the world, and as usual she sounded a little forced at times, but overall it was as much as anyone could have expected, I think. She did a good job, and it's the kind of speech she probably should have given more of during the campaign itself.

Like a lot of people, I wish Hillary had pulled out of the race earlier. But I never got too bent out of shape that she didn't. I always figured that as long as she didn't make the nomination into a convention floor fight (and I didn't think she would), the damage from the extended campaign would be pretty minor. And that's pretty much how it turned out: Obama is in fine shape, Hillary's attacks were mostly fairly routine for a tight race like this (bloggers who have gone ballistic over her behavior really need to get a reality check on this score), and supporters on both sides went over the line several times. There was both race-baiting and misogyny on full display in this campaign, and on that score neither side has much to be proud of.

But that's not why she lost and Obama won, anyway. I agree with Katha Pollitt and others that the war was probably the key issue that gave Obama the wedge he needed to mount a challenge. Beyond that there was just the plain fact that Obama ran a very, very good campaign and Hillary ran a very, very mediocre one.

We'll see what happens next, but I fully expect Hillary to work tirelessly and genuinely for Obama. I don't think she's holding out hope for 2012, I don't think she wants to be Obama's vice president, and I don't think she's going to try to subtly sabotage his campaign.

In any case, it's over. Any Clinton supporters who plan to stay home or vote for John McCain are flat crazy and need to return to reality ASAP. Obama supporters who can't let go of the Hillary hatred need to do the same. On to November.

Kevin Drum 1:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (144)

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By: Kevin Drum

GUEST BLOGGING....Before I get back into the swing of things and forget, I want to thank the five guest bloggers who held down the fort while I was gone:

These are all daily reads for me, and all of them are worth bookmarking. Give 'em a look on their own sites if you haven't done so already.

Kevin Drum 12:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE LAST LOOPHOLE....The California Supreme Court's recent decision on gay marriage did not, as you might suppose, say that the state was required to perform same-sex weddings. What it said was that if the state performs any weddings at all, then it has to perform same-sex weddings too.

In other words, counties do have one option left to them if they really, really, don't want to sanction gay marriage: they can stop performing all civil weddings of any kind. Think that's farfetched? Tell it to Kern County Clerk Ann Barnett.

Kevin Drum 11:46 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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By: Kevin Drum

ROUNDUP UP OF PREVIOUS COUPLE OF WEEKS....I'm going to resist the temptation to go back and comment on all the stuff I missed while I was gone, but I understand that while I was in Europe pretending that American politics didn't exist, a former Bush press secretary wrote a book admitting that Bush was, um, not entirely forthright in his pre-war dealings with the American public. A few days later the Senate Intelligence committee reported that Bush was, um, not entirely forthright in his pre-war dealings with the American public.

Needless to say, I'm shocked. But apparently the real news from the past couple of weeks is that Barack and Michelle Obama bumped their fists together at a campaign event. That's news that produces video you can use! And use. And use. But I've only seen it three or four times since I turned the TV back on, so I hope we get another week or two of coverage of this momentous event.

Kevin Drum 10:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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June 6, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....SPECIAL UK EDITION....I'm back. Jetlagged, but back. Full service blogging will resume tomorrow, but in the meantime here's a special vacation edition of catblogging.

We spent the second half of our holiday in Britain, and on Saturday we drove up to visit Wells, home to one of England's loveliest cathedrals. Also, it turns out, home to Louis the cathedral cat, pictured on the left. My mother found him curled up on the bishop's seat in the choir, and a bit later when we went outside we found him again, sunning himself in the churchyard. You can find pictures of Louis from other tourists here, here, here, and here.

Our base of operations in England was the village of Woolavington, where we stayed at Chestnut House, a wonderful B&B run by Paul and Verena Brandon. Highly recommended if you're looking for a nice place to stay in Somerset, not least because it's home to Poppy and Cinnamon, two very friendly cats. That's Poppy on the right, wandering around on the roof, one of her favorite places. In fact, there was a sign in my (second story) room warning me that if I left my window open at night Poppy might come visiting, and one night she did exactly that, jumping into my bed around 5 am and purring up a storm before she decided to curl up by my feet for her early morning nap. She also joined us for breakfast every morning and greeted us when we got home each evening from the confines of her favorite chair.

Coming tomorrow: actual political blogging from me! Coming next Friday: the return of Inkblot and Domino!

UPDATE: I almost forgot. It turns out that dead cats are not the answer to global warming. Just thought I'd lay that rumor to rest.

Kevin Drum 2:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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By: Hilzoy

THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW ...

December 20, 2007:

"1. Does the president have inherent powers under the Constitution to conduct surveillance for national security purposes without judicial warrants, regardless of federal statutes?

McCain: There are some areas where the statutes don't apply, such as in the surveillance of overseas communications. Where they do apply, however, I think that presidents have the obligation to obey and enforce laws that are passed by Congress and signed into law by the president, no matter what the situation is.

Okay, so is that a no, in other words, federal statute trumps inherent power in that case, warrantless surveillance?

McCain: I don't think the president has the right to disobey any law."

Now:

"A top adviser to Senator John McCain says Mr. McCain believes that President Bush's program of wiretapping without warrants was lawful, a position that appears to bring him into closer alignment with the sweeping theories of executive authority pushed by the Bush administration legal team.

In a letter posted online by National Review this week, the adviser, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, said Mr. McCain believed that the Constitution gave Mr. Bush the power to authorize the National Security Agency to monitor Americans' international phone calls and e-mail without warrants, despite a 1978 federal statute that required court oversight of surveillance."

Here's the letter posted to NRO; here's Andrew McCarthy discussing it, and here's Glenn Greenwald. Glenn sums it up:

"These days, in order to please the self-proclaimed "small government" conservative movement, a candidate must now vow to spy on Americans with no warrants or oversight of any kind; reserve the right to torture; and even break the law -- ignore popular will as expressed through acts of Congress -- whenever such lawbreaking is deemed beneficial. Those are now defining planks in the limited-government "conservative" movement."

Yep. It's a strange, strange world. To see how a real believer in Constitutional limitations on government power answered the Dec. 2007 questionnaire cited above, see here.

Hilzoy 10:38 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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By: Neil Sinhababu

TEN GOOD REASONS FOR AN OBAMA/EDWARDS TICKET....If you're a progressive Democrat, you should want John Edwards to be Barack Obama's vice president. I've made some of these points before, but now I've set up the slideshow! So enjoy:

10. Because he's the most Vice-Presidential candidate we have. For VP, you want a powerful campaigner who can use the media spotlight associated with the position to promote progressive ends and support the presidential candidate's major initiatives. Edwards is a good campaigner and speaker who knows how to focus media attention into places where it needs to be (see: poverty and health care). I'd contrast him with someone like Bob Graham, recently spotlighted in this space, who's much more the kind of guy you want in the Cabinet -- a quietly effective smart old guy with few campaigning skills and non-camera-friendly tendencies.

9. Because economic issues are huge this year. Matthew Yglesias presents this chart in a post titled "Annals of GOP doom":
080602Finances1_pytfvbd%201
This isn't 2002, 2004, or 2006. Economic worries are bigger this year than they've been for the last 30 years. In better times, I'd be more sympathetic to Matt Stoller's case for Wes Clark, but this is time to capitalize completely on the issue that voters think is the most important by substantial margins -- the economy. Obama's Iraq foresight will serve us well on foreign policy, and we need somebody who can make working-class voters in the economically depressed Midwest see McCain's anti-worker record and vote Democratic. Nobody in our Two Americas does it better than John Edwards.

8. Because conciliating Clinton supporters with a Clintonite is a fool's errand.By historical standards, this actually hasn't been a particularly divisive primary -- only 1/4 of Clinton supporters said they wouldn't vote for Obama. By contrast, a full 51% of McCain supporters said they wouldn't vote for Bush in March 2000. They still voted for him enough to give him the election. Nobody means what they say when you ask them that question at the most emotional point in the process. It's one of the reasons why I don't get angry at Hillary supporters who say they'll sit this one out -- most of them will rethink that in cooler moments and make the right decision. So don't do outlandish things for party unity. You'll get it anyway.

And unless my reading of the psychology is totally confused, Hillary's core supporters are attached to Hillary herself, who is in many ways an inspiring and sympathetic figure. Ed Rendell, Evan Bayh, and even Wes Clark aren't what their dreams are made of. So even if you think we won't get party unity for some reason, please don't think you can get them to act like Hillary's on the ticket just by picking some dude who endorsed her. (As for picking Hillary herself, I lay out a bunch of reasons not to do that here.)

7. Because running with someone who repents his pro-war vote throws Obama's skills into full relief, and keeps the focus on 2002. There's no way Obama should pick an unrepentant Iraq War supporter like Clinton -- he needs a fellow war opponent to make broad and effective criticisms of the neocons who started the war. As long as Obama has someone who wholeheartedly supports his early antiwar position and is eager to praise his foresight, he'll be in good shape.

Republicans have a superfically plausible case to make about the surge, even if it in fact neglects the entire purpose of the surge (to make room for political reconciliation). By contrast, the 2002 Iraq vote is nearly impossible to defend, and disapproval of the original invasion is around 70% in most polls. As Justin Tiehen suggests, media coverage of the relationship between Obama, who foresaw all the dangers at the beginning, and Edwards, who now hopes to redeem his acknowledged error by going all-out in favor of his prescient ticketmate helps to keep focus in the place where the Republican position is obviously indefensible. (There's also a really nice regional / racial redemption story in here, if you're looking for it.)

6. Because Pennsylvania tells us that Edwards helps Obama more than a locally popular Democrat. Take a look at the polling data:
pasusapresvpmz6
How much does the Governor of Pennsylvania help us in his home state? Not as much as John Edwards does. Edwards is 3-5% better than Rendell in the state where Rendell is supposed to help us win. You don't pick John Edwards to help in the South or the Carolinas -- you pick him to help everywhere, because that's what he does. If you want more numbers, please go see OpenLeft's Paul Rosenberg, who concludes: "Edwards is superior to all other VP candidates by margins that persist in virtually every category in almost every state."

5. Because he did well in his last VP run. No major gaffes, and if only the Kerry campaign had followed his advice and hit back against the Swift Boaters, who knows where we'd be today?

as early as Aug. 5, when the Swifties were just getting traction, Edwards wanted to push back, hard. McCain had just told the Associated Press that the Swift Boat ads were "dishonest and dishonorable... the same kind of deal that was pulled on me." Edwards wanted to begin a speech, "I join with Senator McCain in calling on the president to condemn this dishonest and dishonorable ad." But Kerry headquarters said no. Stephanie Cutter, the boss of the Kerry communications shop, explained that the campaign didn't need to give the Swift Boat vets any more attention than they were already getting.

Dude knew how to play ball. As for his debate performance, a CBS poll of uncommitted voters -- the people you're trying to win over in a debate -- called it for Edwards 41-28. A before and after poll of the same voters also had him moving 1 percent of the vote from Bush to Kerry. And he's only gotten better with practice.

