Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Object of Power is Power
It's rare that events unfold in such a way that the whys--the reasons people do what they do--are as clear as the whats. But the last two days of the 109th Congress saw such a sequence of events. Within about 24 hours Thursday and Friday, Republicans in Congress voted to empower the president to suspend habeas corpus, detain individuals without time limit or need to show cause, and unilaterally disregard an international treaty... and then it came out that their leadership had known about and protected Florida Rep. Mark Foley despite being aware that he had an unhealthy fixation with teenaged boys.

Their reasons for shredding a chunk of the Constitution and for sheltering a man they had full reason to suspect was a sexual predator were one and the same: to preserve a majority that they evidently feel they can't defend on the merits of their actions.

The difference is that they voted to make torture a sanctioned policy of the United States because they felt this would appeal to voters--itself a shocking and devastating indictment of where we are as a people now--while they kept Foley's secret (and preserved his standing as chair of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children--perhaps it takes a crook to catch a crook?) because exposing him could put yet another congressional seat previously assumed "safe" into play.

This Congress, which left town yesterday, failed in its most basic duties: to protect and defend the Constitution, and to pass a budget. Nearly every government agency will be funded until mid-November, when this Congress reconvenes for a lame-duck session that hopefully will represent the last six weeks of right-wing misrule, by Continuing Resolutions, because these Republicans couldn't even agree with each other on funding levels. Needless to say, this does no favors for the agency employees and state and local workers who rely on funding to run programs and set plans for the year. This past February, the Republicans finally passed their budget through an omnibus bill that no legislator actually read all the way through; they had a few hours to try and determine the merits of a document that was in the neighborhood of 1,000 pages. This has become par for the course, and the substantive results have been as bad as you'd expect from such a process.

Since then, they've spent three days on hearings about gay marriage... but allocated just ten hours to debate that abomination of a torture bill. They failed to pass a bill on immigration that was both a priority of their president and enjoyed the support of large majorities nationally. They outright refused to exercise oversight on a war that, in squandered blood and treasure, might be the greatest debacle in the history of U.S. foreign policy. And they would only consider raising the minimum wage, to the benefit of millions of hard-working Americans on the economic margins, if doing so would also mean a repeal of the estate tax, which would have meant a windfall in the billions for the richest few hundred American families.

This is a record that can't be defended--even before we consider the "culture of corruption" embodied by super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who also returned to the news at the end of this week with newly released details of his extensive contacts with the administration. To distract voters from this catalog of catastrophe, the Republicans tried, again, to put the focus on fear and suggest that, by their greater willingness to waterboard poor schmucks picked up on routine patrols with no more ties to terror groups than you, me, or Joe Girardi, they should be returned to office for more public policy hijinks. In their concern that this and other gambits might fail in more districts than not, they knowingly sheltered a would-be pedophile.

So I think it's fair to ask: is there anything--anything at all--that this group wouldn't do to retain power?

Sunday, September 24, 2006

How the Torture Policy Will Really Work
Amidst all the protestations from the pro-torture right about the need for "clarity" in interpreting the Geneva Conventions (a need that evidently never existed before this war and, for that matter, this election cycle, but never mind that for now), and various theoretical explications of why maybe torture isn't so bad, and more fevered notions of how we need to torture or else we're all gonna die, something important has been missing from the conversation. To me, this is first and foremost about American values and American claims to moral leadership in a conflicted world. It's sadly clear that the people now in charge of our country don't care a fig about our values and traditions--and it seems more likely than not that they envy the "operational freedom" of the terrorists to act as they feel they must. They see our values and our moral premises as a shackle, not a strength.

But I'm not even thinking, right now, about that. I'm thinking about how this is going to work in practice. Not in a movie script scenario where the hardened terrorist won't tell the particulars of the evil plot. But how it's going to work with the poor schmuck who's picked up in a sweep of a Baghdad neighborhood one evening right before curfew.

