Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Six Degrees of Democracy
I just spent an hour or so watching a Joe Biden "Iowa Town Hall" event on C-SPAN. Laugh if you want--I ackowledge this isn't normal, or necessarily healthy--but it was terrific. And it got me thinking, again, about how unwieldy and ineffective our "democratic process" really is.

I've followed Biden's career for almost 20 years. His father and my paternal grandfather were very close friends, and I got to spend a few hours one afternoon with him when I was a senior in college trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. He couldn't have been more pleasant, gracious and thoughtful, and even brought me into a meeting with environmental advocates, introducing me as an intern or assistant or something. I've always seen him as a throwback Democrat in the best sense--a foreign policy centrist and pocketbook-issues liberal who would have been comfortable with the Kennedys and other icons of the postwar period. He's made some awful votes, most memorably for me on the 2005 bankruptcy bill (the credit card companies in Delaware probably rendered that a matter of political survival, but still), but on most of the big and small issues, he's gotten it right.

Even for me, though, the Biden of substance--hell, the Biden my family ties compelled me to esteem--had been obscured by the endlessly talkative caricature who was prone to take figurative aim at his own feet with errors like calling Barack Obama "clean." And certainly when it comes to celebrity starpower and fundraising prowess, Biden has been rendered an afterthought in this campaign by Obama and Hillary Clinton, both of whom I imagine gall him with their soundbite-friendly campaigning and transparent focus on winning the election rather than thinking through the issues. (I should add here that I was thinking about Biden a bit even before seeing the C-SPAN broadcast, thanks to this worthwhile interview on foreign policy that he gave to Salon last week.)

That was all wiped away after watching Biden for an hour and change, about half of which was him speaking with the remainder for audience questions. Before the 30 or 40 Iowans in the room, Biden showed himself by turns to be thoughtful, well-informed, biting, analytical, passionate and funny. He memorably characterized Iraq as "the boulder in the road" blocking progress toward both tackling other, deeper-rooted foreign problems and "the issues that made me a Democrat"--health care and trade. He didn't run from his long service in the Senate, but rather explained why it was an asset in a president; how he'd spent his adult life informing himself about the key issues of our time, and why he believed himself to be the best person for the job.

At the end of all this, Annie and I were both deeply impressed. But I felt no differently about Biden's chances as I had beforehand: they're negligible.

Aside from people who actually attend these events, and a few thousand weirdos watching C-SPAN, nobody will get to see that impressive Joe Biden. A couple million at most will watch him struggle to spit out thoughtful answers in thirty to sixty second chunks while onstage with six or seven other Democrats, there essentially on sufferance from the networks who would prefer just to engage with the celebrity candidates. Perhaps ten or twenty times that many will read a line or two in a press story or see a ten-second clip on TV about Biden's debate performance, within an article or segment that, again, focuses on the "leading contenders."

I know this isn't an original thought, nor is it unique to this election cycle or the Democratic Party. But it's troubling anew to think about how distorted this process really is, and how far the endeavor of winning election has drifted from the much more significant task of governing.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

No, I'm not referring to the Eagles' almost-heroic loss to the Patriots tonight, though it was one of the most surprising (I thought the 24-point spread was about right and that the Eagles would roll over, as they generally have on "Sunday Night Football"; I couldn't have been more wrong on either count) and ironic (think similarities to Super Bowl XXXIX, with turnovers, dumb blitzes and questionable clock management wiping out superb effort and occasionally brilliant execution) football games I've ever seen.

I'm referring to the upcoming film adaptation of The Golden Compass, the first novel in a superb trilogy by British author Phillip Pullman that takes the fantasy forms of Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia and attaches them to a thundering denunciation of faith-based authoritarianism through history. Annie's finishing the trilogy right now, and we are--were--greatly looking forward to the movie's release next month. The look is right, the casting was strong, and you presumably could trust New Line Studios, who made the Lord of the Rings films, to competently handle the production.