Some people complain that he didn't help Kerry in NC. But as the PA results above and the amazing MN results below suggest, it may just be that he helped Kerry everywhere to the point that North Carolina didn't stand out.

4. Elizabeth. The story of Elizabeth Edwards facing down cancer to keep fighting for everything she believes in is positively awe-inspiring. The more we hear about her in the coming months, the better.

3. Because you want a better health care plan. That's a link to Ezra Klein's classic article about Obama's not-quite-universal plan, which ends:

All the ingredients are in place for this to be a great plan -- a public insurance component, a commitment to universality, an understanding that coherence is better than fractiousness, a willingness to regulate the insurance industry -- but, in each case, at the last second, the policy is hedged before the fulfillment of its purpose. In this, Obama's plan is not dissimilar from Obama himself -- filled with obvious talent and undeniable appeal, sold with stunning rhetoric and grand hopes, but never quite delivering on the promises and potential. And so he remains the candidate of almosts. But as he told Morgan Miller back in March, there is time yet. And he is so very close.

If you want Obama to upgrade to a better plan, ask him to team up with the guy who had one. John Edwards introduced a plan for universal coverage very early in the campaign, pushed for it hard, and made the wonks cheer about how the goalposts had moved to the left. Unlike Obama's, it's a plan with a backdoor to single-payer. If you care about universal coverage, you want him in Obama's inner circle for designing the health care plan, and you want someone with his rhetorical talents on domestic issues to go around selling the plan to America.

2. Because Minnesota says that Obama/Edwards is well-nigh invincible. Here are the numbers:
vp-mn
Tim Pawlenty is the governor of Minnesota, and he's popular enough to add 10-13 points to McCain's score if he becomes the faux-maverick's VP. Against anybody except John Edwards, that is, who overwhelms Pawlenty. Even in Pawlenty's home state, where people know and like him best, they like Edwards better.

This is the acid test of VP electability advantage, and Edwards passes it like platinum. A Republican with huge local popularity does less for McCain than Edwards does for Obama, even thousands of miles from his sea-swelled Carolina home. If you want to win, you want John Edwards on the ticket.

1. Because you want him to be president in 2016. As Senator, he racked up a 100% NARAL rating while representing a solid red state (where he also defied fate by voting against the Flag Burning Amendment). Early on in this campaign, he introduced the health care and global warming plans that bid up the price of progressive support and made our activists cheer. He broke new ground on the left by rejecting the War on Terror framework when other major candidates wouldn't. His plans to reduce poverty in America, simplify taxes for 50 million Americans, and help poor people around the world were only a few of the great ideas coming out of his recent effort.

I once hoped that he'd set us on the road to single-payer (an outcome artfully built into his health care plan). Now I hope that he'll talk Obama into adopting that plan, help him pass it, and bring it to its happy conclusion ten or twelve years from now. Given the high chance of a non-old VP pick becoming president later, it's a serious possibility.

We're early in the process, and there's no telling who Obama's options are. And for all I know, Edwards might not want the job. (I don't read too much into people's denials of VP interest -- even if you want the VP slot, it's considered gauche to advertise your availability.) But it's a job that every progressive Democrat should want John Edwards to have -- not only because the data shows him to be hugely effective in helping us win the next election, but because there's no one better to set up as Obama's right-hand man and potential heir.

Neil Sinhababu 6:16 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (95)

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By: Hilzoy

TOM MAGUIRE'S WONDERFUL WORLD ...

Here's part of a New York Times story called "Many Blacks Find Joy in Unexpected Breakthrough":

"In his remarks Tuesday, Mr. Obama did not mention becoming the first American of color with a real chance at being president of the United States, and, of course, most of the Democrats who had voted for him were white. But for that very reason, many African-Americans exulted Wednesday in a political triumph that they believed they would never live to see. Many expressed hope that their children would draw strength from the moment.

"Not that we're so distraught, but our children need to be able to see a black adult as a leader for the country, so they can know we can reach for those same goals," said Wilhelmina Brown, 54, an account representative for U.S. Bank in St. Paul. "We don't need to give up at a certain level.""

This seems like something no one could take exception to. People are happy, and happiness is a good thing, right?

Not for Tom Maguire. He calls this "absurdity", and responds to the passage I just quoted as follows:

"How Japanese kids, Chinese kids, or Jewish kids ever make it out of bed in the morning, and why they bother, is left unexplained."

Read his whole post; it's all like that.

Why? One possibility, I suppose, is that Tom Maguire is one of those people who has a heart the size of a turnipseed, and as a result just enjoys raining on other people's parades. Perhaps if I looked through his archives, I'd find lots of posts like this, about all kinds of people:

Newspaper: Charles DeLuca, 78, of West Roxbury said: "Now that the Red Sox have finally won the World Series, I can die happy!"

Tom Maguire: This guy can't die happy unless his favorite baseball team wins the World Series? Call the waaahmbulance!

Or:

Newspaper: But the armed robbery hasn't spoiled the family Christmas. The people from the Gustavson's church pitched in to buy their children presents, and Santa himself came by to deliver them. "We're so grateful", Mr. Gustavson said. "Thanks to our church, my little girls won't have to go without presents this year, and that means the world to me."

Tom Maguire: Would someone please tell this bozo about property insurance?

Somehow, though, I doubt it. Tom Maguire has never struck me as this sort of grinch-like person. Which leaves me with a second possibility: something about the particular people described in the New York Times article set him off.

I wonder what it could be?

***

For the record: yes, I do mean to imply that the 'something' is race. That seems pretty clear from Tom's post. But I do not mean to imply that Tom Maguire is a racist. (I really don't.) As I have said before, I have no interest in figuring out what counts as racism and what does not. What I am interested in is the question: when does race play a role in people's thinking that it should not play? You need to figure out whether race plays such a role in your own thought if you want to answer the question: does something here need changing? That's the question I'm interested in. It's a further question whether, and when, that fact shows that there is something seriously wrong with you, above and beyond being human and fallible. I'm not interested in that question: I don't particularly want to get into questions of blame, which strike me as less important than changing what needs to be changed.

When the fact that people are black makes you respond to their happiness not with a smile, but with disdain; when you find yourself feigning ignorance of the reasons why blacks might have a harder time than other Americans believing that full equality of opportunity extends to them and their children; when you read into their comments about their children some sort of whiny demand that simply is not there;; when parents' concern that their kids have good role models stops looking completely normal and starts looking like the work of "the race hustlers", then I think that something does need changing.

Hilzoy 1:06 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (77)

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June 5, 2008
By: dday

BLACKMAIL?... When I read Patrick Cockburn's article yesterday about the "secret" agreement for the US military to remain in Iraq indefinitely I thought he was a little bit behind the story. The only place where the discovery that the US wanted permanent basing rights and air superiority and immunity from prosecution for their personnel was HERE, where we've all been dazzled by the election. The Iraqis have been fighting this agreement and making direct signals of moving away from it, calling for a national referendum on any agreement and demanding national sovereignty within it.

Now, the follow-up article shows what may be the Cheney Administration's strategy to get the Iraqis to sign it:

The US is holding hostage some $50bn (£25bn) of Iraq's money in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to pressure the Iraqi government into signing an agreement seen by many Iraqis as prolonging the US occupation indefinitely, according to information leaked to The Independent.

Unbelievable.

US negotiators are using the existence of $20bn in outstanding court judgments against Iraq in the US, to pressure their Iraqi counterparts into accepting the terms of the military deal, details of which were reported for the first time in this newspaper yesterday.

This is the very point that Bush used to hold up the defense bill with that pocket veto last winter. He claimed that the claims against the Iraqi government would bankrupt a young country on the road to democracy. Now we know why he vetoed that provision - he wanted to make sure he could use those lawsuits as a bargaining chip instead of having the money get paid out to the plaintiffs.

Iraq's foreign reserves are currently protected by a presidential order giving them immunity from judicial attachment but the US side in the talks has suggested that if the UN mandate, under which the money is held, lapses and is not replaced by the new agreement, then Iraq's funds would lose this immunity. The cost to Iraq of this happening would be the immediate loss of $20bn. The US is able to threaten Iraq with the loss of 40 per cent of its foreign exchange reserves because Iraq's independence is still limited by the legacy of UN sanctions and restrictions imposed on Iraq since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in the 1990s. This means that Iraq is still considered a threat to international security and stability under Chapter Seven of the UN charter. The US negotiators say the price of Iraq escaping Chapter Seven is to sign up to a new "strategic alliance" with the United States.

Read this entire article. This is blackmail, plain and simple. Bush and Cheney are demanding a permanent agreement that would basically turn Iraq into a client state of the US and corporate interests.

This is a hardball move. And a President Obama would not be able to extricate himself from such an agreement so easily. The neocons in the White House are laying the groundwork for a permanent presence, and using the tactics of an economic hitman to do it.

Amazing.

dday 10:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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By: dday

CLOSING IN... Karl Rove has been extremely slippery with what he was able to get away with while in service at the White House, but over the past couple weeks events have probably made him gulp and pull the collar away from his neck a couple times. Same with his former bosses.

First you have Scott McClellan basically admitting that Bush and Cheney gave the go-ahead to Scooter Libby to selectively leak contents of the 2002 Iraq NIE, and in the process the identity of Valerie Plame. Henry Waxman, upon hearing this, immediately set to work.

New revelations by former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan raise additional questions about the actions of the President and the Vice President. Mr. McClellan has stated that "[t]he President and Vice President directed me to go out there and exonerate Scooter Libby." He has also asserted that "the top White House officials who knew the truth - including Rove, Libby, and possibly Vice President Cheney - allowed me, even encouraged me, to repeat a lie." It would be a major breach of trust if the Vice President personally directed Mr. McClellan to mislead the public [...]

In his interview with the FBI, Mr. Libby stated that it was "possible" that Vice President Cheney instructed him to disseminate information about Ambassador Wilson's wife to the press. This is a significant revelation and, if true, a serious matter. It cannot be responsibly investigated without access to the Vice President's FBI interview.

The interviews with senior White House officials also raise other questions about the involvement of the Vice President. It appears from the interview reports that Vice President Cheney personally may have been the source of the information that Ms. Wilson worked for the CIA. Mr. Libby specifically identified the Vice President as the source of his information about Ms. Wilson. None of the other White House officials could remember how they learned this information [...]

In his FBI interview, Mr. McClellan told the FBI about discussions he had with the President and the Vice President. These passages, however, were redacted from the copies made available to the Committee. Similar passages were also redacted from other interviews.

There are no sound reasons for you to withhold the interviews with the President and the Vice President from the Committee or to redact passages like Mr. McClellan's discussions with the President and the Vice President. Mr. Fitzgerald's investigation is closed and he has indicated that it would be appropriate to share these records with the Committee. There has been no assertion of executive privilege.

Well sure, when you line it all up like that, it looks like a conspiracy.