On a secure phone, the supervisor of the facility is being yelled at by someone who was yelled at by someone who was yelled at by someone who was yelled at by Donald Rumsfeld or David Addington. The supervisor has a career to consider; he's got a wife and two kids, and he's worried about how he's going to take care of them.

One of his deputies notices that this poor schmuck who the patrol just picked up looks like someone on a watch list. Or maybe he has the same last name but for one letter that might have been screwed up in a transliteration.

And the two of them figure, okay, there's now a policy in place that "harsh methods" are allowed. It's not really torture, because it isn't rape or Nazi Doctors stuff; they're just going to have to stand naked for 20 hours in a 50-degree cell with Megadeth's second album blasting at 130 decibels, on repeat. It's just discomfort.

Now, maybe this prisoner has an undiagnosed medical condition--high blood pressure, irritable bowel, a kidney problem. He can't go to the bathroom, so he starts to foul himself in the cell. Every half-hour, a contractor from Blackwater comes into the cell, motions to the guard, and the guard pauses the CD. The contractor asks a few questions that our poor schmuck doesn't know the answers to; when the contractor/interrogator doesn't get the answers he wants, he throws a few biffs and baffs, and now the guy has a bloody nose and a black eye. After a few hours, he goes home to his hotel, and another interrogator comes and starts the whole thing again.

This interrogator, though, thinks that she's much better at her job than the blockhead now on his way home for a late dinner and some pay-per-view; her daring, outside-the-box methods might involve grabbing the guy's balls, or trying to force-feed him a pork chop. Okay, maybe some pencil-necked lib lawyer would argue that this is "humiliating or degrading" under Article 3 of Geneva--but that lib lawyer will never know, of course. So why not? Rumsfeld's office wants intel.

This goes on for about a day. Then the prisoner is released, given some new clothes, maybe allowed to sleep for an hour before he's thrown out of the facility. There's another group of usual suspects since rounded up, and the whole thing starts again.

THIS is how the torture policy will work in the real world. Not ripping off fingernails until the turbaned terrorist finally admits where the nuke is. Just a lot of "banality of evil," that ultimately probably will create some real terrorists.

Maybe not until the next time we need to go into the middle east to test out some think tanker's theory about pre-emption, but it will happen, and our own sins will be revisited upon us.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

"Real-World" Voters
At New Donkey, Ed Kilgore recently weighed in on the emerging cognitive split between older observers of politics, who look at the meta-trends this year and foresee a Democratic blowout, and younger ones, who have never seen such a thing and are deeply skeptical that in the end, whether it's through strategic brilliance, shameless fear-mongering or flat-out theft, the Republicans won't pull through. He writes:

This generation gap has been especially notable if you read progressive prognosticators, such as Chris Bowers or Kos. These are people who by and large are completely obsessed with the hope that Democrats will retake Congress. This is largely what they live for. Yet they are very reluctant to predict that their Ahab will indeed slay their Great White Whale. At the same time, nonpartisan and Washington Establishment crystal ball analysts--the very people that progressive bloggers regard as thinly veiled allies of Bush and Rove--are typically suggesting that Bush and Rove's party is about to get 1994'd.

Cook gently suggests that Old Folks remember earlier elections that provide the relevant empircal data for what's happening this year. Bowers responds by noting that young'uns are fixated on recent elections where the only real pattern was Democratic futility.

As an Old Guy who pays a lot of attention to Young Folk commentary, I think both sides have a point. Cook and Rothenburg and all sorts of conventional handicappers are right to examine the historical evidence for what might happen when you have a deeply unpopular president whose party controls Congress, especially six years into a presidency. But Bowers and company have experienced two straight midterm elections that broke all the rules about the performance of the president's party.

Perhaps I'm showing my age here, but I tend to agree with Charlie and Stu and company that it's hard to find any precedent for a presidential party controlling Congress in the sixth year of an administration that avoids disaster when the electorate is completely sour on the status quo.

But we're in an era when precedents are being broken every day, so who knows?

