Sunday, December 31, 2006

Soul Without Faith
As I meant to write about a few days back, the LA Times recently published what I thought was an excellent guest essay about atheism and the misconceptions connected to it. It got me thinking, for the first time in awhile, about what I believe in the area of faith and spirituality. For a long time now, I've described myself as a Deist or a "biased agnostic": I'm not sure if there is a God or divine entity, but I hope there is. It seems that a fairly large group of people react to the word "agnostic" with disdain, feeling that it's something of a cop-out: you either believe in God, and presumably express that belief through one of the major monotheistic faiths that have millions of followers in America, or you don't.

The author of the Times piece, evidently, does not--but, like me, he absolutely rejects the notion that morality or spirituality cannot exist outside of an organized religious framework:

7) Atheists are closed to spiritual experience.

There is nothing that prevents an atheist from experiencing love, ecstasy, rapture and awe; atheists can value these experiences and seek them regularly. What atheists don't tend to do is make unjustified (and unjustifiable) claims about the nature of reality on the basis of such experiences. There is no question that some Christians have transformed their lives for the better by reading the Bible and praying to Jesus. What does this prove? It proves that certain disciplines of attention and codes of conduct can have a profound effect upon the human mind. Do the positive experiences of Christians suggest that Jesus is the sole savior of humanity? Not even remotely — because Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and even atheists regularly have similar experiences.
10) Atheism provides no basis for morality.

If a person doesn't already understand that cruelty is wrong, he won't discover this by reading the Bible or the Koran — as these books are bursting with celebrations of cruelty, both human and divine. We do not get our morality from religion. We decide what is good in our good books by recourse to moral intuitions that are (at some level) hard-wired in us and that have been refined by thousands of years of thinking about the causes and possibilities of human happiness.

We have made considerable moral progress over the years, and we didn't make this progress by reading the Bible or the Koran more closely. Both books condone the practice of slavery — and yet every civilized human being now recognizes that slavery is an abomination. Whatever is good in scripture — like the golden rule — can be valued for its ethical wisdom without our believing that it was handed down to us by the creator of the universe.

Emphasis mine. I used to describe organized religion, particularly the Judeo-Christian tradition, as "the training wheels of morality." That phrase strikes me now as too smug and arrogant, as well as too dismissive of the positive benefits of religious socialization--e.g. the very admirable charity/community work that many large churches, synagogues, mosques et al sponsor and support. But the core notion, that one shouldn't need the Ten Commandments or the New Testament or any religious text to guide one's behavior in the world, still holds true for me. Empirical experience bears out that this is the best way to behave: the Golden Rule and the behavioral admonitions of the Commandments minimize conflict and generally lead to more peaceful communities and more satisfied and satisfying lives.

Otherwise, the question of faith in a divinity is ultimately a private one. I simply don't know: my sense is that there is something beyond the immediately tangible, some kind of "world beyond the world"--that, as one spiritual leader once put it, "luminous beings are we--not this crude matter." But it's a storybook conceit: I have no proof that this feeling of mine isn't anything more than the result of countless personal, familial, and cultural inputs and experiences (like watching Star Wars so many times as a kid).

Set against this--and I believe this is why a significant number of liberals have an active animus against organized religion--is all the damage we've seen wreaked in its name, from the Spanish Inquisition to this morning's unreported violence in the Iraq civil war. But this isn't fair either--it holds both God and the virtuous faithful to account for crimes they had nothing to do with, unless you believe that the uglier exhortations of the holy texts were direct quotes.

Faiths should be seen and read in the real world as any other institutions that seek to exert temporal influence: governments, armies, political parties, advocacy organizations. And moral systems should stand or fall on their own merits, based on their real-world performance and consequences. Eventually humankind should be able to reap the benefits of religion's moral guidance without having to bear the consequences of the fundamental divisions it inspires.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Of Polls and Purpose
If I really wanted to bring myself down from happy contemplation of the Eagles' huge win yesterday, I might spend a few minutes trying to calculate how much money already has been spent on utterly meaningless 2008 presidential primary polling, how much more will be spent before the end of 2007--the earliest point at which I could imagine those polls will have any predictive or determinative value--and all the better purposes to which that money could be put. A look at the "Election Central Polltracker" section of Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo today informs us that as of two days ago, John McCain would narrowly edge Hillary Clinton, Al Gore or John Kerry and runs even with John Edwards... for the November 2008 general race... in New Hampshire. Barack Obama beats all the leading Republicans, all the Democrats beat Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani is stronger against every Democrat but Obama.

Really: who the frak cares, and could this be any less meaningful? It's fully possible that *no* combination polled for actually will head the tickets on Election Day 22 1/2 months hence, and by then we'll know so much more about the candidates that current opinion probably will bear no resemblence to voters' sentiments at that point. Primary polls for the winter 2008 contest in the state are only slightly more useful, and they show Giuliani, McCain, Clinton and Obama in the best position. McCain, obviously, is known in the state and knows how to win in New Hampshire; Rudy's myriad personal problems likely aren't as well known. Obama is a Rorschach candidate on whom everyone is projecting their hopes; I like him too, but it's just impossible really to know what his candidacy will be like.

Still, Obama has one advantage over Hillary Clinton that I don't think will go away, an edge he shares with John Edwards, and arguably with McCain and some of the lesser known candidates on the Republican side. His campaign is more likely to have a clear purpose and rationale, and my read of the last 50 years of presidential politics is that candidates who make the race for an easily understandable reason do better in both the primary and general elections. JFK's "pass the torch" generational appeal in 1960; Jimmy Carter's reform and integrity rationale in 1976; Reagan's nostalgic conservatism four years later; Bill Clinton's notion of reclaiming government for the middle class in 1992; Bush's "we hate turr'ists 'n homos" re-election win in 2004. Occasionally, tactics and money are enough to win races without clear themes, as in 1988 and 2000. But most of the time it's either a referendum on the performance of the incumbent (1984, 1996), or a contest of whose vision is stronger and clearer.

(As an aside, I should point out that the rationale theory doesn't totally hold up: when the rationale is explicitly ideological, as it is with these two guys, it's very tough to make a sale. Probably to our benefit, we are not an ideological country.)

The emerging theme of Obama '08 is reconciliation and an end to the vicious political wars of the last 20 years--begun by Lee Atwater with the victory of the first President Bush in 1988, stoked to fever pitch first by the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign and then by the ascendance of Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay, and brought to its most extreme point by Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman in 2004, when their brutal and brilliant tactics dragged a failed incumbent to re-election victory over a feckless opponent. With the same playbook deployed to losing effect in 2006, and the problems of the nation too pressing to ignore much longer, the chance for a cease-fire is real, and Obama could be the man to make the peace. He's devout, aware and salutarily critical of some of the dumber tenets demanded by true-believer Democrats, and has a biography that embodies some of the contradictions that must be reconciled: black and white, big city (Chicago, where he made his name) and rural (Kansas, where he was born). As a fresh face, he could be much more palatable for lifelong Republicans than veterans of the long political war--particularly Hillary Clinton, who's almost a symbol of the zero-sum politics of her time. But more on her in a bit.

Edwards too has an emerging rationale: social and economic justice. His plan to announce a second presidential run from the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, where the disaster of Hurricane Katrina has never really ended, seems designed in part to seize the moral high ground from Obama and every other Democrat: I'm sure he'll be criticized in cable news circles for being a "downer," and dismissed for his naivete in calling for the country to live its values. But to run that sort of campaign with any hope of victory, you need to have an innately likable personality--and Edwards probably qualifies there. Add in his clear opposition to the war, strong ties with unions, and evidently much-improved campaign chops, and he could be a force.

Al Gore, if he chose to run, would have two compelling rationales: unmaking the tragic mistake of 2000--a mistake for which he shares some responsibility--and dramatic action on climate change. Wes Clark could offer the idea of how America acts in the world, based on his military career and success in the Balkans. But I don't know if that will be enough, even though Clark's the guy I plan to support right now.

John McCain has a unique problem: the rationale he offered in 2000--reform and moderation at home, purpose and power abroad--is unpalatable to the Republican primary electorate and to some extent has been discredited by the actions of the Bush administration. If he'd left the Republican Party in 2005 to prepare for an independent presidential run, he might have been unbeatable. Now he has to toe the line as a Bush pseudo-conservative through the primaries, then hope he can shed his costume and re-emerge as Radical Centrist McCain for the general election. I don't think it's going to happen. The other leading Republicans have their own problems: Rudy Giuliani is trying to run on a cult of personality and the emotional resonance of his 9/11 performance, but he might be approaching the sell-by date for that, and his personality won't wear well in small-town Iowa and New Hampshire. Mitt Romney is running a campaign that strikes me as oddly similar to that of John Kerry two years ago: emphasizing what he's not rather than what he is. And he's already starting to crash on the same rocks that sank Kerry in 2004: the perception that he's an opportunist and flip-flopper.

That leaves Hillary Clinton. I don't know many hardcore Hillary supporters; I'm not sure there are that many outside the professional Democratic establishment, where it's presumably difficult to parse true belief from careerism. But I'd love to ask them why they think Hillary should run, and why she will run, if she does. Is it Clinton Restorationism? Newsflash: this ain't no hereditary monarchy. Breaking gender barriers? Maybe, but that's just not very compelling, I think. Any policy goal? The next big idea Mrs. Clinton offers will be her first as a Senator.