What's more, Marcy Wheeler thinks Patrick Fitzgerald, who prosecuted the Plame case, might be ready to talk about allegations about his potential firing that came out during the investigation into the US Attorneys scandal.

Later in the Rezko trial, two witnesses said that Rezko told them not to worry about the criminal investigation, because the Republicans—Rove and Kjellander—would get rid of Fitzgerald. Hastert would install a friendly federal puppy who wouldn't bother the Combine, according to the testimony. "The federal prosecutor will no longer be the same federal prosecutor," testified Elie Maloof, a Rezko associate who is now a cooperating witness.

And a state pension board lawyer who has already pleaded guilty told grand jurors that Cellini told him "Bob Kjellander's job is to take care of the U.S. attorney." [...]

"If I owe a response [about the putsch to remove him from his job], I owe it to Congress, first," Fitzgerald said when asked about all this after the verdict.

But that's not all. As pressure grew on Rove for answers about the railroading of former Alabama governor Don Siegelman, prosecutors
abruptly dropped their appeal that sought longer sentences for him and former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy in the "bribery" case, also known as "a politician appointing an ally to a board." And 54 former state attorneys general from across the country filed a brief on Siegelman's behalf with the appellate court where he is contesting his conviction, asking that it be overturned. And now the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility is investigating.

The US Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) is investigating the conduct of at least two specific US Attorneys in the “selective prosecution” of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, sitting Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver E. Diaz Jr., and Mississippi attorney Paul Minor, according to attorneys close to the investigation.

In a May 5 letter sent to House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers (D-MI), OPR Director H. Marshall Jarrett wrote that OPR “currently has pending investigations involving, among others, allegations of selective prosecution relating to the prosecutions of Don Siegelman, Georgia Thompson, Oliver Diaz and Paul Minor.”

RAW STORY has confirmed that Leura Canary (above right), the US Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama, and Dunnica Lampton, the US Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi , are under investigation. Their offices are also being probed.

This leads back to Rove - the Siegelman case, the politicization of US Attorney positions, firing prosecutors who wouldn't play ball, leaking classified information in the Plame case. Rove is a slippery creature. But there are a lot of investigations all happening at once.

dday 6:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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By: Eric Martin

THE BATTLE OF EVERMORE...Patrick Cockburn's story has apparently caught the attention of some senior Bush administration officials:

The United States is not seeking permanent military bases in Iraq as it negotiates legal and military agreements with the Iraqi government, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker said here today.

Speaking at the State Department, Crocker called published reports that the United States is trying to set up permanent bases "flatly untrue."

"There clearly is going to be a need" for a U.S. and coalition military presence in Iraq beyond the end of the year, Crocker said. But the status of forces agreement, when adopted, "is not going to be forever, particularly as it related to the status and authority of coalition forces in Iraq," he said.

"So I'm very comfortable saying to you - to the Iraqis, to anyone who asks - that no, indeed, we are not seeking permanent bases, either explicitly or implicitly, by just intending to stay there indefinitely," he said.

The problem with Crocker's emphatic assurances is that it remains unclear whether there is a mechanism in the draft agreements that limits the duration of the US presence. For example, according to Al Hayat (via Badger), some Iraqi lawmakers are looking to model the US/Iraq arrangement on the one the US has with Turkey.

The Iraqi side posed a number of demands, including "disussions with the Iraqi government as a sovereign government, and the denial of any privileges to the American side without the agreement of the Iraqi government; the establishment of temporary American bases, whose existence would be reviewed each year, as is the case with the American bases in Turkey; the denial of movement of the Americans outside of their temporary bases without the knowledge and agreement of the Iraqi government; that financing in- and outflows for the American forces be subject to the Iraqi Central Bank; and that the American forces conduct no military operations without the written authorization of the Iraqi government". [emphasis added]

It's easy for Crocker and Bush administration officials to claim that we're not seeking "permanent" bases. The word suggests an infinite timeline that even a staunch imperialist could disavow in good faith. The question is, how contingent a presence? How limited a duration? To what extent will our presence be subject to periodic review by the Iraqi government?

The answers to those questions are far more important than the semantic two step surrounding the word "permanent."

Eric Martin 5:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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By: Hilzoy

WALKING THE WALK ...

From the NYT:

"Senator Barack Obama, as he becomes his party’s presumptive presidential nominee, is starting to exert his authority over the Democratic National Committee. A first step? New fund-raising guidelines.

Mr. Obama announced today that the D.N.C. will no longer accept contributions from federal lobbyists or political action committees, which follows the rules he established for his own campaign last year.

“I’ve sent a strong signal in this campaign by refusing the contributions of registered federal lobbyists and PACs and today,” Mr. Obama told an audience in Bristol, Va. “I’m announcing that going forward, the Democratic National Committee will uphold the same standard and won’t take another dime from Washington lobbyists or special interest PACs. They do not fund my campaign. They will not fund our party.”

He added: “We’re here today because we know that if we’re going to make real progress, this time must be different.”"

Good for him. Although, as this article points out, banning contributions and gifts from lobbyists won't get at some of the deeper sources of their influence, it's a very good start. (That article places a lot of emphasis on lobbyists' control of information; I think it probably underplays the importance of lobbyists contributions, bundled and otherwise, in terms of helping to free candidates from some part of the massive time sink that is fundraising.)

Obama also announced that Howard Dean will stay on as DNC chair, also a good move, in my opinion, for reasons explained here. And while I'm linking: this analysis of Obama's strategy is very, very good.

Hilzoy 5:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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By: Eric Martin

CHANGED THE LOCKS THREE TIMES...Patrick Cockburn claims that details of the long term deal for maintaining US troops in Iraq sought by the Bush administration (the Security Framework agreement and associated Status of Forces Agreement) have leaked to the Independent. Similar details have emerged in Arab media in recent days as well. Nevertheless, to be taken with a grain of salt and all:

Under the terms of the new treaty, the Americans would retain the long-term use of more than 50 bases in Iraq. American negotiators are also demanding immunity from Iraqi law for US troops and contractors, and a free hand to carry out arrests and conduct military activities in Iraq without consulting the Baghdad government.

The precise nature of the American demands has been kept secret until now. The leaks are certain to generate an angry backlash in Iraq. "It is a terrible breach of our sovereignty," said one Iraqi politician, adding that if the security deal was signed it would delegitimise the government in Baghdad which will be seen as an American pawn.

The US has repeatedly denied it wants permanent bases in Iraq but one Iraqi source said: "This is just a tactical subterfuge." Washington also wants control of Iraqi airspace below 29,000ft and the right to pursue its "war on terror" in Iraq, giving it the authority to arrest anybody it wants and to launch military campaigns without consultation.

The powers enjoyed by the US would, reportedly, also include the ability to move foreign armies (coalition partners), as well as military hardware and equipement, in and out of Iraq without consultation with the Iraqi government. In addition, the US would not pledge to defend Iraq from foreign aggressors - but rather would retain the right to review the circumstances on a case-by-case basis. Naturally, we wouldn't want to cede any of our sovereignty.

As mentioned previously, the Bush administration is pushing very hard to get this arrangement finalized by the end of July - in part to affect the policy trajectory of the next administration and to offer a boost to GOP hopeful John McCain. If McCain were to win, this deal would allow for a seamless continuation of Bush administration policy. If Obama were to win, there would be a certain level of deference shown to prior commitments - though this would not necessarily prevent Obama from renegotiating or creating a new set of agreements. However, it should be acknowledged, even an Obama administration might be tempted by the ability to maintain a military foothold of such dimensions in the middle of such a strategic oil producing region.

More importantly, perhaps, this deal will cause considerable upheaval in Iraq - with that country's various political groups, and their respective constituencies, potentially pushed toward conflict (not to mention the propaganda boon it will provide Osama bin Laden, and the further degradation to our image in the region). The general state of play is as follows: Moqtada al-Sadr and certain Sunni groups oppose any long term deal outright (preferring the setting of a timetable for measured withdrawal). The Fadhila Party (an offshoot of the Sadrist movement) is also said to favor a timeline for withdrawal.

The Sadrist position enjoys widespread popular support in Iraq. Considering the Iraqi public's overwhelming preferences, electoral considerations likely influenced, at least in part, recent statements criticizing the proposed deal emanating from Maliki's own Dawa party, as well as our closest ally (and Iran's) ISCI (headed by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim). That being said, the terms leaked thus far are so onerous that even these parties that rely on our presence to prop them up likely find certain elements difficult to swallow. In fact, the infringement upon Iraq's sovereignty are so extensive that even one time favorite Ayad Allawi has come out against the parameters of the deal.

It should be noted, however, that thus far the opposition from Maliki and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim has been to specific provisions, but not the general notion of a long term deal. In a similar vein, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has begun making his qualified opposition known. According to Hakim (via Juan Cole), Sistani lists the following elements as essential to any such deal:

- Preservation of Iraqi national sovereignty

- Transparency as to the terms of the deal

- National consensus [ed: I assume via referundum as proposed by the Sadrists, which was reportedly previously endorsed by Sistani]

- Parliamentary approval

The Bush administration opposes all four of Sistani's planks, though the second is probably not a deal breaker, nor would the third and fourth should the votes align with the Bush administration's goals (though that is highly unlikely - at least in terms of the national referendum. Parliamentary approval is more of a possibility considering the likely support of the Kurds as well as some Sunni groups that now prefer the US to remain as a bulwark to Shiite hegemony). Cockburn's article states that Dawa/ISCI might be too vulnerable to push back and might fold in the end:

Although Iraqi ministers have said they will reject any agreement limiting Iraqi sovereignty, political observers in Baghdad suspect they will sign in the end and simply want to establish their credentials as defenders of Iraqi independence by a show of defiance now.

This indeed might be the case, but if Sistani opposes the deal, it would be almost impossible for Maliki and Hakim to offer their assent. That might actually provide Maliki and Hakim with a plausible excuse to explain their position to the Bush administration ("We'd love to agree to this, trust us we would, but we can't oppose Sistani..."). Further, if they do ratify this deal, as Ilan Goldenberg points out, it will prove electoral suicide for Maliki/Hakim in the upcoming provincial elections slated, now, for November.

That is, absent a decision to postpone those elections (which could lead to intra-Sunni strife from the Awakenings groups that want a cut of political power) or absent a massive effort to manipulate the results and weaken their more powerful adversaries (the Sadrists, for example). Just to be clear, the further "weakening" of the Sadrists would likely involve military operations and large scale loss of innocent life akin to what was seen in Sadr City and Basra in recent months. In fact, rumor has it that another Sadr stronghold, Amara, might be next.

Liberation! Democracy! Freedom!