As a Young Guy (well, 33; my political memory doesn't really go back further back than 1986) who watches attentively to what the Old Guys are saying, I devoutly hope Kilgore is right about what will happen this November. But, like the rest of the twenty- and thirty-somethings, I just can't believe it, even before the poll results today that showed Bush and the Republicans enjoying a possible bounce.

Part of that surely is, as Kilgore describes, seeing all the "rules" repeatedly broken in the last four congressional election cycles. And part of it is that is best explainable with a suffering-sports-fan analogy: as when one is (say) a Phillies fan, you just expect the bounces to go against you... AND you're worried that the other side's manager and GM are much smarter than yours, based on the results of past seasons.

But another part of it might be that many observers--probably "old" and "young" both--might not understand just how completely the national perspective has been fractured. I'm just not convinced that, given factors of money and gerrymandering and expertise at turnout/electoral endgames, large enough majorities in a large enough number of districts are sufficiently "sour on the status quo" that they'll break their recent voting habits--whether those habits are voting Republican or just not seeing any reason to get involved. (And admittedly, to the casual observer of politics it's probably very easy to conclude that "they all stink.")

And one reason why not is that some core percentage of the electorate is, effectively, impervious to empirical evidence about how the country is doing and how their elected officials are performing in office.

For these folks, bad news from Iraq, stagnant real wages, debts and inflation, and perhaps especially the sad changes in our national/historical character and who's driving them, are all either shrugged away or blamed on the Democrats or other malign actors. These are the people who only watch Fox, who hear from their preachers and neighbors about the righteous rule of the Republicans and the rampant immorality of the Democrats. At best, they're trying to reconcile what they might be seeing on TV or feeling in their own bank account with all those built-in factors pushing them to vote Republican.

In short, an election held solely in the Reality-Based Community would put the Republicans out on their collective ass. But many of us felt that should have happened two years ago. Albeit under somewhat different circumstances, it didn't--and I'm not at all sure our guys have figured out since how to drag voters into the real world where the fatal flaws of faux-conservative governance are impossible to miss.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Forever Squaring Circles
Maybe I should be a pundit, because I just noticed that Maureen Dowd today wrote the blog entry I've been thinking about but not previously set down for the last few days. To save myself a little time, I'll start by quoting here here:

He roams the country but never strays from Bushworld, going from military bases to conservative powwows to Republican Hill allies to sworn Bush supporters to sympathetic columnists.

“It helps crystallize my thought to answer your questions,” he told conservative columnists called to the Oval Office this week. But he made it clear that his thoughts were contentedly calcified: “Let me just first tell you that I’ve never been more convinced that the decisions I made are the right decisions. I’m oftentimes asked about, well, you’re stubborn and all this. If you believe in a strategy, in Washington, D.C., you’ve got to stick to that strategy, see.”
Besides saying he’s in “a struggle between good and evil” — which inflames many Muslims — W. told the columnists he thought America might be experiencing “a Third Awakening,” a religious fervor, because people he meets in rope lines tell him they’re praying for him. That could also be because W.’s policies have led to so much global chaos and hatred for America, his supporters know he needs more prayers.

As I'd planned to do here, Dowd captures what I thought were two of the more interesting stories of the week: Bush's assertion, to a gathering of reporters, that he's "never been more convinced" of the rightness of his decisions, and his observation, based on his experiences, that the country was undergoing a "third awakening" of religious fervor.

President Bush said yesterday that he senses a "Third Awakening" of religious devotion in the United States that has coincided with the nation's struggle with international terrorists, a war that he depicted as "a confrontation between good and evil."

Bush told a group of conservative journalists that he notices more open expressions of faith among people he meets during his travels, and he suggested that might signal a broader revival similar to other religious movements in history. Bush noted that some of Abraham Lincoln's strongest supporters were religious people "who saw life in terms of good and evil" and who believed that slavery was evil. Many of his own supporters, he said, see the current conflict in similar terms.

"A lot of people in America see this as a confrontation between good and evil, including me," Bush said during a 1 1/2 -hour Oval Office conversation on cultural changes and a battle with terrorists that he sees lasting decades.