No, I think that like fellow New York pol Giuliani, this is a cult of personality campaign. The problem is that the personality isn't very compelling: if a group of relatively well-informed Americans of diverse political viewpoints were asked to describe Hillary Clinton, I think the most common words coming back might include "scripted," "cold," and "calculating." (And yeah, those are the words I'd use: I'm well aware that I might be overgeneralizing from my own opinion. But then, it is my blog.)

She's evidently good in small-group settings, her money will help, and she has the best political mind in the country (Bill, of course) to help her. But that lack of an answer to the simple question "why" is big--and combined with the strengths of her opponents and a media that will be relentless in picking her apart, I just don't believe it will be enough.
Flyin' High
Here begins lots of posting today--on the Philadelphia Eagles, the 2008 presidential race, and last but not least the minor question of humanity's relationship to the divine. Gotta love vacation.

First, the best news: the Birds delivered a magnificent Xmas treat to millions of football-crazed Philadelphians and displaced natives yesterday with a 23-7 dismantling of the hated Dallas Cowboys. Unlike most memorable Eagles wins this year, Monday's contest was almost entirely stress-free: the team came out of the gate fast, and the gameplan--superb for a second straight week, on both sides of the ball--was designed to win the fourth quarter. Once the Eagles got the ball back in the third quarter leading 16-7--after a huge drop by Terrell Owens, Christmas Ass, that could have put the Cowboys on the doorstep of a game-tightening touchdown--there wasn't much doubt: the Eagles' offensive line, among the biggest in the NFL and suffused with the nasty attitude of mainstay tackles Jon Runyan and William (Tre) Thomas, just ground the fast but small Cowboys defensive front seven into dust. With the lead, and fresh legs from the clock-consuming drives the offense kept putting together, the Birds' defenders were able to force Dallas to play their game: passing three-quarters of the time, having to keep extra men in to block against the ferocious but disciplined blitzes Jim Johnson kept calling. By the end, the Cowboys looked completely beaten, and their fans streamed out of Jerkwad Stadium by the middle of the fourth quarter.

Just wish I could have said to the luxury box crowd: "You might have screwed up our country pretty good, but at least we kicked your punk ass at football."

A few other points on the most satisfying Eagles win since the January 2005 NFC Championship game:

  • Ever since Ray Rhodes came in as coach for the 1995 season, it's been trendy among Eagles fans to knock the West Coast offense. Maybe this is because it's a finesse attack that doesn't comport with cold-weather East Coast notions of how you win football games in December; maybe it stems from the fact that its downsides--difficulty running out the clock with a late lead, getting overly cutesy with formations, the reported post-doc complexity of the playbook--often have been more immediately noticable than its benefits. But it's clearly a system that, in the hands of a master operator who really needs its structure to thrive, can be a thing of beauty. The Eagles now have such an operator in Jeff Garcia. He's not the physical player that injured Donovan McNabb is, and this isn't to badmouth McNabb--who, after all, was headed back to the Pro Bowl before he got hurt, and remains probably the best quarterback in franchise history. But McNabb (or at least the pre-ACL tear McNabb) could fake defenders out of their cleats, throw the ball 60 yards across his body on a dead run, and generally turn disaster into glory by virtue of his physical gifts and improvisational mastery. Garcia, a less innately talented guy, has to get everything he can out of the system. Combined with better game-planning that leverages the size and athleticism of the O-line and the new willingness to ride the talents of all-world back Brian Westbrook, Garcia gets more out of this system.

  • As badly coached as the Eagles looked while losing five out of six games, they look that good now. Not only the play-calling, which has been superlative, but the fundamentals. Their penalties are down, aside from some of the questionable calls in the Giants game last week; they are no longer dropping a half-dozen passes a game (I think two in the last two weeks, both by Thomas Tapeh); they've become sure-handed tacklers; special-teams coverage units are staying in their lanes and minimizing returns. When they hit 5-6, I thought that after seven and a half years, the team had tuned out Andy Reid and his staff; I couldn't have been more wrong.

  • The play following personnel changes on defense hasn't been as evident as the offensive turnaround after Garcia took the reins, but it's been just as important. Rookie OLB Omar Gaither, who was really an afterthought in a ballyhooed draft class that included Broderick Bunkley, Winston Justice and Jeremy Bloom, has been a playmaking force since winning a starting job. Second-year safety Sean Considine isn't as athletic as his mates in the defensive backfield, but he's a solid tackler who plays well in the scheme. And Bunkley, the star-crossed rookie who's had trouble getting on the field, has been a big key to stuffing the run the last two weeks; the normal problem with rookies in December--fatigue after playing more games than the college schedule calls for--hasn't affected him, because he hardly played before this month.

The Eagles did not handle success well earlier this year: after the last Dallas game, they lost three straight and in each of them, they didn't seem to be all there until well into the second half. Another lapse now, and all the current good feeling will be gone in two weeks' time after a first-round playoff loss. But the way they've played in their last two games, completing a march of destruction through the home stadiums of their bitterest NFC East rivals, this team can take anybody. A month ago, January football seemed an impossibility; now it's legitimately worth getting excited about.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Last Lull
Nobody is really focusing on it at the moment, but this month of December 2006 could be the last period of relative political peace and calm for at least two years, probably more.

When the 110th Congress convenes in January, there will be four main orders of business: doing the budgetary work willfully left behind by the outgoing 109th, implementing the Democrats' "100 Hour Agenda" that includes raising the minimum wage, making more money available for college financial aid, and other broadly popular provisions; starting to redress the near-total absence of executive-branch oversight that has allowed the Bush administration to run riot the last four years; and determining some new direction for policy in Iraq. The whole point of the Republicans leaving #1 undone was to throw down a roadblock for #2 (Nice, huh? Why bother doing the country's business when there are political fights to be waged? That's a big part of why you lost, fellas); #3 is going to roll forward and likely will trigger an unending series of battles between Congressional subpoena wielders like Henry Waxman and various executive departments, notably that of Citizen Dick Cheney.

But it's #4, the Iraq conundrum, that's riveting everyone's attention right now. In part this is politics as usual: the Republicans are desperate to somehow make Iraq The Democrats' Problem Too, while the Democrats are terrified of making the political misstep that would reopen them to accusations of not supporting the troops. The Iraq Study Group moment seems to have come and gone; it wasn't condemnatory enough to satisfy the Democrats, nor was it sufficiently jingoistic or reality-resistant to find an appreciative audience amongst the dead-enders who still see this accursed war as worthwhile. It's not my point here, but I wonder if the likely fate of the ISG's work--to sink under the waves with hardly a ripple to speak of--doesn't indicate something larger about the final collapse of the bipartisan and consensus-driven model that once obtained for US foreign policy.

Throughout the virtual realm of the Left Blogosphere, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid is taking some shots today for his evident conditional support of the administration's plan to throw more troops into the meat grinder. It's a valid debate on several levels--whether Reid's signal is good politics for the Democrats, whether it's a morally repellent stance even if he's right on the politics, and whether this idea has anything on the merits to recommend it--but, to my view, somewhat misses the point: evidently, we don't really have the troops to do it.

One reason why is the fundamental flaw of the Bush administration: the president and his people have never even tried to appeal to an American patriotism that asks for more than a ribbon sticker on the family minivan. While I no longer have much regard for John McCain, I still believe that in this one aspect, at least, he'd try to show the leadership that Bush never exhibits: I could see McCain getting on TV, attempting to articulate why this war is so important after all, and encouraging citizens to enlist.

But Bush can't and won't do that: not now, not ever. The core principle of his administration is that, as Margaret Thatcher once put it, "There's no such thing as society." We have no ties to each other: as such, there's no reason to enlist in the military, or take action to help the people of New Orleans, or even to pay slightly higher taxes today so our kids don't get it in the neck tomorrow.

It's a classic "free rider problem": those who already have agreed to sacrifice, by virtue of joining the military (whether they did so with an expectation of combat or not), are just ordered to do ever more, so the rest of us need not be bothered. As the holidays approach, it seems to me that the real moral question is whether we can ask any more of those who already have given so much, for such nebulous purpose.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Another Brainwashed Romney
As some readers well know and others probably have figured out, I maintain an abiding interest in the 1968 presidential race. I believe it was a huge turning point, not just in American politics but in American history: you had the final crackup of the Democratic coalition (and nearly the same on the Republican side; if either Rockefeller or Reagan had seized the nomination from Nixon at the Miami convention, you wouldn't have had Chicago-style riots in the streets, but you might have seen a third-party emergence), the last of the traumatic trio of assassinations that defined the Sixties for many (which also ensured the Democratic crackup; RFK might have held things together for one more cycle), and the beginning of the long national disenchantment with politics that so deepened in the early 1970s and arguably bottomed out with Bush v. Gore 32 years later.