Eric Martin 11:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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By: dday

VEEPSTAKES... Barack Obama is touring Virginia today with Virginia's three top Democrats, all of whom have been mentioned as potential VP candidates in one place or another. I'm not of the view that a Vice President gets you a state, the way it may have in the more parochial media landscape of the past. People in this day and age generally vote for the guy at the top of the ticket. I think it's far more important to pick a VP who 1) reinforces Obama's message, and 2) would make a good President in his own right. And in this story, a new name (at least to me) emerged that I quite like:

Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), an Obama adviser, offered several names to the list of potential vice presidential choices, including those of former Florida governor and senator Bob Graham; Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, a top Clinton supporter; and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, an Obama supporter who could assuage the disappointment of women who wanted the chance to vote for the first female president. (emphasis mine)

Bob Graham, ay? I think the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee in the run-up to the war, the guy who knew that the Bush Administration was lying and told his colleagues all about it, who voted against the authorization, is someone who would amplify that message on the war. He's beloved in Florida and that might help there, but that's not the point. Graham is very intelligent and provides an authoritative voice on foreign policy issues. I don't know that he's the best campaigner, but again I think that stuff is kind of overblown.

I think there are a lot of good choices, but I like the Graham idea, it's growing on me. Since this is everyone's favorite parlor game, what do you think?

dday 11:39 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (85)

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By: Hilzoy

FROM MY INBOX...

From Senator Clinton:

"I wanted you to be one of the first to know: on Saturday, I will hold an event in Washington D.C. to thank everyone who has supported my campaign. Over the course of the last 16 months, I have been privileged and touched to witness the incredible dedication and sacrifice of so many people working for our campaign. Every minute you put into helping us win, every dollar you gave to keep up the fight meant more to me than I can ever possibly tell you.

On Saturday, I will extend my congratulations to Senator Obama and my support for his candidacy. This has been a long and hard-fought campaign, but as I have always said, my differences with Senator Obama are small compared to the differences we have with Senator McCain and the Republicans.

I have said throughout the campaign that I would strongly support Senator Obama if he were the Democratic Party's nominee, and I intend to deliver on that promise."

Good for her. Time to come together.

Hilzoy 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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June 4, 2008
By: Hilzoy

HISTORY...

I didn't support Barack Obama because of his race. I didn't need to: I just thought he was the best candidate by far, mostly for wonky reasons. (I started down the road to supporting Obama when I read this sentence from a Washington Monthly article: "On the campaign trail in 2004, Obama spoke passionately about the dangers of loose nukes and the legacy of the Nunn-Lugar nonproliferation program, a framework created by a 1991 law to provide the former Soviet republics assistance in securing and deactivating nuclear weapons.")

However: having myself been, on occasion, the first woman in various environments, I know how much it matters for people to come to terms with the idea that having a woman, or an African-American, in some job is just plain normal. I've spent a fair amount of time convincing some co-workers (none at my present place of employment) that I was not, in fact, literally their mothers, or any of the other peculiar things they thought a female colleague might turn out to be. That never bothered me: life has generally been good to me, and this minor annoyance seemed like a very small price to pay. However, it did give me a vivid appreciation of why it matters that women and people of color actually occupy various jobs: so that other people can get used to the idea that they are just normal, and realize, without any particular fanfare, that their worst fears about what having (say) a female colleague might be like are groundless.

For that reason, I would have voted for an African-American, or for a woman, over a more or less comparable white man. I truly want to get to the point at which it is completely normal for people of all races and genders to run for President, and this seems to me to be a good way to do it, at least when two candidates are relatively evenly matched. I didn't have to make this choice in this election: for one thing, neither Obama nor Clinton is a white man, and for another, I didn't see the choice between them as close enough. But had things been different, I would have.

That said, though, I don't think I really appreciated, on a visceral level, exactly how much this would mean to African-Americans until sometime around November. At that time, Obama was trailing Clinton by around 20 points among black voters, which I found odd, until I read some article -- I can't recall which -- with a number of interviews of black Democrats. Those interviews made it clear that most of the people quoted in the article did not believe that a black candidate -- any black candidate -- could win the nomination, let alone the Presidency. Once I had noticed that, I seemed to hear it a lot: just a few days ago, I was listening to CSPAN in the car, and a black voter called in and said that until Iowa, he had assumed that Obama was "some kind of stunt".

I suppose I live a sheltered life, but for some reason it hadn't crossed my mind that many African-Americans would think not just that it was very hard for a black man to win the nomination, but that it was impossible. But once it did, I found it horrible and heartbreaking, all the more so because, on reflection, I thought it was a perfectly reasonable thing to think. (At least in its milder form -- 'he can't win' -- as opposed to the more ominous 'they won't let him win.')

I thought: it is awful that people should think that no one who looks like them could possibly be nominated by a major party; that any candidate who looks like them has to be "some kind of stunt"; that if they tell their children that maybe they'll grow up to be President some day, they believe, in their heart of hearts, that they are lying. That should never, ever be true. Not in our country.

When Barack Obama won Iowa, the ground beneath that fear began to crack. Now it has been blown apart, in the only way it could have been. And whatever any of us think about this race, or Senator Obama, that is cause for celebration; as is the fact that it turned out not to be true.

Hilzoy 8:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (108)

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By: Cheryl Rofer

THANKS....I'll be traveling this weekend, probably away from the intertubes, so this may be my last post. I'm bringing my laptop, but I won't have a lot of time, and Kevin is supposed to be back this weekend.

I want to thank Kevin for letting me blog here, and I want to thank everyone who's been reading my posts, particularly those who are commenting. Political Animal has a different audience than WhirledView, and it's helpful to hear what the commenters have to say, including the ones who throw tomatoes.

One of my big concerns is citizen participation in policymaking. I want to see more of it, particularly in nuclear weapons policy. We're getting there, but we need more. Blogging and commenting on blogs is one part of that. I'm hoping that a new (Democratic) president will help.

So I'll leave you with a photo of a rotifer, one of my favorite animals. Not as personable as Inkblot and Domino, but one of my favorites nonetheless.

Photo from here.

Cheryl Rofer 8:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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By: dday

WORDS, MEET ACTION... On the one hand, Ben Bernanke lauds the expansion of education access at all areas of development, including the community college system, as among the best methods to reduce income inequality in the long-term. Now, Bernanke doesn't set education policy for the Administration. But he does have some sway over the financial services industry, not only in terms of influence but through the levers of policy, so he might be in a position to do something about this.

Some of the nation's biggest banks have closed their doors to students at community colleges, for-profit universities and other less competitive institutions, even as they continue to extend federally backed loans to students at the nation's top universities.

Citibank has been among the most aggressive in paring the list of colleges it serves. JPMorgan Chase, PNC and SunTrust say they have not dropped whole categories, but are cutting colleges as well. Some less-selective four-year colleges, like Eastern Oregon University and William Jessup University in Rocklin, Calif., say they have been summarily dropped by some lenders.

The practice suggests that if the credit crisis and the ensuing turmoil in the student loan business persist, some of the nation’s neediest students will be hurt the most. The difficulty borrowing may deter them from attending school or prompt them to take a semester off. When they get student loans, they will wind up with less attractive terms and may run a greater risk of default if they have to switch lenders in the middle of their college years.

Walling off colleges like this, which are a tremendous opportunity for low-income students to achieve a degree and some upward mobility, by making loans unreachable is the equivalent of a new caste system. This would be an absolute disaster for the working class and their children.

If this is so crucial to America's economic future, surely Bernanke can devise some incentives for banks to make available student loans for community colleges. I mean, he wouldn't want to be accused of delivering empty, meaningless rhetoric.

...lawmakers asked the Fed to help save the student loan industry two months ago, incidentally... and the Fed took such action after some prodding. There's plenty of potential to end the roadblocking of community college loans.

dday 6:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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By: Hilzoy

MCCAIN SAYS THE DARNDEST THINGS ...

That's a clip of John McCain claiming that he has voted in favor of every investigation into the levee failures after Hurricane Katrina. The only trouble is, it's not true. Here's one investigation he voted against; here's another. (H/t)

McCain seems to be doing this a lot. Recently, McCain said, about the Lieberman/Warner climate change bill, "I hope that it will be passed and I hope that the entire Congress will join in supporting it and the president of the United States would sign it", and then, two weeks later, came out against it, but announced he'd skip the vote entirely.

But I've been saving the best for last.

As I was researching this, I found a quote from one of the Republican debates that I missed entirely at the time, but that might just steal the title of "most astonishingly clueless McCain remark ever" away from McCain's claim that we need a stimulus package, but we have to get spending down first. It's about a cap and trade system for carbon emissions, which McCain supports, but apparently does not understand:

"Russert: Senator McCain, you are in favor of mandatory caps.

McCain: No, I'm in favor of cap-and-trade. And Joe Lieberman and I, one of my favorite Democrats and I, have proposed that -- and we did the same thing with acid rain. They're doing it in Europe now, although not very well.

And all we are saying is, "Look, if you can reduce your greenhouse gas emissions, you earn a credit. If somebody else is going to increase theirs, you can sell it to them." And, meanwhile, we have a gradual reduction in greenhouse gas emissions."

To paraphrase David Roberts, I wonder: why does McCain think they call it cap and trade? Also: why does he think that anyone would care about having enough credits if they did not have -- have -- to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions or else use credits to offset them? That's what a cap and trade system is.

Bring those debates on.

Hilzoy 6:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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By: dday

GOOD JOB, NOW GET TO WORK.... I congratulate Barack Obama on his primary win. Last night was historic and felt particularly hopeful. I think he has the opportunity to bring forward meaningful change in America. In fact, he can start today. He can go to the well of the Senate and demand that the party he now leads not authorize new powers to spy on Americans and immunize corporations who broke the law with their illegal spying in the first place.

The House Intelligence Committee's top Democrat disclosed late Tuesday that he is ready to accept a Republican-brokered deal to rewrite the nation's electronic surveillance laws, signaling that a long-running congressional impasse could soon be coming to an end. House Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes told CongressDaily that he is "fine" with language offered by Senate Intelligence ranking member Christopher (Kit) Bond and other Republicans to overhaul the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Notably, the GOP language, which was offered a day before the recent congressional recess, would leave it up to the secret FISA court to grant retroactive legal immunity to telecommunications companies that have helped the Bush administration conduct electronic surveillance on the communications of U.S. citizens without warrants [...] "It's about finding middle ground and we have middle ground," Reyes said of the compromise offered by Republicans. "It's not going to please everyone but let's get on with it." Reyes said he believes enough Democrats will support the proposal to pass it in the House.

Barack Obama could put an end to this today if he wanted. He could tell his colleagues in the House and the Senate that they should not work so hard to codify into law what his opponent is calling for - the ability for an executive to secretly spy on Americans.

If elected president, Senator John McCain would reserve the right to run his own warrantless wiretapping program against Americans, based on the theory that the president's wartime powers trump federal criminal statutes and court oversight, according to a statement released by his campaign Monday.

Monday, McCain adviser Doug Holtz-Eakin, speaking for the campaign, disavowed those statements, and for the first time cast McCain's views on warrantless wiretapping as identical to Bush's.