There seem to be two points here, which Bush has chosen to connect. On the one hand, there's some notion about a growing religious fervor in the United States, which some have argued is a "Third Awakening," following trends in the mid-18th and early 19th centuries. Bush believes we're in the midst of another now, and he's certainly entitled to his opinion.

But then there's the other hand.

Based on his comments yesterday, the president is under the impression that he's driving this "Third Awakening" personally, by allegedly launching a war on terror. In other words, Bush is not only taking responsibility for Americans turning to Christianity in greater numbers, he also believes the war on terror is a motivating factor, if not the motivating factor.

Taken together, the picture here is of Bush more firmly ensconced in his own reality than probably any president ever has been. We know, from many accounts by administration insiders and unquoted sources, that this is not a man who welcomes dissenting views or bad news; by Bush's own account, he doesn't really read the newspapers. If he turns on the TV for news, it's a safe bet he's watching Fox. It's a perfectly sealed worldview in which he hears no criticism and faces no blowback.

Thus, Bush becomes ever more certain of his world-historical prescience--and because his relatively rare public appearances are limited to friendly audiences, and only the dogmatic "Christians" who view their faith with a loyalty better suited to one's favorite football team are solidly left in his camp, he meets a lot of "believers."

This is like if I decided I'd only watch televised porn and only leave the house to visit adult bookstores, peepshows, and gatherings of the porn industry, and thus concluded that Americans were much more into kinky group sex than I'd previously noticed. The difference, of course, is that my (theoretical) view of the rising tide of national perversion doesn't color life-and-death decisions.

And that my certitude about this doesn't lead me to push for a change in natiotnal policy that, for the first time in our history, condones torture. I can't really put this any better than one of Josh Marshall's guest bloggers did on his blog today:

The torture debate in Congress--I never expected to write such words--is as surreal to me as watching the collapse of the Twin Towers. If the Democrats are able to take control of at least one chamber in November, then surely the President's pro-torture bill will be viewed in hindsight as the nadir of the Bush presidency. If not, how much lower can things go?

I am beyond being able to assess the political implications, one way or the other, of this spectacle. Regardless of which version of the bill finally passes, this debate is a black mark on the soul of the nation. Of course passage of a pro-torture bill will diminish U.S. standing internationally and jeopardize the safety and well-being of U.S. servicemen in future engagements. But merely having this debate has already accomplished that. Does anyone honestly believe that if Congress rebuffs the President in every respect that the rule of law and the inviolability of human rights will have been vindicated? Of course not.

The Republicans have defined deviancy down for the whole world, including every two-bit dictator and wild-eyed terrorist.

This surreal "debate" underscores something that has seemed clear to me for a long time now: the Bush/Cheney/Rove crowd utterly fails to comprehend what truly constitutes America's greatness. The reason we are the most successful nation in human history isn't, as they seem to think, because we have a lot of guns and a lot of money. We have those things because of our greatness--and we have (hopefully not "had") the greatness because our ideals traditionally have spoken to the best in human nature. We've fallen far from that standard, and perhaps the saddest thing is that there's nobody in the country with both the courage and stature to state this directly and get a real hearing from Americans of all political persuasions.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Bad Memories
In my mind at least, September 11 has become something like a secular Yom Kippur, the Jewish holy day devoted to contemplation. The fasting isn't a part of it, and I don't go to the "atonement for sins" part of that particular analogy (though to suggest that the attack on America that fatally beautiful morning was an isolated incident in history is to court repeating all kinds of mistakes), but in terms of how I view the day, it feels the same. Minimal TV and media, time for quietude and reflection.

Monday was no exception. I watched a few minutes of survivors reading the names of the dead when I woke up, and that was pretty much it as far as "coverage." I've no wish to see blow-dried bobbleheads try to impose their test-marketed and sanitized view of "what it all means" on something that I, like millions of New Yorkers, experienced in a searingly personal way.