Nearly forgotten in all of that year's drama was a remarkable act of political self-destruction by a man whom many felt, in 1967, had as good a chance to win the '68 election as anybody: Republican Governor George Romney of Michigan. But with one remarkably ill-chosen statement during the Summer of Love, Romney flushed his own hopes down the drain:

In a taped interview with Lou Gordon of WKBD-TV in Detroit, Romney stated, "When I came back from Viet Nam [in November 1965], I'd just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get." He then shifted to opposing the war: "I no longer believe that it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam to stop Communist aggression in Southeast Asia," he declared. Decrying the "tragic" conflict, he urged "a sound peace in South Vietnam at an early time." Thus Romney disavowed the war and reversed himself from his earlier stated belief that the war was "morally right and necessary." The connotations of brainwashing following the experiences of the American prisoners of war (highlighted by the film The Manchurian Candidate) made Romney's comments devastating to his status as the GOP front-runner. Republican Congressman Robert Stafford of Vermont sounded a common concern: "If you're running for the presidency," he asserted, "you are supposed to have too much on the ball to be brainwashed." (Johns 2000) At the National Convention Romney finished a weak 6th with only 50 votes on the first ballot (44 of Michigan's 48 plus 6 from Utah).

Fast-forward forty years, and another Romney with presidential ambitions could be on the verge of repeating his father's mistake. Mitt Romney, son of the Michigan governor and himself the outgoing governor of Massachusetts after two terms in office, is trying to position himself as a social conservative--the thing to be, of course, in Republican presidential politics today.

There's just one problem: during his political career in Massachusetts, he expressed sentiments rather more tolerant than those befitting a consistently hate-addled True Believer. During his competitive but ultimately unsuccessful 1994 Senate race against Ted Kennedy, for instance, Romney pledged in a letter to the Log Cabin Club of Massachusetts that he would be a stronger advocate for gay equality than Kennedy, and praised then-President Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy as “the first in a number of steps that will ultimately lead to gays’ and lesbians’ being able to serve openly and honestly in our nation’s military.”

And now he's being called on it:
[T]he breadth of the letter’s language and the specificity of many of the pledges stunned conservative leaders. Many of them had turned to Mr. Romney as a conservative alternative to Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, whose position on issues like abortion had been considered suspect.

“This is quite disturbing,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, who had praised Mr. Romney as a champion of traditional values at the group’s conference in late September. “This type of information is going to create a lot of problems for Governor Romney. He is going to have a hard time overcoming this.”

Paul Weyrich, a founder of the modern conservative movement, said: “Unless he comes out with an abject repudiation of this, I think it makes him out to be a hypocrite. And if he totally repudiates this, you have to ask, on what grounds?”

The letter, and Mr. Romney’s effort to reconcile it with the way he had presented himself on the campaign trail, reflects what has been one of the central challenges facing him in his campaign: how to move from winning an election in one of the most liberal states in the union to becoming the presidential candidate of a party whose nominating process is dominated by social conservatives.

Romney is trying to square that circle by stressing his opposition to gay marriage, implicitly arguing that the other stuff--anti-discrimination measures, gays serving in the military--is less important. For a general-election race, this probably serves him well: gay marriage remains short of majority support (though that won't be the case in as few as 10 years, and almost certainly no more than 30), but the public doesn't support explicit discrimination against gays. But that's not going to do in a contest where the electorate is largely and unapologetically homophobic: to paraphrase another Republican presidential hopeful of the 1960s, when it comes to hating on gays, people like Perkins, Weyrich, and Radical Cleric James Dobson see moderation as no virtue and extremism as no vice.

(This problem, plus others having to do with his temperament and scandalous past, is also going to screw Rudy Giuliani, who richly deserves it. I'm just sorry that it could well be Rudy's most honorable political virtue--his steadfast support of gay rights--that's going to do him in, rather than his myriad personal/political vices.)

The great hope of homophobic "social conservatives," Rick Santorum, obviously won't be making the race after getting his ass handed to him in a Senate re-election race last month. But there's still Sam Brownshirt--I mean, Brownback--who's got the bigotry bona fides right-wing religious leaders crave: just a couple weeks ago, Brownback publicly considered blocking a Bush judicial nominee for her great sin of appearing at a "commitment ceremony" honoring the relationship of two women. To beat that, maybe Romney can burn the women in effigy--and then, of course, claim he was "brainwashed" by all those years amongs the god-hating liberals of Massachusetts.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Malice, or Incompetence?
Today the Washington Post offers two historians' early assessments on George W. Bush's likely place in history. Eric Foner of Columbia is pretty straightforward in his take: Bush is the Worst.President.Ever, combining Nixon's arrogance and partisan spite with Buchanan's ineptitude and Harding's tolerance for corruption.

His former colleague Douglas Brinkley, now at Tulane, has a somewhat different take: Bush is bad, but his failures are those of stubbornness and misjudgment: if I'm reading this right, Brinkley argues that Bush is above the very bottom rung by virtue of his personal integrity:

Though Bush may be viewed as a laughingstock, he won't have the zero-integrity factors that have kept Nixon and Harding at the bottom in the presidential sweepstakes. Oddly, the president whom Bush most reminds me of is Herbert Hoover, whose name is synonymous with failure to respond to the Great Depression. When the stock market collapsed, Hoover, for ideological reasons, did too little. When 9/11 happened, Bush did too much, attacking the wrong country at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. He has joined Hoover as a case study on how not to be president.

You might not be surprised to read that I think this lets Bush off much too easily. Brinkley--a fine historian and really excellent writer, by the way--inspired me to do something I almost never do: write a letter in response. Here the gist of it:

While I think your assessment is mostly on the mark, I must take strong issue--as I'm sure many others will as well--with one sentence:

"Though Bush may be viewed as a laughingstock, he won't have the zero-integrity factors that have kept Nixon and Harding at the bottom in the presidential sweepstakes."

This is only the case if you're willing to give Bush a pass on all of the following:

--Manipulation and "stove-piping" of pre-war intelligence for his "war of choice"
--The leaking of Valerie Plame's identity and other actions of "pushback" against war critics
--Intentionally misleading Congress about the estimated costs of Medicare Part D
--Executive-branch involvement in the nexus of Abramoff-related scandals

This is just off the top of my head; I'm sure that a brief Google search would yield many more.

It's also worth noting, of course, that Nixon's "zero-integrity" misdeeds surfaced in no small part because he had a Democratic-majority Congress willing to stand up to him. With the exception of a razor-thin Senate majority for 16 months or so, the Democrats have had no institutional footing to stand up to or investigate Bush through his first six years in office.

And while you might be correct that Bush is "an honest man"--though the families who have lost loved ones in the Persian Gulf or the Gulf Coast might disagree--I believe people often described Harding in similar terms.

The great criticism of Harding, as I understand it, was that he was a weak leader who didn't exercise control of his subordinates or cronies. Despite his much-lauded "resolve," I think the same can be said of Bush--or, perhaps more accurately, he isn't so much weak as indifferent and unengaged. Thus he supported borderline-delusional ideologues in the Defense Department, hired and praised utterly incompetent and unqualified hacks like "Brownie," and acceded in staffing the Iraq Provisional Authority (among many executive-controlled departments and agencies) with twenty-something Republican operatives whose career aspirations were more along the lines of Lee Atwater than George Marshall. So the choice as I see it, in assessing Bush's record is this: was he malicious, or just stunningly incompetent?

In terms of performance, I suspect Bush is the worst, and I find his presence in the office to be a walking, talking middle finger to the notion of meritocracy: had he been born George W. Smith, his life possibilities would have ranged from Town Drunk to Assistant Manager at a sporting-goods store.

But it also must be said that, terrible as his performance has been, the consequences of it for the day-to-day lives of most Americans--obviously, with tragic exceptions such as those who were thrown into the Iraq meat grinder or saw their lives destroyed by Katrina--have been relatively light. At least to this point, if there was ever a moment when we as a country could "afford" a president as disastrously bad as George W. Bush has been, it was probably 2001-2009. The damage, unfortunately, is likely to accrue later on, when all the problems we've failed to deal with during his period of misrule--fossil fuel dependency and climate change, the shift to a post-industrial economy and demographic transformation of the populace and labor force, and the widening "opportunity gap" between the children of the poor and everyone else--ripen further.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Martyr and the Mischief-Maker
(Note: I posted a slightly more polite--but still too mean for the faithful--version of this entry at Daily Kos: see here if you're wondering how this was received by the lefty sheep)

The Democratic polemicist David Sirota recently wrote on Daily Kos asking the same plaintive question that Democrats have been wondering for almost forty years now: Where is Our Bobby Kennedy?

It's an odd question for Sirota to ask. This is the guy who helped turn the liberal challenge against Joe Lieberman in Connecticut into something of a jihad, who's assailed Barack Obama as an empty-suit sellout, and who's constantly pushing every Democrat on the national scene to be more absolutist, more unyielding, more extreme, more confrontational. He's the enemy of equivocation, compromise and inconstancy--all traits that the flesh-and-blood RFK, as opposed to the sainted memory of the man, showed throughout his too-brief career in public life.

Remember the circumstances by which Robert F. Kennedy went from a talented but ambivalently regarded inside political operator to the great martyr of the modern American left. The loss of his brother humanized RFK, transforming him from "JFK's Haldeman" best known for his sharp elbows in the 1960 campaign and his stint working for Joe McCarthy, into a figure of popular sympathy. But that didn't immediately translate into power: Kennedy's strange journey in 1964, running a carpetbagger Senate campaign in New York simultaneously on the coattails of and at arm's-length from LBJ, ended in victory, but he won by a full two million votes less than Johnson's margin in the Empire State.