"[N]either the Administration nor the telecoms need apologize for actions that most people, except for the ACLU and the trial lawyers, understand were Constitutional and appropriate in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001. [...]

We do not know what lies ahead in our nation’s fight against radical Islamic extremists, but John McCain will do everything he can to protect Americans from such threats, including asking the telecoms for appropriate assistance to collect intelligence against foreign threats to the United States as authorized by Article II of the Constitution."

The Article II citation is key, since it refers to President Bush's longstanding arguments that the president has nearly unlimited powers during a time of war. The administration's analysis went so far as to say the Fourth Amendment did not apply inside the United States in the fight against terrorism, in one legal opinion from 2001.

This really is identical to George Bush's position and now the Democrats in the House are signaling their willingness to go along with it.

Obama positions himself as the kind of Democrat who wants to change Washington, and he has a background as a Constitutional scholar. There is no other issue which both shows the rot of the Democratic leadership and their disinclination to enforce or even recognize the Constitution than this one.

Senator Obama has the power to end this. I'm sorry to not give him a honeymoon after the primary victory but events on the ground are moving quickly. There are a few decent elements in the compromise bill, like exclusivity for the FISA Court and an IG report on the legality of the current surveillance program, but it's not nearly good enough. This is another in a long series of caves, and an excellent opportunity for Obama to show his leadership skills and where he stands on civil liberties and Constitutional issues. We know that McCain is a mirror of Bush on that score.

Senator Obama, you are the party's leader. Do something about this. Today.

dday 4:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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By: Hilzoy

A SMALL REQUEST...

During the next Presidential campaign, could we please, please, skip the part, in the fall before the primaries, where we are subjected to a rash of stories about whether one candidate or another is inevitable?

I would have thought that the media might have figured out the stupidity of this back in 2004, when we subjected to an apparently interminable series of articles with titles like "Can Dean Be Stopped?" At the time, I thought: well, duh, of course he can; not a single vote has been cast. And lo: he was, though not by the candidate I would have preferred.

This time round, it happened again. I was astonished, though, to find stories proclaiming her inevitability from 2006 -- two years before a single vote had been cast:

"Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner's decision not to run for president is a telling statement about the Democratic Party, the strength of its liberal wing, and the inevitability of Hillary Clinton's presidential nomination in 2008."

And here's one from 2005 saying that yes, in fact, she can be stopped:

"The inevitability campaign now underway demonstrates everything bad about modern American politics.

Two months into George W. Bush's second term as president, a cadre of Hillary Clinton supporters is trying to lock up the Democratic presidential nomination for New York's junior senator. One supporter is her husband, former president Bill Clinton, who declares that his wife would make an excellent president. Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware also predicts "she is likely to be the nominee."

So, case closed? No other Democrats need apply? That is ridiculous."

Please, just stop it. Let us make up our own minds. If you do, I'll be so grateful I won't even mention the pointlessness of stories about polling data from a year before an election.

Hilzoy 4:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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By: Neil Sinhababu

MEET NANCY....It'd be a mistake to think that the loyalties some women feel to Hillary Clinton are immediately transferrable to other female politicians. We've seen all sorts of misogyny thrown at Hillary over the last 16 years, and that's the sort of thing that bonds you to a particular individual.

But when this primary is far behind us, I hope that people looking for awesome female leaders will start paying more attention to Nancy Pelosi.
Nancy
In 2005, Pelosi inherited a House Democratic Caucus in shambles. Her predecessor, Dick Gephardt, was probably the Democrat most responsible for the Iraq War. Bush had been re-elected, and Democrats were completely demoralized.

That's when Pelosi pulled the Democratic Party together and saved Social Security. Atrios remembers this awesome anecdote about Pelosi refusing to even dignify Bush's privatization attempt with an alternative plan. She knew that if Democrats were bullied into pretending Social Security was a problem (it's actually the most secure part of the federal budget), Bush would probably get what he wanted. She imposed so much party discipline that a united Democratic Caucus stared Bush down, rejecting the entire idea of monkeying with Social Security, until his plan crashed and burned.

Under her leadership, Democrats won a resounding victory in 2006, elevating her from Minority Leader to Speaker. And as dday argues below, we're headed for another great year in 2008.

[Update: How could I forget to mention her essential role in making firm opposition to the Iraq War a fundamental part of the Democratic agenda? The moment in 2006 when she showcased ex-Marine Jack Murtha introducing his withdrawal resolution was absolutely tremendous for the party.

People should remember this telling clip from December 2005:

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), the second-ranking House Democratic leader, have told colleagues that Pelosi's recent endorsement of a speedy withdrawal, combined with her claim that more than half of House Democrats support her position, could backfire on the party, congressional sources said.

Despite Emanuel and Hoyer's backbiting and timidity, Pelosi got her way, and the Republicans got crushed.]

I was thinking about this as I read the dialogue between two of my favorite feminist writers, Katha Pollitt and Amanda Marcotte, in the LA Times. While it's definitely bad that only 16% of Congress is female, I take exception to Pollitt's line that "This dismal picture is masked by the high profile of a few stars who are "firsts" -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton."

Pelosi isn't just some 'first' -- she's the most powerful legislator in America! This is the office that Newt Gingrich held at the height of his power. So much depends on the way she sets priorities and enforces unity among the fractious House Democratic caucus, and she does it masterfully. Pelosi may be the single Democrat most responsible for our Party's resurgence over the past 3 years. When the next Democratic President introduces domestic legislation, I'll feel absolutely confident to have it in her hands.

I've heard some Democrats complain that she isn't doing enough to push for things like impeachment. I'd like to note that the median vote in the House is that of a very conservative Democrat, and turn you over to Kansas science blogger Josh Rosenau:

I wish that those people would spend a few years living in Kansas, or even in Bakersfield, CA. They'd realize that what's holding Pelosi back is not her own political desires. If we had 290 Nancy Pelosis in the House, and 67 in the Senate, we'd have all of those policies. With 218 in the House, 60 in the Senate and one in the White House, we'd have them also. The thing is, we don't have a few hundred Nancy Pelosis in Congress. If Cindy Sheehan and Shirley Golub want to enact their policies, they should be doing everything they can to replace Todd Tiahrt with Donald Betts, Pat Roberts with Jim Slattery, and ensuring that obstructionist congresscritters in every other district face challenges.

Running against Nancy Pelosi, however, is stupid and naive, and makes these candidates and their supporters look stupid and naive. Does anyone believe that a dollar spent on Golub's primary campaign couldn't be better spent electing Charlie Brown in the open congressional seat just in northeastern California? Or in a primary campaign against incumbents who voted for the war in Iraq, for the bankruptcy bill, CAFTA, a police state, and the rest of the Bush agenda?

In large part because of Pelosi's leadership, we're now in position for a second landslide victory in which we defeat some of the Republican incumbents Rosenau is talking about. This is a presidential election year, so even with a huge win, it won't be her face on the covers of the newsmagazines at the end of the year. But when the night of November 4 rolls around, those of us who know how things really work in America will be drinking a toast to her.

Neil Sinhababu 2:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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By: Cheryl Rofer

A QUESTION....I haven't been following about that polygamist sect in Texas all that closely, so maybe I'm just not paying attention.

But I thought polygamy was illegal in most states. The charges of child abuse, which seem to have been dropped for the moment, were what the state chose to use. But if polygamy is illegal, why not use that?

And if polygamy isn't illegal, then what happens to the argument that gay marriage will lead to polygamy?

Cheryl Rofer 12:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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By: Cheryl Rofer

THE HIGH GROUND....Hillary whipped out the gender card again last night. "What does Hillary want?" she asked, evoking Freud's plaint.

In hanging on, she fuels stereotypes of women: don't know how to play the game, bitchy and ungracious. It's the softer stereotypes she has eschewed. Those who need the stereotypes will find them, either way.

Any of us who have done anything with our lives have faced these apparent no-win tradeoffs. The stakes are higher, and the sexism more unrelenting, the higher you go.

But trading on the stereotypes and the sexism others display has its limits as a strategy. It too easily sounds like whining, itself a stereotype.

Hillary's speech last night was spin. Don't say the forbidden words (Obama has the delegate count); pretend that you're the winner and your voters are being disenfranchised. Sometime in the last decade or so, spin became a substitute for reality.

There's a tactic that was once used in politics: seize the high ground. Spin is a corruption of that: seize what appears to be the high ground. Or: make what you've managed to seize appear to be the high ground.

But there's a real high ground, made up of grace and generosity, accepting reality. Most of us can see it unless we're blinded by the glare of chutzpah. It raises one's own status, along with the tenor of the conversation. It's available to women and men, both.

We can hope that Hillary will seize the high ground this week.

Cheryl Rofer 10:39 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (171)

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June 3, 2008
By: dday

WAVE ELECTION... Democracy Corps released their latest poll of Republican-held areas, and the news is very good for Democrats:

Analysis: Democrats Improve Advantage in 45 Republican-Held Districts

Even as we modified our sample design to include more hard-to-reach Republican-held districts, Democrats have significantly expanded their lead in this totally Republican battleground that Bush won by 12 points in 2004 and Republican members won by the same margin in 2006. You have to remind yourself that this is not a national poll but a poll in Republican-held seats where Democrats have moved to a 7-point lead (50 to 43 percent). Further, Republican incumbents have a very weak standing to be reelected while Democratic challengers enjoy a larger pool of winnable voters to approach in this election, win the issue debates and prove to be resilient to the most vicious Republican attacks. The underlying dynamics of the race show that the battleground could expand even further into Republican territory as more voters are open to vote Democratic in November.

Inside the numbers, we see that the strength for Democrats is in suburban and exurban districts, which is a real change from 2004, when George Bush took almost all of the fastest-growing districts in the country. The incumbent job approval in these 45 districts is down to 38%, which is significant because usually the situation is that people hate Congress but like their own representative. The analysis is pretty amazing.

The general election is going to be a mish-mash of identity politics and dishonest smears and 527 ads and the time-honored questioning of patriotism. At the district level, it's more typically a battle of party identification. And nobody wants anything to do with Republicans anymore.

dday 7:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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By: Hilzoy

BAD MOVIES...

Over at Crooked Timber they're having a discussion of Movies To Avoid Watching Before You Die. The discussion there leads me to three conclusions about the commenters:

(1) They are, for the most part, young, as witness their focus on movies like Starship Troopers. If they were more antiquated, as I am, they could not possibly have failed to mention the worst movie of all time: Endless Love. The full plot summary, from IMDB:

"Two young kids fall in love with each other. But the passion is too consuming for the parents of Jade. The parents try to stop them from seeing each other. But when this doesn't work David burns down the house and is sent away. This doesn't stop him from seeing her. When he gets out he goes to look for her. But in the end the passion for his first love is too strong and she has to leave or this love will kill both of them."

In addition to burning her house down and stalking her, David is partly responsible for the death of Jade's father, and her mother tries to seduce him. (She saw the two of them making love, and realized wistfully how empty her own life was. Or something.) At the end, Jade says: "But mother, no one will ever love me like that again." Inexplicably, she seems to think this is a bad thing, and the movie is set up in such a way as to make her seem right.