I do feel a strange kind of pride, though, that it was New York City where the killers chose to strike. The terrorists' hatred of New York stems from some of the same reasons Hitler did: our concentration of Jews, the unique admixture of tolerance, competition and general attitude that one former city official recently described to me as "street-fighting pluralism"; and indeed from some of the same reasons why American social conservatives fear, if not hate, NYC: the perception of licentiousness, the proliferation of "alternative lifestyles," the wretched excesses. They attacked us, in other words, not because New York City is distinct from America, but because we are the concentrated essence of America. It's all here--stunning success and unbearable failure, enormous wealth and grinding poverty, all manner of unique and worthy voices and the unending background roar that usually drowns them out.

I don't want to get too deeply into the politics of the day, but this piece sums it up pretty well. Where I differ from Dionne is that I never thought Bush was especially "heroic" or worthy of particular respect for his immediate responses to 9/11. I just thought of the guy who seemed to be peeing his pants in fear, flying around the country after reading to those schoolkids in Florida. Granting that he said some of the right things in those first few weeks, there was little to me that suggested he had either the strength of character or sense of history to really unite the country as it could and should have been united.

Still, it would have been wonderful if I'd been proven wrong on that one. Here, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter offers a look at what might have been. It's painful to read, because what he describes would not really have been a stretch. McCain grasped that the country wanted to be called to its "appointment with destiny"; Bush just wanted to ram through tax cuts and beat up on Democrats. The thing is, I agree with Alter that a response more worthy of our country's greatness would have been supremely effective politics as well as more productive in terms of results in the fight against murderous extremism.

On tonight, somebody dredged up an old thread from 2003 in which people recounted their experiences on that day. I was among them, and I reproduce my post here; but the whole thing is well worth a look, just to get a sense of how this event reached into pretty much every American life.

I was in a bagel shop on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn around 8:45, waiting in line. A woman was sitting at a table listening to a walkman and announced that a plane had hit the Trade Center. Back outside on Flatbush I could see the plume of black smoke from Tower 2 two or three miles away. I thought it was one of those small planes--the idea it could take down the building didn't even occur to me. I got on the subway and headed into work.

My stop is at Wall Street and William, maybe half a mile from the Trade Center. As I came out I saw men near tears, talking about bodies falling from the Towers--I think the second one had been hit by then. My office is at the other end of Wall Street and I still didn't grasp the extent of the disaster; I must have been on autopilot. I do remember wanting to call my family in Philadelphia to tell them I was okay. I got to the office and did that; others in the office filled in the unbelieveable details: the by then two planes, their mammoth size, the attack on the Pentagon. A bit before 10, there was a general announcement to evacuate the building. We went down by the stairs, from the 20th floor, but few wanted to go outside. Around 10:30 when the first building fell--after I'd seen people from the site, clothes shredded, covered in dust, some bleeding, stumbling in a shocked daze through the lobby--I decided it was time to go.

The walk from Wall Street to the Brooklyn Bridge and over was the most unforgettable part of the whole experience. When I left my building the pulverized concrete hung so thickly in the air that I couldn't see beyond 15 feet or so. I'd taken a surgical mask they were handing out in the lobby and tried to breathe as shallowly as possible. I could faintly see hundreds of others moving in the same direction, up the Seaport road, past the Fulton Fish Market. By the time we got close to the Bridge, the air had cleared. As many have pointed out, it was a perfect late-summer day: warm, no clouds, deep blue sky. I passed a group of guys who looked like contractors, listening to a radio that announced a Palestinian group in the West Bank had claimed responsibility for the bombing (I never heard this rumor again).

The walk across the Bridge felt almost like a hallucination. Occasionally an ambulance or police car would come to part the slow-moving thousands trying to get home to Brooklyn; otherwise, deep silence. A woman walking next to me asked if I thought the next attack would be directed at the Bridge, and I tried to convince her that was unlikely. I had my own panic moment after passing into Brooklyn, when I saw uniformed officials brandishing shotguns outside a building; they told me it was a federal building and they'd been deployed to protect it. They seemed relatively calm and professional, as virtually everyone in uniform was that day.