Over the next three years, he tiptoed toward and back away from the mantle of progressive leadership from within the Democratic Party, pushed on the one hand by idealistic young aides like Peter Edelman (who remains a great progressive champion in his own right today) and on the other by the old politicos who'd advised his brother and were keeping an eye on the 1972 presidential campaign for Bobby. Kennedy's equivocation on Vietnam and his personal rivalry with Johnson captured press attention, and his occasional brilliant speech on South African apartheid and Appalachian poverty indicated some growth and deepening in his character. But he was neither a powerful lawmaker nor an unambiguous public champion--more show horse than work horse.

When it became clear that a large faction within the dominant Democratic coalition, led by the liberal New York activist Allard Lowenstein, was going to push an intra-party challenge to Johnson in 1968, Bobby was the man they wanted. But, with the Sorensons and O'Donnells whsipering in his ear to keep his powder dry for '72, he wouldn't commit--and it fell to Eugene McCarthy, who had his own personal animus against LBJ, to pick up the standard. The David Sirotas of that time eagerly and entirely gave themselves over to Gene; the Tet Offensive in January 1968 transformed the debate over Vietnam; and McCarthy nearly upset Johnson in the New Hampshire primary, coming close to a majority of the votes and winning most of the delegates. Only then did RFK join the race; soon after that, LBJ withdrew, and the progressives enjoyed four days of bliss before Dr. King was assassinated and the horrors of 1968 began in earnest.

If Sirota had been active in the mid-to-late 1960s, I have absolutely no doubt that he, of all people, would have assailed RFK as an unprincipled sellout, a vampire sucking at the lifeblood of the great and good McCarthy who was trying to justify, or at very best make an insignificant gesture of atonement toward, the deeply immoral Vietnam policy Bobby himself had helped craft as the sinister helpmeet to his similarly unprincipled brother. Two scions of the Establishment, Sirota would have called them, trading on their looks and charisma to manipulate the emotions of the people toward the goal of perpetuating the power of monsters like their father.

It need hardly be said that the Kennedys' heroism is in no small part a product of their untimely deaths; they did a fair amount of nasty stuff, as was noted at the time. JFK's 1960 victory was greatly aided not just by Mayor Daley's shenanigans in Illinois, but by just enough racist pandering to keep the South in the Democratic column. And even in RFK's last campaign in California, he made some of the same appeals to soft racism--implying that McCarthy would favor building tenements in white suburban communities outside LA--that would help Nixon win the election.

Sirota would have hammered Kennedy on these points, on all the Kennedys' compromises and corner-cuttings. Just as, if he'd lived in the time of FDR, or Lincoln, he would have gone after those presidents for their moral failings. That those men might have known what they were doing--just as, perhaps, did RFK, or similarly flawed heroes of today--never occurs to the infallible Sirota types.

What Sirota constantly fails to understand--as was never more evident than in his imbecilic and infantile Nation hit piece on Barack Obama a few months back--is that the (notionally) principled heroes of the Gene McCarthy or Russ Feingold type are history's lovable losers: the people who at most can set the stage for a pragmatic leader to come in and accomplish real change--and at least as often, in their unassailably good intentions, pave the road to hell. Consider the possibility that the McCarthy and RFK challenges to the undeniably flawed Lyndon Johnson opened the door to Nixon's election and the disasters, from the perpetuation of the war to Watergate and the permanent degradation of our politics, that followed.

Yes, the world needs Charles Sumner types to lay down the occasional moral marker. But it takes a Lincoln--and, dear lord, how Sirota would have flayed his habeus-suspending, slavery-equivocating ass--to bring the country toward that better place. That the leader can't get them as far, or as fast, as one might prefer, is the sad reality of history... but that these people are subsequently venerated suggests that they did the best they could, and on balance succeeded brilliantly.

I can't imagine a leader more foreign to Sirota's absolutist sensibility than the late Robert F. Kennedy.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Batter Up: Reform or Retreat?
As is often the case, Stephen Colbert aptly summed up one of the predicaments the new Democratic congressional majority will face in his "The Word" segment the other night. Urging Democrats to "Play Ball," Colbert sets out why the newly empowered party should put aside its pledges to curb the power of lobbyists and rein in the ethical transgressions that clearly contributed to the Republicans' downfall earlier this month. "You can't reform lobbying unless you stay in power--so if you want to end politicians taking money from lobbyists, you need to take money from lobbyists so you can stay in power to end it!"

The faux-Fox pundit pithily sums up one of the two dilemmas here: is there more to gain, in terms of power perpetuation, by pushing back against the abuses of the system, or by co-opting them? He addresses the other, normative, question by implication: should Democrats try to do the right thing even if it works against their own parochial interests?

My answer, of course, is "of course." The value of a Democratic congressional majority has three main aspects: one is to block the worst instincts and ideas of the Deciderer in the White House, another is to try and shore up the sagging foundations of American governance, and the third is to shift public priorities and the resources to make change happen. Of the three, the last is what the press focuses on, to the extent they focus on substance at all: Democrats will raise the minimum wage, try to amend Medicare Part D so the government can negotiate drug prices, begin redeployment out of Iraq, and so forth. This is connected to the first part: without a rubber-stamp Congress, Bush can't really launch any additional wars, destroy the social safety net, put cronies in top positions, et cetera (though it's worth noting that Michael "Brownie" Brown was confirmed as FEMA director while Democrats controlled the Senate, thanks in large part to our pal Joe Lieberman).

But without progress on Front #2, gains on the other two fronts are tenuous and provisional at best. The Republicans have locked in an institutional advantage by aggressively courting the lobbyist community, which multiplied many times over between 2001 and the present and eventually mutated past all previously held restrictions of propriety and common sense. The result has been a fundamental perversion of policymaking, with laws substantially crafted for and written by the most powerful interests in the country.

So where stands the reform push? In flux, according to the New York Times:

Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate, mindful that voters in the midterm election cited corruption as a major concern, say they are moving quickly to finalize a package of changes for consideration as soon as the new Congress convenes in January.

Their initial proposals, laid out earlier this year, would prohibit members from accepting meals, gifts or travel from lobbyists, require lobbyists to disclose all contacts with lawmakers and bar former lawmakers-turned-lobbyists from entering the floor of the chambers or Congressional gymnasiums.

None of those measures would overhaul campaign financing or create an independent ethics watchdog to enforce the rules. Nor would they significantly restrict earmarks, the pet projects lawmakers can insert anonymously into spending bills, which have figured in several recent corruption scandals and attracted criticism from members in both parties. The proposals would require disclosure of the sponsors of some earmarks, but not all.

Now, though, some Democrats say their election is a mandate for more sweeping changes. Many newly elected candidates, citing scandals involving several Republican lawmakers last year, made Congressional ethics a major issue during the campaign.
Sweeping changes, however, may be a tough sell within the party. Representative John P. Murtha, Democrat of Pennsylvania, was embarrassed by disclosures last week that he had dismissed the leadership proposals with a vulgarity at a private meeting. But Mr. Murtha is hardly the only Democrat who objects to broad changes. Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who will oversee any proposal as the incoming chairwoman of the rules committee, for example, said she was opposed an independent Congressional ethics watchdog. “If the law is clear and precise, members will follow it,” she said in an interview. “As to whether we need to create a new federal bureaucracy to enforce the rules, I would hope not.”

Other Democratic lawmakers argued that the real ethical problem was the Republicans, not the current ethics rules, so the election alleviated the need for additional regulations. “There is an understanding on our side that the Republicans paid a price for a lot of the abuses that evolved,” said Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, referring to earmarks.

Frankly, Frank should know better. (Sorry.) The Founders understood that human nature was not to be trusted (and of course they weren't overly fond of parties in the first place): laws, not the judgment of individuals, were to guide the behavior of public servants. This is a less blatantly evil variation on the argument that there's no need to explicitly ban torture, because the enlightened administration of George W. Bush simply wouldn't do such things. Except, of course, he would, and similarly some number of Democratic legislators will bend any too-lax rules and standards to their breaking point and, almost inevitably, beyond. Crooked Democratic Rep. William Jefferson isn't even gone from Congress yet--hopefully he'll lose his runoff next month--and it already looks as if the party might have forgotten the lessens his crimes should have taught them.

And Feinstein, who has legal but shady ties to all manner of corporate concerns and lobbyists, shows her colors by pushing against any strong enforcement measures. Hopefully a large enough number of her colleagues will show more common sense. Chellie Pingree, herself an unsuccessful Senate candidate from 2002, points the way here:

Advocates of an overhaul believe the reaction to the Congressional embarrassments make the Democratic takeover of Capitol Hill their best chance for significant change since the aftermath of Watergate, when Congress created the presidential campaign finance system. But they consider the Democratic proposals just the beginning of a cleanup.

“A ban on gifts, meals, corporate jet flights — a lot of that resonates with the public because people think there is just a lot of free giveaways in Congress,” said Chellie Pingree, president of the ethics advocacy group Common Cause. “A lot of this is sort of skirting the issue of how campaign funds are shaping the legislative process.”