The only reason ever to watch this movie is if you find yourself wondering: gosh, I wonder why there is such a thing as feminism? Then again, how many people are truly in the dark on that one?

Oh, and did I mention that Jade is played by Brooke Shields? *Shudders.*

(2) The commenters at Crooked Timber never dated a movie critic. If, like me, they had, they might have seen a lot more truly bad movies. The one that sticks out in my mind is Leave It To Beaver. If, like most sane adults, you missed it, you can read the plot summary here and count your blessings.

Best line: Ward, who is sitting with Beaver inside an enormous golden teacup where Beaver has hidden: "You know what 'unconditional love' means, don't you, Beav?"

(3) The commenters at Crooked Timber have never been conscripted into a movie while on kibbutz. I was. For one day, our work assignment was to be extras in a party scene shot in a building all covered with black cloth so that it would appear to be night. In Galilee. In July. Hahaha. One of the actors was supposed to play a guitar, but he couldn't; I was playing it during the many, many interminable breaks, and at one point they turned on the cameras unexpectedly, shoved the guitar at me, and said "Play something!" For some reason that I have never been able to understand, the only thing that leapt to mind was Joni Mitchell's 'Circle Game', and that's how I, age 22, came to be immortalized on screen singing that particular song.

If the commenters at Crooked Timber had been in our party scene, they would not have nominated pikers like Starship Troopers or Vanilla Sky. They would have gone with Stigma, the 1981 Israeli movie whose party scene it was.

(If anyone knows how to get a copy of Stigma, please email me. I had the worst haircut of all time in that movie: I'm a complete sucker for inadvertent humor, and I was unable to resist the idea of getting my hair cut in a place with a sign that said: "Barber Saloon", because it was so wonderful. During the party scene, I was still living with the results.)

Your thoughts?

Hilzoy 6:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (76)

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By: Cheryl Rofer

THE SUPERDELEGATES ARE FALLING INTO LINE....for Obama, even before the polls close in Montana and South Dakota.

Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, U.S. Reps. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick of Michigan and John W. Olver of Massachusetts, Los Angeles labor organizer John A. Perez, Michigan DNC members Debbie Dingell and Rick Wiener, along with Michigan superdelegate Joyce Lalonde, all announced today for Obama.

Also Representative Maxine Waters of California; Diane Glasser, a DNC member from Florida; three Democratic officials from Delaware; Kamil Hasan, a DNC member from California, Ben Johnson, a DNC member from the District of Columbia; Tina Abbott, the secretary-treasurer of the Michigan A.F.L.-C.I.O. and the vice chair of the Michigan Democratic Party; Carnelia Fondren, ice chairwoman of the Mississippi Democratic Party; and Representative William J. Jefferson of Louisiana. Waters switched from Clinton. The Obama campaign hasn't made much of Jefferson's backing; he's the guy with that freezerful of money.

Jimmy Carter has said that he will endorse Obama after the polls close.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is letting it be known that she will consider the vice-presidential slot if she's offered it.

Cheryl Rofer 6:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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By: dday

The AP is reporting that Barack Obama has clinched the Democratic nomination, based on projections of tonight's numbers (the bare minimum delegates he'd be expected to pick up in Montana and South Dakota) and the superdelegates who are about to commit.

It does look to be over, at long last. And Democrats got to compete in virtually every state, and while the hurt feelings will linger (and it's of paramount importance to acknowledge that and empathize, IMO), Obama now must face the test of unifying, a core rationale for his candidacy, starting with unifying the Democratic Party. Let's see what he comes up with. If he can manage it, then this has been an enormously beneficial process for the party. Now the next challenge, in my view, is reforming this disastrous primary system entirely, reviewing it from top to bottom and ditching the most undemocratic elements. I would move to a rotating regional set of primaries (decided by lottery on January 1 of the primary year so nobody can park in any one place prior to that), superdelegates with no vote until after the first ballot, which is reserved for delegates picked directly by the voters (so they get to go to the party but not have an undue influence on the process), and all delegates selected proportionately based on their state's popular vote. I would remind those who think caucuses should be thrown out that they are tremendous party-building tools, and many of the states with caucuses this year are swing states (Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, even Texas perhaps), and those state parties captured priceless voter contact information on hundreds of thousands of voters who could be turned into volunteers.

Later in June, the California Democratic Party picks their DNC members to serve after the convention for the next four years, and these are the officials who will be tasked with making those rules. They ought to be challenged to come up with the best plans for reform, not just in CA but all over the country. Activists can actually have a role in that process if they push hard enough.

...just to address one thing in the comments, I do think caucuses with an absentee provision, like they have in Maine, can be maintained, at the discretion of the state parties. The DNC could pass a rule mandating that all delegate selections must offer the opportunity for everyone to vote, for example. And yes, we absolutely should move to the National Popular Vote for the general election.

dday 1:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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By: Hilzoy

PHIL GRAMM: THERE'S MORE...

Recently, two more articles about Phil Gramm, "McCain's Economic Brain", have appeared. MSNBC had reported a week ago that Gramm was a paid lobbyist for UBS, one of the banks most heavily involved in the subprime scandal, until six weeks ago. Now Newsweek adds this:

"NEWSWEEK has learned that UBS is also currently the focus of congressional and Justice Department investigations into schemes that allegedly enabled wealthy Americans to evade income taxes by stashing their money in overseas havens, according to several law-enforcement and banking officials in both the United States and Europe, who all asked for anonymity when discussing ongoing investigations. In April, UBS withdrew Gramm's lobbying registration, but one of his former congressional aides, John Savercool, is still registered to lobby legislators for UBS on numerous issues, including a bill cosponsored by Sen. Barack Obama that would crack down on foreign tax havens. "UBS is treating these investigations with the utmost seriousness and has committed substantial resources to cooperate," a UBS spokesman told NEWSWEEK, adding that Gramm was deregistered as a lobbyist because he spends less than 20 percent of his time on such activity. Hazelbaker said the McCain campaign "will not comment on the details ... of ongoing investigations and legal charges not yet proved in court.""

A new article in the Texas Observer is even more interesting, and worth reading in its entirety. It begins:

"In the early evening of Friday, December 15, 2000, with Christmas break only hours away, the U.S. Senate rushed to pass an essential, 11,000-page government reauthorization bill. In what one legal textbook would later call "a stunning departure from normal legislative practice," the Senate tacked on a complex, 262-page amendment at the urging of Texas Sen. Phil Gramm.

There was little debate on the floor. According to the Congressional Record, Gramm promised that the amendment -- also known as the Commodity Futures Modernization Act --along with other landmark legislation he had authored, would usher in a new era for the U.S. financial services industry.(...)

With the U.S. economy now battered by a tsunami of mortgage foreclosures, the $30-billion Bear Stearns Companies bailout and spiking food and energy prices, many congressional leaders and Wall Street analysts are questioning the wisdom of the radical deregulation launched by Gramm’s legislative package. Financial wizard Warren Buffett has labeled the risky new investment instruments Gramm unleashed "financial weapons of mass destruction." They have fed the subprime mortgage crisis like an accelerant. While his distracted peers probably finalized their Christmas gift lists, Gramm created what Wall Street analysts now refer to as the "shadow banking system," an industry that operates outside any government oversight, but, as witnessed by the Bear Stearns debacle, requiring rescue by taxpayers to avert a national economic catastrophe."

One part of that bill was what's called the 'Enron Loophole':

"The impact of the "Enron loophole" has been enormous. Since its passage, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has concluded that the loophole contributed to inflated energy prices for American consumers. In 2006, its report found credible expert estimates that the loophole -- by encouraging speculation -- accounted for $20 of the price of a barrel of oil, then at $70. In 2007, the same committee blamed the loophole for price manipulation of the natural gas market by a single hedge fund, Amaranth Advisors."

But Gramm's legislation also seems to have legalized what are known as 'credit default swaps':

"Prior to its passage, they say, banks underwrote mortgages and were responsible for the risks involved. Now, through the use of credit default swaps -- which in theory insure the banks against bad debts -- those risks are passed along to insurance companies and other investors.

Maryland law professor Greenberger believes credit default swaps "were a key factor in encouraging lenders to feel they could make loans without knowing the risks or whether the loan would be paid back. The Commodity Futures Modernization Act freed them of federal oversight."

Before passage of the modernization act, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission was attempting to regulate the swaps market through rule-making. The modernization act, Gramm noted in his remarks on the Senate floor, provided "legal certainty" for the growing swaps market. That was necessary, Greenberger says, because at the time, "banks were doing these trades in direct violation of federal law.""

There's a decent explanation of credit default swaps here. As I understand it, the basic idea is this:

Suppose I have a risky loan, and I want to insure against losses. I agree with someone else -- call him or her X -- that she will pay back my loan if the person I made it to defaults. In exchange for this insurance policy, I will pay her -- maybe I'll send her the loan payments, suitably adjusted for risk. In any case, X gets cash, and I (supposedly) get peace of mind.

In a normal, regulated insurance market, there would be requirements that (for instance) X have enough capital to make good if my loan defaults. X would also not be able to sell the contract to make good my losses to just anyone, and X would certainly have to tell me about any such sale. But in the world of CDSs, neither requirement exists. CDS contracts can be sold and resold, and I might have no idea who is actually supposed to repay me if my loan goes into default. Moreover, there are no capital requirements on some of the people who can buy them. So if a lot of CDSs require payment from X all at once, there's no guarantee that X will be able to pay up. As the NYT puts it:

"It would be as if homeowners, facing losses after a hurricane, could not identify the insurance companies to pay on their claims. Or, if they could, they discovered that their insurer had transferred the policy to another company that could not cover the claim."

But it gets worse: in a lot of cases, X is a hedge fund. Hedge funds are highly leveraged, and therefore a relatively small downturn in their underlying assets (like some of their CDSs needing to be paid up) can wipe them out. Moreover, the alternative to a CDS, normally, would be to buy the underlying risky asset. CDSs allow people to assume the risks and benefits of owning that asset without actually putting money down. Instead, they get money: a cash stream, which they can then use to make more highly leveraged bets.

This is just a recipe for instability: for allowing unregulated financial institutions to place themselves, and the rest of the financial universe, at risk through unregulated, highly leveraged, and deeply risky maneuvers. And the CDS market is huge:

"The CDS market exploded over the past decade to more than $45 trillion in mid-2007, according to the International Swaps and Derivatives Association. This is roughly twice the size of the U.S. stock market (which is valued at about $22 trillion and falling) and far exceeds the $7.1 trillion mortgage market and $4.4 trillion U.S. treasuries market, notes Harvey Miller, senior partner at Weil, Gotshal & Manges. "It could be another — I hate to use the expression — nail in the coffin," said Miller, when referring to how this troubled CDS market could impact the country's credit crisis."