What they couldn't be trusted for, however, was to stay true to the moral and philosophical core of Pullman's story. Terrified of controversy and the depradations of professional assholes like the anti-Semite Bill Donohue, New Line gutted the story and, based on this Atlantic Monthly piece, has produced something that will have the body of Pullman's story but not its soul:

The final, shooting script includes no mention of sin or the end of death. As Emmerich told me, Dust is “akin to the Force” in Star Wars. Coulter tells Lyra that Dust is “evil and wicked” and makes people “sick.” Asriel sounds like Obi-Wan Kenobi: “They taught themselves to fear Dust, instead of master it,” he says. “They’ve ignored a tremendous source of power … That is what it all comes down to, Lyra. That is what Dust is. Power. Without it, we are like children before the might of the Magisterium.”

It may make sense if you’re in a dark room dazzled by special effects and not thinking too hard. Then again, maybe it won’t. What’s left of Pullman’s story is a string of disconnected proclamations that obscure not just his original point, but any point at all: “Master Dust!” “Freedom is at stake!” “We’re not alone. We’re never alone! We have each other.” They satisfy, but they don’t really explain. Or perhaps they offer explanations so familiar and straightforward that they don’t invite questions.

This is Hollywood at its most hazily indignant and self-congratulatory, recycling the generic theme of Victory, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dead Poets Society, and countless other films—a band of grubby, half-crazed heroes takes on the System and wins.

As the piece details, The Golden Compass had a long and difficult gestation period, with multiple writers and directors coming and going. Chris Weitz, who wound up writing the script and directing, comes across as a well-intentioned douchebag who let his best instincts get rolled by Hollywood types desperate to avoid "controversy." Weitz claims to love the books; it's hard to grasp how anyone who truly gets what Pullman was going on about would allow the story to be stripped of the themes that elevate it from "good yarn" to "becomes a permanent part of who you are."

Call it--like the Eagles tonight--a tremendous opportunity squandered.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Moment of Truth?
It's conventional wisdom, and probably correct, that the message of the November 2006 election was that voters wanted Democrats to end the war in Iraq. Most also believe that the abysmally low approval ratings of the 110th Congress--20 percent at last report--are in large part the result of the Democrats' failure even to start winding down the war. Again and again since last winter, they've come to the brink of a showdown with the Bush administration--and, every time, they've folded and given the architects and champions of this war what they want.

In recent weeks, we've seen the first steps of the tango: the Democrats in Congress pass a military appropriations bill that includes timelines for withdrawal, and the president vetoes the bill. The next step is for another funding measure that doesn't include timelines. But this time there are indications that the Democrats might just stand their ground:

QUESTION: Mr. Obey, the rhetoric from the president is just going to get worse as the holidays approach. Are you going to continue to maintain the stance that you have of providing these conditions on war funds if he's to get the money?

OBEY: Of course.

I mean, we have provided the money. I will repeat that 50 times. We have provided the money. The money is not the issue. The issue is that the president is simply refusing to accept the conditions under which the money is provided.

This document says that that's the proper role of Congress. If you look at Article I, Section 8 and Article I, Section 9, they define the authority of the Congress to determine what policy is supposed to be financed and in foreign affairs, and we're simply -- we're simply following that document to the letter.

So much of the last decade in American politics has hinged on the Democrats' essential inability to tell even minimally complicated stories, from how and why the voting in Florida in 2000 was a sham and a disgrace, to why the war in Iraq wasn't helping in the fight against terrorist groups, to why it mattered that the administration had turned the Department of Justice in a Stalin-era claque of staunch partisan loyalists. At some point, the Democrats lost their nerve: having failed to control the public narrative (which admittedly is much harder to do without the presidency), they concluded that they would lose big fights like the one over funding the war--and backed away from them.

Obey seems to be gambling that they can control this narrative, and win the fight. As he says, Congress did provide the funding--but with conditions. It's not that they won't "support the troops"; it's that they want to make sure the commitment isn't endless.

Already the administration is ginning up its noise machine with accusations of "surrender dates" and "micromanaging the war." The second charge is pretty easy to push back against--if any group needs adult supervision, it's the Bushies--but the first might resonate, particularly given coverage like this story in today's New York Times. (Side note: I worry constantly that the Democrats are so keyed on inflicting political damage to Bush and the Republicans that they miss what is undeniably good news. Yes, the political tale has yet to be told, but if the strictly military purpose of "the Surge" was to improve security and provide a measure of stability, intellectual honesty compels us to acknowledge that.)