Ms. Pingree noted that the scandals of the last Congress arose from actions that were illegal but went undetected for years because of lack of oversight. “Are they going to enforce the rules?” she asked.

Spurred by the election results, several Democrats are pushing bigger changes. Mr. Obama, for example, is proposing an independent Congressional ethics enforcement commission.

Ideally, the way this works is that the two parties engage in a virtuous cycle of "can you top this?" on the subject of process reform. There's almost no chance, however, that the Republicans will play: corporate corruption is their main raison d'etre, and it probably would (and hopefully will) take a succession of "thumpins" before the erstwhile Party of Lincoln shakes free of its many negative norms and associations (I'll probably write more about this soon). McCain might pick up the reform mantle--but it looks to me like his Republican partisanship has long since trumped his better instincts for change, and the only reforms he's now interested in are ones that just would happen to hurt the Democrats more than his own party (like banning 527s).

One wonders if this could be Obama's window. Between a possible emergence as the new champion of ethics reform and his overtures to some of the less aggressive and dogmatic elements on the Religious Right, the senator is staking out some very interesting ground. I'm personally more interested in the destination--cleaning up Congress--than the journey; but if the senator's own ambition is fueling his push for more thoroughgoing reform, that's pretty much how the Founders drew it up.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Skullduggery, Parts I and II
Last week's announcement by Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) that he would seek the Majority Leader post, and his endorsement Sunday by House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi, sets the stage for the Democrats to conduct some of those high-profile pattycake-Shakespearean court intrigues that the Republicans so often indulged in while they held the majority. (They’ll continue to have their own, and indeed have already begun, but when you’re out of power nobody really cares, as the Dems have long known.)

The Houses of Pelosi, Murtha and (Steny) Hoyer have seen their fates inextricably intertwined, their ambitions in constantly shifting patterns of opposition and alignment, virtually since they all joined the national political scene, and intensely since the House Democratic Leadership began to shift in the first years of this decade. This recent Washington Monthly profile of Hoyer, written a few months back with the view that he likely would claim the Majority Leader position if the Democrats won, lays out the ugly history: Hoyer and Pelosi have been rivals for decades (from her Baltimore antecedents), Hoyer and Murtha have long detested each other, Murtha gave crucial support to Pelosi in a Whip race a few years back and indicated earlier this year that he wanted the Leader position). Pelosi, whose leadership style evidently has been marked by what rivals might describe as paranoia and vindictiveness, was just helping her ally and gently pushing back her old rival.

Because of that reputation, I have the weird feeling Pelosi’s support will be decisive, if she wants it to be. Behind the scenes, she’ll lean on the members to support Murtha; she determines committee assignments now, she’s got control over whatever potential pork there will be in the next budget (and presumably it’ll be plenty; these people hopefully won’t be as rapacious as the Republicans—-and if they are, they’ll be nailed for it—-but they’re still politicians and trying to lock in a majority), and she has a long memory. She won’t lean on everybody; she’ll want to let Hoyer save face. But she’ll push enough otherwise more or less indifferent members to back her guy.

Then the race will be on to define “Jack” Murtha.

If you’re not familiar with Murtha’s life and career, in some respects he’s got the perfect story and profile to serve as a high-visibility Democrat in a time of anxiety over national security. Murtha was a Marine who served with distinction both as a young man in Korea and a late-thirty-something in Vietnam. When he publicly came out against the Iraq war last year, it changed the whole tenor of the debate: suddenly it was safe, or safer, for Democrats to broadcast their opposition. He’s a conservative Democrat from an old union district in Western PA, known for the high regard in which he’s held by current and former military leaders and his bullish determination to advance the interests of the defense community.

That last sentence, though, should give you a hint why the Republicans would like to define Murtha. He comes with serious ethical questions, some very similar at least in atmosphere to the Abramoff-related corruption charges that did so damage to Republican hopes this year. And he sort of looks like an old-timey crooked pol.

The Democrats obviously want Murtha’s credibility on security issues, and perhaps as a signal-bearer that conservative-ish blue-collar guys should feel at home in today’s Democratic Party. And maybe-—this could be the genius element—-they figure that virtually every potential Republican critic can be counter-attacked by exposing their own strong ties to this and that lobby. But his ascension could allow the Republicans, if they can get Murtha’s ethics-question storyline into the mainstream fast enough—-and do so without seeming to attack his personal character, as that idiotic hag Mean Jean Schmidt did—-to actually present themselves as the reformers and ideologues they claimed to be twelve years ago. That's exciting not only for "the base," which has bought into the Gingrich mythos, but also for a certain kind of pundit that, hearkening back to the glory days of Newt and Armey, gets misty-eyed like an old Bolshevik 45 years ago thinking fondly paternal thoughts about Castro.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Nothing Left to Lose
I always figured the only reason Lincoln Chafee remained a Republican was that he thought a change of party would dishonor the memory of his father John, a legendary public servant who served Rhode Island in the Senate from 1976 until his death in 1999. The story of the younger Chafee is, to my read, among the sadder political tales of the last decade or so. A Republican in one of the country's most Democratic states, Lincoln Chafee was in a sense selling back bits of the public esteem his father had enjoyed in return for his own political viability. He talked like a Democrat, cast a lot of high-profile votes like a Democrat (against the war, against right-wing judicial nominees, etc), and famously even chose not to vote for George W. Bush in 2004 (writing in a vote for Bush 41).

This year, he repeatedly found himself in the strangest of circumstances, narrowly fending off a ferocious primary challenge from a hard-core conservative with a massive influx of resources from the national Republican establishment Chafee had all but repudiated and then losing Tuesday to a solid but unspectacular progressive Democrat despite sustained high approval ratings from his Ocean State constituents. Watching the returns, it gave me satisfaction but no pleasure to see Linc go down; as I wrote Monday night, this was a parliamentary vote, and we had to boot his party. If he'd changed his registration in 2003--as I still think he might have, if Paul Wellstone had lived and won the victory that would have left the Senate tied 50-50--he would have won 70 percent or more the other night and essentially secured his father's old seat for as long as he wanted it.

Oddly, Chafee evidently is considering making the switch now--years after his political self-interest would have been best served by doing so:

Two days after losing a bid for a second term in an election seen as a referendum on President Bush and the Republican Party, Sen. Lincoln Chafee said he was unsure whether he'd remain a Republican.

"I haven't made any decisions. I just haven't even thought about where my place is," Chafee said at a news conference Thursday when asked whether he would stick with the Republican Party or switch to be an independent or Democrat.

When asked if his comments meant he thought he might not belong in the Republican Party, he replied: "That's fair."
When asked whether he felt that his loss may have helped the country by switching control of power in Congress, he replied: "To be honest, yes."

"The people have spoken all across America. They want the Democrats and Republicans to work together," Chafee added. "I think the president now is going to have to talk to the Democrats. I think that's going to be good for America."

A lifelong Republican who succeeded his father, the late John Chafee, in the U.S. Senate, Chafee said he waged a lonely campaign to try to bring the party to the middle. He described attending weekly Thursday lunches with fellow Republican senators and standing up to argue his point of view, often alone.

"There were times walking into my caucus room where it wasn't fun," he said.

Chafee seems to blame the national party for his loss, and at this late point he evidently feels no reason to hold back: today, after Bush re-nominated belligerent John "Yosemite" Bolton for a permanent appointment as U.N. Ambassador, Chafee essentially ensured that Bolton would not be confirmed.

Sen. Lincoln Chafee (news, bio, voting record), R-R.I., who was defeated by Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse on Tuesday, told reporters in Rhode Island that he would continue opposing Bolton. That would likely deny Republicans the votes needed to move Bolton's nomination from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to the full Senate.

"The American people have spoken out against the president's agenda on a number of fronts, and presumably one of those is on foreign policy," Chafee said. "And at this late stage in my term, I'm not going to endorse something the American people have spoke out against."
In 2005, Chafee wavered on his support for Bolton, citing concerns at one point about Bolton's tie to a government investigation into faulty prewar intelligence on Iraq. In September, Chafee — who was in a tight re-election race — said he would oppose Bolton's nomination until the administration answered questions about its policy in the Middle East, which in effect delayed any vote until after the elections.

If Chafee finally does sever his ties to Republican Party, he'll have as much right as any pol in recent memory to paraphrase Ronald Reagan and say, "I didn't leave the Republican Party; the Republican Party left me."

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

We Won. Now What?
Today was the most beautiful 40-degree rainy November day I can remember, even if I didn't join it until about noon after staying up nearly til 4 waiting for someone to call Montana. The Democrats won the House by a substantial margin, evidently have won the Senate--it's difficult to see how the canvassing or even a recount can lift Felix Macacawitz over my man Jim Webb--and now control a majority of governorships and either a majority or a plurality of statehouses. Whether or not Donald Rumsfeld would have resigned regardless of yesterday's outcome, the two events certainly will be linked in the public mind, and together they tell a story of a war policy that was first repudiated by the sovereign people, and then abandoned by its architects.