If Gramm basically legalized credit default swaps, then his involvement in the subprime crisis goes far beyond his work for UBS. And John McCain should have to explain why he thinks that Phil Gramm is a good person to turn to for economic advice.

Hilzoy 12:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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By: Eric Martin

NOT A MOTHER JOKE...Brandon Friedman (who I make a habit of reading on a regular basis) discusses the recent emergence of some less than ethical means that the US Army is using to bolster its sagging numbers. The latest measures involve using thinly veiled threats and intimidation to coerce inactive soldiers to reenlist (Along the lines of: "If you don't reenlist now with me, you could be more likely to get deployed in a combat situation..."). There is no merit to the assertions and insinuations, of course.

Keep in mind, Army recruiters are turning to these dubious methods after test standards have been lowered to dangerous levels, moral waivers have been issued with greater leniency, past misconduct has been increasingly overlooked, injuries/physical limitations discounted, bonuses raised and a host of other measures have been adopted to counter the effects of the Iraq war on enlistment/retention.

Remarkably, many war supporters elide the enormous strains on our military - to near breaking points for certain segments (Reserves, National Guard) - when discussing the "pros" of maintaining a rather large troop presence in Iraq for the next decade to 100 years. It is as if they view Iraq through a cost/benefit prism where the concrete and knowable costs (crippling at that) can be treated as non-existent in the pursuit of hoped for benefits that are, at best, highly improbable, and in an effort to stave off negative outcomes that are speculative.

Captain Brandon Friedman recently became personally acquainted with this new recruitment/retention method. Actually, it wasn't Friedman himself that was on the receiving end of these strong-arm tactics, but his mom. Amazing. We can do better.

Eric Martin 11:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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By: Cheryl Rofer

THE END IS NEAR....for Hillary, or so says the New York Times.

Adam Nagourney, Carl Hulse and Jeff Zeleny report more details than anyone else. Stay tuned tonight for confirmation. Or not.

Cheryl Rofer 10:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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By: Neil Sinhababu

MOO IF YOU LIKE THIS POLL....Gallup titles this batch of polling data, "Public Lukewarm on Animal Rights," but the big news is that Americans are much more concerned with the welfare of farm animals than I expected.

Solid majorities oppose bans on hunting and animal testing, but a 62-35 majority of Americans supports "Passing strict laws concerning the treatment of farm animals." This is probably the most important thing to do as far as animal welfare is concerned. Unlike hunted animals, animals in contemporary factory farms live in miserable conditions throughout their lives. For an unusually amusing introduction to the situation and all its negative consequences, enter the Meatrix. I think the chicken with the boobs near the end is supposed to be Carrie-Anne Moss, which is kind of funny.

If we're going to subsidize the meat industry as heavily as we do (at present, most of the subsidies are for feed grains) the least we could do is concentrate the subsidies on farmers who treat their animals in an ethical way. As it stands, a lot of farmers keep chickens in such cramped conditions that their beaks need to be chopped off to keep them from pecking each other to death, and put pigs in cages so small they can't turn around. These practices should be banned, but there are a number of public policy tools even short of that that will prevent a lot of animal suffering.

One of the more amusing results from the poll is that 25% of respondents supported giving animals the "exact same rights as people to be free of harm and exploitation." 55% of those respondents then said they didn't want to ban hunting. If we take their responses at face value and multiply, this means that over 10% of Americans support the hunting of humans. Who knew?

Neil Sinhababu 9:46 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (92)

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By: Cheryl Rofer

GETTING THE WORD OUT ON CLIMATE CHANGE....The NASA Inspector General tells us that political appointees messed with public accounts of NASA's scientific findings on global climate change.

From the fall of 2004 through 2006, the report said, NASA's public affairs office "managed the topic of climate change in a manner that reduced, marginalized, or mischaracterized climate change science made available to the general public." It noted elsewhere that "news releases in the areas of climate change suffered from inaccuracy, factual insufficiency, and scientific dilution."
But they didn't mess with the papers sent to scientific journals.

This was a pretty shrewd move. It's the public that really counts, ultimately in the votes, but also in the letters to Congress and a myriad small ways, when you're making policy.

The science of climate change gets complicated pretty quickly. More carbon dioxide equals more warming overall. But then there are lots of buts: might be warmer in some places, some years, cooler in others. Rainfall may increase or decrease. Glaciers and sea ice seem to be melting faster than anyone expected. All this is much, much harder to explain in a few words. The science depends on very complex simulation models that themselves contain lots of ifs, ands, and buts. So the models are compared with each other. All this can look very subjective, particularly if you're opposed to the results and want to undermine them.

I've worked with models like those used in climate modeling. I don't know an easy way to talk about them.

The important question, though, is the one that I've been wanting to ask of Kevin's vast and distinguished audience: Do you think you understand climate change, global warming, well enough to make your voting and consumer decisions?

Cheryl Rofer 8:57 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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June 2, 2008
By: dday

I know that Markos is convinced that immigration as a wedge issue was a big loser for Republicans, and I agree. Clearly they have gotten little or no traction from it electorally, and their dash headlong into the arms of xenophobes increasingly cements their status as a permanent minority party, particularly as the Hispanic population grows and becomes a political force.

However, that's a reality of politics that's going to play out over the next decade or so. Right now, the anti-immigrant forces have shown sufficient perceived power to send Republicans (and more than a few Democrats) cowering. And the policies that have been implemented since the last attempt at comprehensive immigration reform are incredibly damaging and catastrophic. The consequences of waiting for the politics to become more favorable are grave.

over...

Everybody chided Hillary Clinton for her not-entirely-coherent views on the policy of the then-governor from New York, Eliot Spitzer, to grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. There was a lot of demagoguery in the press and the plan fizzled in New York and on the national stage. There were consequences to that failure.

Luz Gonzalez used to take spur-of-the-moment trips to the beach. Now, she's afraid to drive to the doctor for checkups on her new pregnancy. She and her husband, Ismael, can no longer have a savings account or a car registered in their names. Every time they drive to church, they watch for the flash of blue lights in the mirror.

The Gonzalezes, who identified themselves by only one of their two surnames, are among many illegal immigrants in North Carolina who are beginning a new life — one without driver's licenses. A 2006 state law made it impossible for illegal immigrants to renew their licenses. The change was talked about mostly as a tool to combat terrorism — several of the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks had licenses.

But it's also created a crisis in the Hispanic community and a potential hazard on the roads. As licenses issued under the old rules expire, advocates and law enforcement authorities say many illegal immigrants, who number an estimated 300,000 in North Carolina, are now driving without licenses or insurance.

This is a public safety nightmare waiting to happen. Tens of thousands of unlicensed drivers on the roads, who may not know the traffic laws, who are sure to leave the scene of any accident lest they risk deportation - that has a deleterious effect on the nation's roadways.

Then we have the dramatic increase in immigration prosecutions with the effective end of the "catch-and-release" program. Border enforcement officials are using the broadest possible definitions of "crime" to arrest virtually everyone found crossing the border, which is unsustainable and a distraction from actual border crimes like drug smuggling and human trafficking. This is especially true because border resources are finite - the money being put into failed initiatives like the virtual fence isn't going into a law enforcement apparatus that is straining against having to arrest, house and prosecute all of these individuals. There's border security and there's "border security" which threatens actual security by tying up the tools of law enforcement. There's also the fact that it's a completely misplaced policy:

Others note that, historically, immigration violations have been processed by U.S. administrative courts. Criminalizing illegal immigration while turning a blind eye to employers who provide the jobs that lure migrants makes for good election-year politics but poor policy, said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council.

"This strategy pretty much has it backwards," he said. "It's going after desperate people who are crossing the border in search of a better way of life, instead of going after employers who are hiring people who have no right to work in this country."

And this hardline crackdown, thoroughly supported by a Democratic establishment that thinks a tough stance on enforcement is their way out of the immigration issue, means that things like this happen for no reason whatsoever:

In May 2007, Victoria Arellano, a 23-year-old transgender immigrant from Mexico, was sent to a detention center in San Pedro after being arrested on a traffic charge.

Arellano, who was born a male and had come to the United States illegally as a child, had AIDS at the time of her arrest but exhibited no symptoms of the disease because of the medication she took daily. But once detained, her health began to deteriorate.She lost weight and became sick. She repeatedly pleaded with staff members at the detention center to see a doctor to get the antibiotics she needed to stay alive, according to immigrant detainees with whom Arellano shared a dormitory-style cell. But her requests were routinely ignored.

The task of caring for Arellano fell to her fellow detainees. They dampened their own towels and used them to cool her fever; they turned cardboard boxes into makeshift trash cans to collect her vomit. As her condition worsened, the detainees, outraged that Arellano was not being treated, staged a strike: They refused to get in line for the nightly head count until she was taken to the detention center's infirmary.

Officials relented, and Arellano was sent to the infirmary, then to a hospital nearby. But after two days there -- and after having spent two months at the federally operated facility -- she died of an AIDS-related infection. Her family has taken steps to file a wrongful-death claim against the federal government.

These immigration detention centers are growing as the "prosecute everyone" philosophy pervades all levels of government. They have no minimum standards to provide healthcare and are mainly managed by private contractors. The immigrants inside these detention centers are not even under criminal charges, but civil violations as they await deportation. The next detainee may be this valedictorian who has lived in America since he was 2 years old:

Arthur Mkoyan's 4.0 grade-point average has made him a valedictorian at Bullard High School in Fresno and qualified him to enter one of the state's top universities.

But while his classmates look forward to dorm food and college courses this fall, Arthur Mkoyan may not make it.

He is being deported.

Arthur, 17, and his mother have been ordered out of the country. By late June, they may be headed to Armenia [...]

Mark Silverman, director of immigration policy at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco, said Arthur Mkoyan's case illustrates why Congress should have passed the Dream Act. The act would have allowed students who excelled in school and stayed out of trouble to become permanent residents and attend college or enlist in the military

"There's something very wrong with the immigration laws when our government is deporting our best students," Silverman said.

Absolutely right, but Democrats were confident that they would win this debate in the long run if they didn't rock the boat and offer a sensible alternative to a xenophobic hardline set of policies. As a result, bright students are being sent away, hundreds of thousands are driving without licenses, law enforcement can't focus on actual security measures, and immigrants are dying - needlessly.

It's not enough to just "win" politically on this issue. There has to be some actual conviction to stand up to pernicious policies that warehouse humans, deny them basic medical care, and hold children responsible for the actions of their parents. Republicans didn't care that their position has been discredited at the ballot box - they kept forging ahead. The Rahm Emanuel position is to encourage Democrats to take a right-wing stance to defuse the issue until such a time as it's politically convenient. Arthur Mkoyan and Victoria Arellano won't have the luxury of waiting around.

dday 9:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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By: Neil Sinhababu

EDWARDS WINS ON THE ROAD....SurveyUSA has been putting out an interesting series of Obama-McCain polls where they test possible VP choices. In some ways, the polls were badly done -- what's the point of asking people if they prefer Obama-Sebelius to McCain-Pawlenty in Virginia, where nobody knows who Sebelius or Pawlenty are? It might've been better to test, say, Mark Warner there. (You wanted Jim Webb? He's a good Senator and all, but you really need to read Kathy Geier on this.)