I got lost walking home and wound up on Court Street, relatively far from my home on 15th in Park Slope. I passed a Mormon church where some kind volunteers were passing out bottled water to folks like me who were obviously coming in from Manhattan. All through the streets were silent, except for the occasional radio left on for news. As I finally got close to my house I heard some kids laughing and had to restrain myself from an angry reaction.

I got home around 12:30. One of my roommates had been sick and never went into work; before I woke him up he knew nothing of what had happened. Our other roommate worked in the Trade Center for J.P. Morgan. We had a half-hour of utter black panic before some level of common sense returned and we listened to our messages. She had called around ten to let us know she was alright; she had been in the lobby of her building on the way in when the other tower was struck, and left immediately. She made it home by late afternoon and we spent the rest of the week watching news, drinking and generally in shock.

That Friday night was a candlelight vigil for our local fire company, which had lost 12 men in the rescue effort. I will not try to describe the heroism of those men or the grief shared by their comrades and their community. A lot has been made of the commercialization of Sept. 11, its appropriation for political purposes and related mischief, but those 12 and hundreds of other police, firefighters and rescue personnel demonstrated the very best of America, and of values core to our humanity.

This morning I was in the same bagel shop. It's a beautiful day again, maybe a bit cooler. The children of victims are on TV, reading the names, and we're all left to deal with this tragedy that continues to disorder our lives and disfigure this city.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Rick and Bob Meet the Pumpkinhead
"Meet the Press" began its fall series of Senate debates today with what many consider The Big One, in my native state of Pennsylvania: incumbent Republican Senator Rick Santorum versus Democratic challenger Bob Casey. As you've probably heard, Casey has led this race for more than a year, though the size of his margin is in question: some polls have his lead down to six points, after a Santorum ad blitz over the summer, while others still have Casey leading by as much as 18.

I described this race to a friend as similar to watching the sports team you hate the most being challenged by a team to which you're largely indifferent. Casey's social conservatism--he's anti-abortion and tepid at best on gay rights and other issues--doesn't bother me that much, and his economic populist positions and closeness to labor are appealing. But he's bland and careerist--he's run for four offices in six years--and doesn't come across as particularly thoughtful or passionate. Santorum, of course, is the darling of the radical right: he's been deeply involved in the K Street Project, and his reactionary views on gays, women, and social organization in general have led opponents to describe him as "one of the finest minds of the 13th century." And he's voted with Bush upwards of 95 percent of the time in every year since Bush took office.

Today's debate probably didn't change any minds. (The video and transcript should both be available at the link above.) Santorum came across as what he is: a dogmatic Bush follower who's got nothing to offer on the war and on the "broader struggle" against "Islamic fascism" but simplistic thinking and appeals to the reptile brain. He called Bush "a terrific president," which isn't going to play well in PA, nor will his flimflammery on Social Security of the issue of his residency.

Casey was underwhelming but seemed competent. He gently poked holes in some of Santorum's wilder ravings, though he also missed the opportunity to really highlight the contradictions and essential incoherence of the Republican position: "we're in Iraq and must win there, but even though it's going badly we were right to go in and the mistakes can't be blamed on us, and besides the scary dark men are coming and want to kill us all, and even though the world is more dangerous now than in 2001 Bush has done everything right..."

But Casey's not that candidate. What did disappoint me was that he didn't at all hit Santorum on the three issues where Casey can make a positive case that will appeal to voters: economic populism, Republican corruption, and the poisonous and divisive culture wars in which Santorum has played such a notable role. In part, that was a result of how Tim Russert framed the debate, and what questions were and weren't asked.

I hope, however, that the Casey people pick this up later in the campaign. While it's possible that Casey will win anyway because of just how much people dislike Santorum and are generally dissatisfied, it obviously would be preferable for him to make some kind of positive argument that would get people energized.

Bottom line: Casey was the beneficiary of low expectations in this debate, and he met them. I doubt the polls move much either way.