A collection of first impressions and second thoughts:

  • After 12 years in a defensive crouch, Democrats can stand up and begin to go on the offensive. But--to beat the metaphor into a bloody pulp--they haven't stretched those muscles in a long, long time. It will be interesting to see what they have to offer in the way of a concrete positive agenda. Speaker-presumptive Pelosi's 100 Hour Plan is a good and wholly logical place to start, but it’s still remedial/ameliorative, fixing Republican foul-ups rather than launching something fresh.

  • Figuratively speaking, more monsters (Santorum, Burns, evidently Allen; Sherwood, Weldon, the ghosts of Foley, DeLay and Ney) were destroyed yesterday, and more good men and women elected (Tester, McCaskill, Klobuchar, evidently Webb; Sestak, Gillibrand) than in any election I can remember-—though ’98 was close, with D’Amato and Faircloth going down. The Congress certainly will be a better place with its better composition and to call those results satisfying would be a severe understatement.

  • With control of a majority of governorships and a plurality or majority of statehouses, the Democrats now can substantially dictate the action at the state level. Just as the 1920s saw the runup to the New Deal in states' progressive experiments with social insurance, market regulation and labor force interventions, the late ‘00s could see the same as governors like Spitzer, Patrick, Richardson, Rendell and Granholm either take over or return to office in stronger position. Both for their own ambitions and the larger project of building a new national governance agenda for Democrats, these governors should have a very interesting 2-4 years.

  • Big as “the wave” was, it could have been bigger—-I counted at least a half-dozen House races where tough Democratic challengers got 49 percent and barely lost. This included races in Ohio, Connecticut, and New York, where reports of the political demise of moderate Republicans in districts slightly to either side of 50/50 were greatly exaggerated. This should be seen as a signal from the electorate that they want bipartisanship--and hopefully between their political near-death experiences and the shattering of the unitary Republican model, these Republicans reps will do the right thing and be freer to vote their consciences without fear of reprisal from a goon like Tom DeLay. If so, they’ll win again in two years with more room to spare; if not, the Democrats will come at them much harder next time and, barring a change in the broad context (or something really dumb like Hillary Clinton atop the ticket), probably win some of those seats.

  • The Democratic caucus is both much bigger and much more ideologically diverse than yesterday, and Democrats now have power in places where they haven’t been heard from in many years--since 1994, in many cases. Unless they’re idiots, this will push the party more toward the center and ensure an agenda focused on meat-and-potatoes economic issues and pragmatism in foreign affairs, rather than the hubristic cultural liberalism that always seems to screw us. While cultural liberalism perhaps arises from our best instincts and principles-—equal opportunity, respect for differences, self-determination—-in practice it often looks ugly and elitist. Before we take up these fights again, we need to figure out better tactics; in the meantime, the focus should be on reducing unwanted pregnancies, ensuring equal civil rights for gays and gay couples, and respecting religion in the public square while resolutely defending the church/state wall. (If I were a Democratic strategist today, I'd actually urge trying to figure out a way to co-opt the "faith-based initiative"--maybe by emphasizing the positive potential role of religion in strengthening marriages and lowering the divorce rate.)

  • After his disappointing win, Joe Lieberman-for-Lieberman has the balance of Senate power in his hands. But this is a two-edged sword: he can do a lot of damage to his reputation and legacy by giving in to his more narcissistic instincts. I'm now cautiously optimistic that he'll choose the pragmatic course of caucusing with the Democrats rather than join the sinking ship of the Bush administration or giving the Republicans a tenuous Senate majority that, as of today, couldn't have very strong hopes of lasting past 2008 (when Democrats should win Colorado and Minnesota at the least) in any event.

  • Reading the transcript of Bush’s remarks today, he comes off as more conciliatory than he evidently seemed to those watching. If he keeps to this note, though, I expect his approval ratings to rise into the high 40s or even low 50s. Democrats should proceed with caution--while keeping in mind that he’s now the lamest of ducks. In other words: be polite, be respectful, ignore him to the furthest extent possible, and use targeted hearings (see below) to extend the longer-term case against his disastrous governance style and the deep flaws of right-wing ideology.

  • Between Jon Tester’s win in Montana and the defeat of the draconian South Dakota abortion ban, interior west libertarianism is evidently alive and well, and no longer particularly Republican. Obviously this is a big opportunity for Democrats, and could advance the presidential hopes of another big winner last night: New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.

  • If the Democrats are smart, they will focus congressional hearings and investigations in two areas only: war profiteering and the politicization of the bureaucracy. I defy any of the harshest right-wing pundits to defend the misdeeds of politically connected contractors that charge the government $50 for a six-pack of soda and serve dirty water while billing the taxpayer on a "cost-plus" basis that offers every incentive to overcharge. And while it won't get as much broad attention, it's important that the Democrats show there are consequences to tossing out experts in favor of apparatchiks in federal agencies from EPA to the Iraq Provisional Authority.

  • On the Rumsfeld resignation, it’s an acknowledgement that the war policy has failed and the “course” will be changed. Between presumptive new SecDef Bob Gates and the so-called Baker Commission, we have a Clark Clifford and it’s March 1968 all over again. Interesting aspect to this is that when Gates comes up for Senate confirmation hearings (probably under Democratic control--anyone know who the committee chair would be? Biden?), the war will be in some sense "re-litigated." Avoiding this was one of the big reasons, supposedly, why the administration wanted to keep Rumsfeld on. I guess their risk/reward calculus changed. Since Gates isn't tainted by association with the runup to the war, and the Democrats will want to show a conciliatory face, I suspect he'll be confirmed very quickly and by a wide margin. But the Senators will have their say on the war, and probably the administration will get it from both sides: Hagel and Warner among others will have choice words.

That's all for now. After six years, it's pretty nice to feel like I have some representation in Washington again.

(And, oh yeah: I did steal this post title from Taegan Goddard's book.)

Monday, November 06, 2006

Election Eve: Two Thoughts and a Complaint
First of all, I keep thinking there must be some great drinking game out there I could come up with for watching the returns tomorrow night. But thus far, bupkis. It's just not that interesting to go with "sip whenever Chris Matthews says 'macaca'; chug whenever Norah O'Donnell says '72-Hour Plan'."

On a hopefully more substantive note, I wonder how much of the electorate realizes the way our political system works now. It's not necessarily permanent, but the major political development of the last 12 years has been that the institutions established by the Founding Fathers no longer work the way they intended. Where as recently as 1993-1994, a Democratic Congress restrained and blocked a Democratic President, it's now almost unimaginable that Republicans at least could privilege institutional loyalties above partisan ones. In essence, we have taken on a parliamentary system; the individual candidates, their virtues and shortcomings, matter much less than the letters after their names.

I don't think people in the media or the general public really want to acknowledge this, because the unspoken (and accurate) view that partisan politics is kind of dirty and ugly remains strong and we like to think of our public officials as human beings rather than unthinking instruments of a broad worldview. And there was a serious notion, again as late as the 1990s, that parties didn't matter very much and were, if anything, increasingly less important. But in the age of hyper-polarization, where the parties command vast resources that can make or break the viability of a campaign and centralized power players with long memories and the inclination to bear a grudge can dictate the next 20 years of one's career, they do, and maybe moreso.

So while Bush isn't technically on the ballot tomorrow, as the head of an essentially unitary Republican Party, the election is and should be almost solely a referendum on his job performance and that of his congressional enablers. And by any objective standard, the verdict there shouldn't be a hard one to reach.

And now the complaint:

I live in Brooklyn, where to my knowledge I won't cast a single meaningful vote tomorrow: all the races seem to be foregone conclusions. Worse, every Democratic candidate on my ballot aside from Eliot Spitzer, who's about to be elected governor by acclimation, is more or less repulsive. We've got:

--Hillary Clinton, Senate. Our Lady of Perpetual Triangulation, who's more interested in trying to make herself palatable to people who detest her than supporting the values of the actual progressives who got her in office. In hopes that if her margin of victory is less than Spitzer's, she might not run for president, I'll be voting for the Green, whom I know nothing about but I assume is an unserious far-left type.

--Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General. This guy has a personality about as attractive as the vomit sometimes left on my floor by the cat with the heart murmur. Cuomo helped torpedo a very good man, Carl McCall, in a bitter gubernatorial primary campaign four years ago. He's a second-generation pol, and we aren't a hereditary monarchy. But his Republican opponent, Jeanine Pirro, is even more repulsive: she began this cycle running against Clinton, made an astounding mess of it, quit that race, launched this one, and has gotten more attention for her philandering felon husband (a big wheel in the Republican Party here) than any of her positions. I don't know if there's a third-party option. If so, I'll take it.

--Alan Hevesi, Comptroller. A candidate for re-election, Hevesi seemed to do a good job in his first term after holding the same position at the NYC level. But he illegally used a state car to ferry around his wife, at a total cost nearing six figures, and lied about it for years. Spitzer disavowed him and won't work with him. His Republican opponent is an extremist who seems about as committed to fiscal oversight and good government as his co-partisans at the federal level, and looks like the fat principal from "Head of the Class." I might sit this one out.

--Yvette Clarke, U.S. House of Representatives. Possibly the worst of this whole bunch. Clarke is another second-generation pol, her mom was a crook, she's the sort of strident special-pleader Democrat I can't stand, she narrowly beat three far superior candidates in a bitter primary dominated by race, and I think she's running unopposed. No idea how I'll vote here. If there's a Republican, I'd be tempted to cast a protest vote, but for reasons described above I don't think I could bring myself to support any Republican for any federal office.