The one thing that the polls do show, though, is that John Edwards is a devastatingly effective VP choice for Obama. He performs equal or better than the other Democrats in their home states and helps Obama beat McCain's VP picks in their home states.

Take Pennsylvania, where Ed Rendell is a popular governor. But against any Republican pairing, an Obama/Edwards ticket does better than Obama/Rendell by 3 to 5 points, and leaves every other pairing far behind. There's no reason to consider Rendell for VP against numbers like this -- John Edwards can beat him in the state he's supposed to secure.

Or take Kansas, where Kathleen Sebelius is popular. An Obama/Edwards ticket does better than Obama/Sebelius against two opponents, while Obama/Sebelius does better than Obama/Edwards against two. There still is good reason to consider Sebelius, in part because her history of converting Republicans would reinforce Obama's message of national unity (which I find annoying, but whatever). But it's pretty impressive that Edwards is neck-and-neck with her on her home turf.

The only Obama VP possibility who does better than Edwards in his home state is Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, who could win Nebraska for Obama. This isn't too surprising -- picking a GOP Senator who won his last re-election with 83% of the vote will score with crossover voters. (BTW: This does not actually mean you should support Hagel, who is so insane on social issues that he votes against funding to reduce teen pregnancy with education and contraceptives.) And Edwards could actually steal an electoral vote or two under Nebraska's unusual district-based system.

How about when we look at McCain's Republican VP choices in their home states? Well, Edwards cleans up against Minnesota GOP governor Tim Pawlenty. While SurveyUSA has Obama beating McCain by 5 in Minnesota, Obama/Edwards beats McCain/Pawlenty by 7. Now consider that Pawlenty adds 10-13 points to McCain's total against any other Democratic VP, creating a 5-8 point McCain win. The Republican governor is strong in his home state, but the Carolina mill worker's son is even stronger.

Mitt Romney is strong in Michigan, where his father was governor. His presence on the ticket inflates McCain's 4-point lead to as much as 19! But against Edwards, that lead drops to 3.

I think there's upside even to these strong numbers. The economy is going into recession, and economic issues are even bigger than the war in most voters' minds. According to the latest polling, 88% of voters regard the economy as a 'Very Important' issue, more than anything else. (There's a 3-way tie at 78%, between education, jobs, and health care.)

We should have confidence in Barack Obama's foresight on Iraq to stand at the core of an appealing foreign policy message. Economic issues are among McCain's least-known vulnerabilities (take a look at his voting record on the minimum wage) and we need a VP who can swing the hammer of economic populism until he breaks. Nobody does that better than John Edwards.

Neil Sinhababu 5:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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By: dday

Now that large, sweeping majorities of Americans favor high-level meetings with those nations considered "enemies," can we end this idea that the country is filled with jingoistic imperialists who want the sun never to set on the American empire? Actually, the public considers that a dangerous and radical view, never mind the fact that it's promoted by the current President and the presumptive Republican nominee. But it's not like the collective memory of the country has been shut off. People remember Nixon visiting China, Reagan talking with Gorbachev, Clinton trying to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and so on. It was in the deeper recesses of that collective brain until a Presidential candidate decided to assert it pretty forcefully, snapping us out of this neocon malaise. This does in a sense show the power of ideas once they are publicly stated by leaders instead of hidden away for fear that political opponents will use them as a weapon.

dday 3:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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By: Cheryl Rofer

EXTRAORDINARY RENDITION CONTINUED....Reprieve, a human rights organization (UK branch, US branch), claims that the United States is using prison ships to keep prisoners outside legal jurisdictions. They say that there have been more than 200 new cases of rendition since 2006, when President George Bush declared that the practice had stopped.

A US Navy spokesman denied that such things were happening. Members of the British Parliament are calling for an investigation.

Cheryl Rofer 10:01 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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By: Cheryl Rofer

MARK PENN SPEAKS....but doesn't say much.

Does he wish he'd taken a sabbatical from lobbying? Penn's answer is the closest he comes to expressing any regrets about his campaign work. "I think that we - you know, with the benefit of hindsight, we might have done things somewhat differently. I'll spend some time analysing that." He won't quite admit to having any regrets about the campaign as a whole, though. "In these races, if you win you all win, and if you lose you all lose. You have to take your share of the responsibility. There is always, in everything, something that could have been done differently."

Cheryl Rofer 8:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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June 1, 2008
By: Neil Sinhababu

FORESIGHT....In response to all sorts of different questions about Barack Obama -- Why should we support him? How is a first-term Senator suddenly winning the nomination? How can he beat John McCain? What kind of President will he be? -- I like to point to these three paragraphs from his 2002 speech against the Iraq War:

But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.

I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.

I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars.

What's special about this speech isn't just that Obama opposes the war. It's that he clearly and concisely predicts several major problems with it, and his predictions have been borne out by history. We had superior ways of dealing with whatever threats Saddam presented, reconstructing the country would be a mess, and the war would strengthen al-Qaeda. Obama made these points at a time when Democrats with political ambitions were falling over themselves to look tough on foreign policy by supporting a war they'd later regret.

Perhaps the most under-remarked fact about the Democratic primary is that if Hillary Clinton had Obama's foresight on the Iraq War, she'd be our nominee today and he probably wouldn't have bothered to run. She had the profile to become the leader of the doves in the Senate, a position that would've gained value dramatically as the war turned out to be a disaster. There might've been a challenge from the right, but she would've consolidated left-wing support and won easily. Instead, she became one of the more hawkish Democrats in the Senate, and was probably the most hawkish figure onstage during the Democratic debates. Without even seriously repenting her mistaken vote on the biggest foreign policy question of our time, it's a surprise that she got as far as she did.

Obama's foresight is also going to be a tremendous advantage in the general election. John McCain blew the biggest foreign policy question of our time, and he's still proud to have voted as he did. (Fortunately, two thirds of Americans are aware that the war was a mistake, though it's unclear if they know how extreme McCain's views are.) McCain claims his experience as an advantage, but the point of experience is supposed to be that you don't make wrong decisions and get thousands of our soldiers killed for no reason. Obama, by contrast, figured out that the war was a bad idea from the beginning. I look forward to seeing this contrast emphasized in the general election.

I want a president whose foreign policy is guided more by rational evaluation of the situations we face than a desire to look tough. And with Barack Obama, that's what I'm getting. Even if your major progressive interests lie elsewhere, making foreign policy a perceived Democratic strength will help you achieve your goals. With Obama's foresight -- both as he exercised it in 2002, and as he'll exercise it in office -- we can do that.

Neil Sinhababu 2:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (133)

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By: Cheryl Rofer

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL....A lot of people didn't like the latest Indiana Jones movie. I did.

Here's a review that I think makes some fair points. Much of the less formal criticism (for example) revolves around believability, particularly of the computer-generated effects.

I must admit that I'm not cognizant of the criteria for believability in a movie, whether it's in relationships or chase scenes. When the convention of the hero being shot at and inevitably missed first sprang up, it took only five or six shots to convince us that he must be dead and the bad guy out of ammo. As we've become desensitized, we require thousands of rounds from automatic weapons for the same effect, but even though we know how the scene will end, those shots still raise our anxiety. So why not computer-generated ants?

A movie, particularly a genre movie, is a balance of convention, surprise and what the viewer brings to it. I bring a penchant for seeing symbols and subtexts where others tell me they are not, a dollop of New Mexico, and a tiny bit of shared history with Harrison Ford.

The movie's first scene was shot down the hill from here (you can see the distinctive Ghost Ranch cliffs in the distance in my photo), leading to the "Nevada" test site, which I think was located on the other side of these mountains. That gave me another of those disconnections that come from being too familiar with the scenery, so I'm not sure that the guys in the trucks in the first scene were the Russians in the next. But that was okay, because the gate really did look like the gate to the Alamogordo test site in New Mexico, where the first nuclear test was done, and my friends who have seen nuclear tests tell me that this one was very accurately portrayed. (Is that a spoiler? Maybe I should put a jump here.)

They also tell me that Indy needed about a foot of paraffin in that refrigerator to protect against neutrons. I can quibble with the best of them.

Another movie I really enjoyed was "The Matrix." I'm not sure that any of that movie was believable, but it was enjoyable, playing on that adolescent (and never quite gone for some of us) suspicion that we are merely players strutting on the stage (oh, sorry, that's from a play). "The Matrix" gives us a key to any movie: it's a simulacrum. So the questions become what we like in simulacra and how the similacra engage our realities or vice versa.

I almost always enjoy the cartoonish action picture if it's creative enough. I share the opinion that this latest Indy film could have been more creative, although I have to say that I can't come up with any better ideas. But that's not all there is to Indiana Jones movies. They also are sendups of their own genre, plus whatever else falls into their maw.

The bad guys were Russians. I am hearing that today's real Russians don't like the way Russians are portrayed in this movie, but that shows that they don't understand the nature of similacra, or that this simulacrum didn't fit their preferences, possibly both. The Russians in the movie are the 1950s American stereotype of Russians, which, it turns out, was what some of the more dedicated Communists were like back then, which is probably what stings. I suspect that Russian young people, born after the death of the Soviet Union, have a better feeling for simulacra and will not be damaged by the film.

I also enjoy the unfolding of mysteries, of which the temple mechanism was an intriguing if nerdishly complex example, progressing to its Indy-conventional destruction. The transformation of the site was impressive, climaxing with an evocation of Atlantis. If you've got Roswell, Area 51, and Peruvian pyramids, why not Atlantis?

The fifties nostalgia was fun, all the way to the wedding scene at the happy ending. If this is going to be the last Indiana Jones film, it needed to end that way. And, in another Indy-convention, of course the treasure was returned.

In college, I was not very good at uncovering symbolism and subtexts, but as I get older, they seem to be everywhere. "The Crystal Skull" provided a plethora of aggressive Nietzschean abysses, into which people (including Indy) kept staring. Other symbolic and mythological references soared through, which I found amusing at the time but don't recall just now. This Indy adventure, it seemed to me, owed more to Dr. Tyree than the earlier ones.

Unlike Harrison Ford, I never took a course in philosophy from Dr. Tyree at Ripon College, but it was a small enough place that most of us knew about most of the professors. It seemed to me that Ford's performance as Indy-in-the-classroom owed something to Dr. Tyree, who, yes, is a real person, and yes, he taught philosophy, but I doubt he would have ever characterized it as "the truth."

With all that, plus a lovely working-out of a metaphor I've used often for a project that ultimately was done in by office politics ("I knew the cliff was coming, but I wanted to go over it at full speed..."), how could I not enjoy another Indiana Jones movie?

Cross-posted at WhirledView.

Cheryl Rofer 1:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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