Honestly, I'd love to see a Republican Party that doesn't show traces of theocracy, oligarchy, and selectively applied fascism, and this is a large part of the reason why: my local Democrats really, really stink. But again, they're mostly just weight on the scale, and right now the top priority is just getting the damn thing back into something resembling balance.

Friday, November 03, 2006

In a Nutshell
The biased liberal media was at work again this week: as I'm sure you noticed, the latte-sipping America-hating Fourth Estaters relentlessly pushed the Republicans' politically motivated decision to publish online documents that happened to include technical data crucial to construct an atomic bomb--while barely mentioning it at all when John Kerry screwed up a joke.

It's not that the Republicans knowingly or intentially published this information; that would be something akin to treason. It's just that they cared more about the potential political gain than the potential risk of providing secrets to would-be mass murderers. (This is the Valerie Plame story: same tune, different words.) The experts complained--and as always in this administration, the politicals blew off the experts. Some details:

Last March, the federal government set up a Web site to make public a vast archive of Iraqi documents captured during the war. The Bush administration did so under pressure from Congressional Republicans who had said they hoped to “leverage the Internet” to find new evidence of the prewar dangers posed by Saddam Hussein.

But in recent weeks, the site has posted some documents that weapons experts say are a danger themselves: detailed accounts of Iraq’s secret nuclear research before the 1991 Persian Gulf war. The documents, the experts say, constitute a basic guide to building an atom bomb.
The documents, roughly a dozen in number, contain charts, diagrams, equations and lengthy narratives about bomb building that nuclear experts who have viewed them say go beyond what is available elsewhere on the Internet and in other public forums. For instance, the papers give detailed information on how to build nuclear firing circuits and triggering explosives, as well as the radioactive cores of atom bombs.
The government had received earlier warnings about the contents of the Web site. Last spring, after the site began posting old Iraqi documents about chemical weapons, United Nations arms-control officials in New York won the withdrawal of a report that gave information on how to make tabun and sarin, nerve agents that kill by causing respiratory failure.

The campaign for the online archive was mounted by conservative publications and politicians, who said that the nation’s spy agencies had failed adequately to analyze the 48,000 boxes of documents seized since the March 2003 invasion. With the public increasingly skeptical about the rationale and conduct of the war, the chairmen of the House and Senate intelligence committees argued that wide analysis and translation of the documents — most of them in Arabic — would reinvigorate the search for clues that Mr. Hussein had resumed his unconventional arms programs in the years before the invasion. American search teams never found such evidence.
In Europe, a senior diplomat said atomic experts there had studied the nuclear documents on the Web site and judged their public release as potentially dangerous. “It’s a cookbook,” said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of his agency’s rules. “If you had this, it would short-circuit a lot of things.”
Ray E. Kidder, a senior nuclear physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, an arms design center, said “some things in these documents would be helpful” to nations aspiring to develop nuclear weapons and should have remained secret.

A senior American intelligence official who deals routinely with atomic issues said the documents showed “where the Iraqis failed and how to get around the failures.” The documents, he added, could perhaps help Iran or other nations making a serious effort to develop nuclear arms, but probably not terrorists or poorly equipped states. The official, who requested anonymity because of his agency’s rules against public comment, called the papers “a road map that helps you get from point A to point B, but only if you already have a car.”

Thomas S. Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, a private group at George Washington University that tracks federal secrecy decisions, said the impetus for the Web site’s creation came from an array of sources — private conservative groups, Congressional Republicans and some figures in the Bush administration — who clung to the belief that close examination of the captured documents would show that Mr. Hussein’s government had clandestinely reconstituted an unconventional arms programs.

“There were hundreds of people who said, ‘There’s got to be gold in them thar hills,’ ” Mr. Blanton said.

This is actually a perfect manifestation of the two trademarks of Bush/Cheney/DeLay-era Republicanism: raw political calculation mixed with astonishing incompetence and irresponsibility. Wouldn't it be a basic point of due diligence to figure out what's in the files before posting them online?

This story broke in the same 24-hour period as the news that the Republicans were going to fire the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, who has been investigating fraud and waste among contractors; and that the publications of the four newspapers of the military are about to call for Donald Rumsfeld's dismissal. I will be very surprised if all three of these news items--which I think most observers would agree are fairly significant--get nearly as much ink and air time as Kerry's flubbed lines.

And that kind of brings me to a larger thought about the election, three days and change before polls open. This really might be the last shot to reign in the people whose bad ideas, bad management and bad belief systems are corroding the power, and the soul, of this nation. I knew that if we didn't win in 2004, some awful things were going to happen; in the space of about a year, we saw New Orleans all but destroyed without an effective federal response and we've seen the death of habeus corpus and the embrace of torture as national policy. The economy hasn't collapsed, but it's wobbling. Iraq has gotten even worse. And this Congress spent less time in session, did less work for the public, and endured more black marks of members' corruption and immorality than any in memory.

If we truly did have the parliamentary system that our politics has come to suggest, this would be easier: I don't doubt that the electorate would simply vote the Democrats into a majority. But since you can't cast a national vote, it remains quite possible that while the substantial majority will vote Democratic, the majority in one or both houses will remain Republican. The direction of the country, whether we keep digging this hole or start to climb out of it, might depend on one or two million voters clustered in about 20 House districts in Ohio, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New York, Arizona and a handful of other areas.

However it comes out, that somehow doesn't sit right.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

YouTube, Time-Wasting Marvel
There's an entire YouTube trove of old Husker Du clips. Right now I've got on their "Tonight Show" appearance from 1987, featuring the relatively well-groomed trio in the band politely submitting to surprisingly well-informed questions from the impeccably coiffed Joan Rivers. (Seeing Johnny interviewing them, though, might have been even better.)

Also on there are clips from very early Minneapolis shows, recorded on super-8, featuring songs that I'd never heard before but foreshadow stuff they wouldn't actually put on record until years later; live clips (usually of two or three songs each) from throughout their career; MTV videos; and all manner of other crap.

This might be something that others have known about for years, which as usual I'm very belatedly getting around to finding; my first-ever exposure to YouTube came earlier this year when a friend of mine posted a clip of her boyfriend struggling to get their cat in the carrier to visit the vet. Since then, I've seen all kinds of political ads on there, tracked a mid-summer Battlestar Galactica trailer I'd missed, and probably done some other things. The idea that the majority of a great band's career might be captured on there, though, hadn't occurred. Either way, it's more proof that one really never need leave the house anymore to find entertainment...
My Kind of Soldier
One of the most interesting, though so far least impactful, political developments of the last few years has been the migration of political candidates with military backgrounds to the Democrats' banner. In 2004, my first choice for the Democratic presidential nomination was retired General Wesley Clark; the nominee, of course, turned out to be John Kerry, who got there in considerable part due to his distinguished service record in the Navy during the Vietnam War. (The Republicans' achievement in turning Kerry's war heroism into a negative during the general election campaign has to rank as one of the greatest tactical triumphs in American political history.) This year, around 50 Iraq War veterans ran for Congress as Democrats; no more than a handful of these "Fighting Dems" are still in serious contention to take the oath next January, but the failures of Bush's Splendid Little War still could give the out party control of at least the House of Representatives next year.

Perhaps the most interesting Democratic candidate of this cycle, though, is former Marine, Reagan cabinet member, novelist and journalist Jim Webb, running for Senate against George Allen Jr. in Virginia. Here's a man who not only served with distinction in Vietnam, but went on to be Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan. He's about as far from a career partisan pol as one can get; as this New Yorker article puts it, "in Virginia’s 1994 Senate race [Webb] endorsed the Democrat Chuck Robb over the Republican Oliver North; he then backed George Allen over Robb in 2000; and now he [is] running against Allen for that same seat."

Like Wes Clark, Webb was a Republican for a large part of his adult life. His critique of the Democratic Party might not sit well with many of us, but understanding it and fairly appraising it remains crucially important to the long-term project of reviving the Democratic brand. Here it is, from the same New Yorker piece:

The unifying theme of Webb’s fiction, his popular history of the Scots-Irish, and, especially, his opinion journalism has been that of put-upon people (the military, Southerners, white men) suffering the smug disregard of a hostile √©lite. In the Webb reckoning, much blame resides in nineteen-sixties-era liberalism, which has influenced the Democratic Party for a generation. That he now finds himself a Democratic candidate in a pivotal U.S. Senate race is a development that proceeds, by its own stubborn logic, from this insistent theme. Webb’s candidacy is partly a quest to reclaim the Democratic Party for what he sees as a natural constituency.

When Webb deployed to Vietnam as a raw second lieutenant, in 1969, he had no particular political leanings. His mission was to protect the tactical space in front of him, and to bring back as many of his men as possible. Returning home, he felt that he and others like him had been driven from a Democratic Party that had, he believed, sacrificed a broad populist tradition to the passions of the intemperate margins. Webb proved to be a natural polemicist. He denounced “the ones who fled” the war, and inveighed against the acts of the Watergate Congress, which, elected after Richard Nixon’s disgrace, in 1974, halted funding to South Vietnam, hastening its doom. (The plight of the Vietnamese boat people came to have particular meaning for Webb. A girl named Hong Le was among those fished from the water by the U.S. Navy and transported to this country. She became a lawyer, practicing in Washington, and a year ago she became Webb’s third wife. She travels with him on the campaign trail, and is expecting their first child in December.) Webb declared Jimmy Carter’s blanket pardoning of draft resisters a rank betrayal and an abuse of Presidential power. When President Clinton left office, he wrote, “It is a pleasurable experience to watch Bill Clinton finally being judged, even by his own party, for the ethical fraudulence that has characterized his entire political career.”

Webb reserved a good portion of his pique for the “activist Left and cultural Marxists” and their efforts to effect “what might be called the collectivist taming of America, symbolized by the edicts of political correctness.” He saw the Pentagon’s prolonged investigation of the Navy Tailhook sexual-abuse scandal in the nineteen-nineties as a political witch hunt, driven by a radical-feminist agenda to undermine the masculine culture of the military. Affirmative action, he posited, quickly became a means of victimizing white men through “state-sponsored racism.”

In “Born Fighting,” Webb developed the thesis that has become the rationale for his Senate run. Democrats, he argued, had foolishly written off the Southern white male, in the mistaken belief that it was a necessary cost of the Party’s leadership in the civil-rights era. Southern rednecks thus became a convenient symbol of all that impeded progress. “And for the last fifty years,” he wrote, “the Left has been doing everything in its power to sue them, legislate against their interests, mock them in the media, isolate them as idiosyncratic, and publicly humiliate their traditions in order to make them, at best, irrelevant to America’s future growth.” In alienating the South, Democrats ceded the region to Republican strategists, who took the trouble to cater to its culture. Webb, who had been a nominal Democrat in his youth, knew this from personal experience.

Personally, I wonder if Webb's problem with what he saw as the dominant Democratic ideology and worldview was the views themselves or the arrogance with which those views are expressed and how reflexively they are held. My strong suspicion is that if Webb had sat down with, say, Sam Brown, organizer of the 1969 Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam and a deeply thoughtful person who'd accepted personal risk and sacrifice on behalf of his views, in 1974 or so, he would have had an interesting conversation and might have seen Brown's points about the war. But most of us don't judge a broad social movement by the personal attributes of the best people engaged in that movement.

If he wins, Webb will be an odd duck in the modern Democratic Party. He's a foreign policy realist more along the lines of James Baker and even Richard Nixon rather than either a liberal hawk or a neo-isolationist. On economics, he's a populist, almost a rabble-rouser, which would stand in contrast to both the reflexive free traders of the DLC and the somewhat more thoughtful and development-oriented free trade views of his fellow Virginia Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.

Oddly, considering his "Born Fighting" bona fides and obvious belief that this race is of vital importance, Webb isn't doing close to everything he could be doing in order to win the election. His son is a Marine, now fighting in Iraq; Webb mentions this as rarely as he can. He's chosen not to go after his opponent, the odious George "Felix Macacawitz" Allen, for either his obvious idiocy (it's hard to imagine a greater intellectual gulf between two candidates) or the ugly revelations about Allen's character that turned this race from a walkover to a nailbiter; and as this clip shows, he still doesn't really know how to speak to a crowd. (Note the three minutes Webb spends recounting the reviews of his novels--astonishing.)

But there's no doubt in my mind that, one, this man is exactly the sort of person who should be serving in the Senate; and two, that his victory could yield greater long-term returns for the Democrats as a truly national and inclusive party than anyone else running this cycle. Here's hoping he pulls it out.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Remembering Wellstone
It was four years ago today that America lost its best public servant, Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. Then leading in his race for a third term, Wellstone died in a plane crash along with his wife, daughter, two pilots, and three campaign workers. At a time when we needed him most, he was taken from us.

Below is what I wrote two years ago on the second anniversary of Wellstone's passing. Today, with habeus corpus gone, the nation embracing torture as national policy, and the worst Congress in U.S. history thoroughly enabling a cartoonishly inept chief executive, the void of courage and principle he left seems larger than ever.

Wellstone was probably the man I admired most in public life, with Georgia Representative John Lewis a fairly close second. Though his politics were a bit to the left of my own, particularly on questions of fiscal responsibility and to a somewhat lesser degree on the use of force, I deeply admired him as a man of outstanding principle and commitment to public service. Wellstone never forgot why he'd gone into politics after a long and successful career as an academic and community organizer, and he managed both to serve his constituents and faithfully uphold his principles while in the Senate. His autumn 2002 vote against giving George W. Bush authorization to use military force wasn't popular, and carried risks in an election year--but Wellstone managed to make the case to Minnesota voters that his vote was one of principle. Knowing what we know now, and keeping in mind that the Senator had supported the Afghanistan incursion, it seems clear that his decision was based not in reflexive pacifism but rather in a healthy, and fully merited, distrust of what was informing the push to war. After running even or slightly behind his opponent, the Democrat-turned-Republican and former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman for most of the year, Wellstone was pulling away at the time of his death.

The aftermath of his passing seemed to underscore the tragedy: not only did Coleman, whose transparent opportunism marked him as clearly as Wellstone's principles characterized the Senator, beat former vice-president Walter Mondale, who was foolishly drafted to fill in for Wellstone--the distraught sons of the late Senator had some input into the decision--but the Democrats arguably lost control of the Senate with the vote. (I believe that the renegade Republican Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island might well have switched parties or gone independent as Jim Jeffords did, had control of the chamber been in the balance. Zell Miller of Georgia might have crossed in the other direction, but he was much less alienated from the Democratic Party at that time than he later became.) The turning point might have been Wellstone's memorial service, which Republican operatives successfully painted as a hateful call to political jihad rather than what it was, an anguished remembrance of a man who touched the hearts and stirred the ideals of millions.

I found out about Wellstone's death at a truck stop in upstate New York, while Annie and I were on our way to a weekend vacation in the Finger Lakes region. The story was running on the TV over the counter, and my loud gasp got a lot of stares. I'd met the Senator, very briefly, a few months before at a conference of workforce development advocates and researchers in DC. He spoke very softly and walked slowly, a reminder of the back pain that supposedly kept him out of the 2000 presidential race, but had an undeniably magnetic presence.

Even many of those who disagreed most strongly with Wellstone's politics felt great affection for the man. Jesse Helms, of all people, grieved at his passing. And Senator Sam Brownback, a very conservative Kansas Republican, stated on the first anniversary of Wellstone's death that he still prays for his friend and former colleague.

More tributes here and here.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Lieberman in the Pincers
Reports indicate that yesterday's three-candidate debate for the Senate seat now held by Joe Lieberman (???-CT) might have changed the dynamic of the race. The surprise winner, according to these reports, was none other than heretofore-overlooked Republican nominee Alan Schlesinger. After months in which he only made news for cheating at cards and getting kicked out of casinos, and consistently polling within the margin of error, Schlesinger busted out with passion, some policy specifics, and a series of stinging attacks on Lieberman. One less-than-neutral source hailed the debate as "a new GOP primary."

Thus, a race that many figured was over after Lamont failed to kill off Lieberman in August might now be back to Square One. Schlesinger's presumed irrelevance had left a vacuum to Holy Joe's right, but his pledges to caucus with the Democrats (always offered, though, with the caveat that he retain his precious seniority) and his long affiliation with the party allowed him to somewhat have his cake and eat it too: he appeared as the de facto Republican candidate--with considerable financial support from Republican donors, and tacit backing from the White House and RNC when they chose not to endorse Schlesinger--but could still semi-plausibly distance himself from those aspects of the Republican Party that would infuriate the solid moderate-to-liberal majority in the Nutmeg State. (For a darker, but very possibly valid, take on Lieberman's "understanding" with the Republicans, see here.) To put it briefly, if you were inclined to view Lieberman favorably, you could.

Now, not so much. With Schlesinger attacking his "liberalism" on immigration and other issues, and Lamont continuing to blast him on the Iraq debacle and his close ties to special interests, Lieberman can't present his bona fides as a representative of either major party. So he's now trying to present himself as a figure who "transcends" party politics while attempting to micro-pander: supporting John Bolton's confirmation to the UN (which he'd previously twice voted against) while stating that he'd like to see the Democrats win the House (a day after, stunningly, expressing no preference on the question) but only if they "change" to be less stridently partisan.

The message that elected officials should transcend partisanship is a worthwhile one and, in the abstract, probably very appealing to the current mood of the electorate. But I just don't see how a three-term incumbent, who was his own party's vice-presidential nominee, is well positioned to make it. Lieberman seems to be counting on voters to make the logical leap that his many small panders to constituencies on both sides somehow add up to a record of disinterested statesmanship--that many small acts of political cowardice, taken as a whole and viewed from a distance, will appear as political bravery. It might work. But without the resources of a party organization or, according to most reports, a solid ground operation in place, saddled with a bad position on the ballot, and open to charges of hypocrisy from all sides, it feels like a long shot.

I make no secret of the fact that I want Lieberman to go down like the sqealing hypocrite I believe him to be. That he might do so because of a permutation of Harry Truman's old adage that given the choice between a real Republican and a pretend Republican, the voters--in this case, CT Republican voters--will choose the real one, is just an enjoyable bit of irony.