Of course, "surrender" is shamelessly hyperbolic; our forces haven't been defeated, and for that matter there's no one to "surrender" to. But the perception is politically dangerous, and war opponents have yet to present the truly daunting opportunity costs of this war--the unmet domestic needs, the limited capacity to exert force anywhere else in the world. the cumulative damage to the overstrained armed services--in their full dimensions.

It's honorable for the Democrats to engage in this political fight at this time. But they'd damn well better win it.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Ah, Makes Me Feel Like An Old Bolshevik...
I know he's a hypocrite. I know he's obnoxious. I know he's as responsible as anyone alive to giving the country the unalloyed disaster of Bush's second term, when by any standard he should have known much better. I know he'd probably put more right-wing nutballs on the Supreme Court, exactly because he doesn't really give a shit about the "values issues" those Christianist assholes are so crazed about. I know he's for the current war, the other current war, and at least two of the next three proposed wars. I know he hardly ever talks about the things that made me a little gooey for him once upon a time, like campaign finance reform and defense appropriations reform.

Still, when I read something like this, I remember why I was once a fan of John McCain:

"Yes, I've made a lot of people angry. But I didn't go to Washington to win the Mr. Congeniality award. I went there to serve my country," McCain said. "I might not like the business-as-usual crowd in Washington, and they might not like me. But I love America. I love her enough to make some people angry."

Too bad he happens to be a warmongering reactionary. I do have more trust for his "character" than I ever could for any of the other Republicans--and for that matter, Hillary Clinton. I think McCain loves this country somehow in the way that I love this country, and while I can't rationalize that--hell, I can't even explain it--it seems like as good a reason as any other on which to base one's view of a public figure.

Actually, what I'd like to believe about McCain is that being on the campaign trail again somehow brings him back to the person he was (by which I mean the person I saw him as--which itself could have been bullshit) in 2000. That person seemed like he was growing and changing as a result of prolonged exposure to people outside Washington, DC and the channels of power that a Republican Senator of long standing might reasonably be expected to travel in: think rich, selfish white people. He seems to sharpen up out there; almost to remember some better purpose than just the zombifying Potomac Fever that's animated him these last seven years, impelling him to violate his better self in all kinds of disgusting ways by making nice with people he knows are slime.

It would also be nice to think that McCain's last and arguably greatest act of heroism might be to take out the worst threat to the country's best character now in the race: his fellow Republican Rudy Giuliani. Sullivan puts it this way:

If Rudy wins the nomination, we will, I fear, have a campaign in which he routinely pulls the fear-chain to justify enormous powers for himself as a post-Cheney president. Any crisis or attack would lead to his eager suspension of the civil liberties we have left. And he will be aided in this by Fox News and even, I suspect, by Joel Surnow, who will deploy the "24" series next year into a running campaign for more torture and more war. Rudy will run on rounding up illegal immigrants, building a massive wall on the Southern border, bombing Iran, fighting indefinitely in Iraq, and tearing up what's left of America's alliances. There would be no transparency in his campaign or administration - just an appeal to trust a strong leader to protect us and attack undesirables. Think of a Malkin-Hannity fantasy - and that is what he would eagerly provide. McCain, in contrast, still has a link to the honor of the American past, its tradition of tolerance, of welcoming immigrants, of embracing diversity. And Democrats would not immediately see a McCain presidency as a source of fear and loathing. Increasingly, I'm afraid, I see the main task in this campaign as stopping the Giuliani freight train to unchecked power. McCain may not be able to stop it; but he helps reminds us why it's necessary.

McCain continues to make the case against torture to proto-fascist Republican audiences who are at best open to "enhanced interrogation" and at worst as erotically charged for it as Giuliani himself. It seems the essence of leadership is telling people something they don't want to hear--not apologetically as Giuliani does when talking to social reactionaries about abortion and gays ("never mind what I believe, I'll act in a way consistent with what you believe"), but in an honest way that respectfully challenges the audience to see it differently.

Ultimately we elect these people based on assessments of their character and the intuition that they know better than we do. But somehow we've gotten these obfuscators and panderers who try to skate by on celebrity or name recognition. McCain at least occasionally will pick a battle and show at least the desire to fill that function of leadership: persuasion.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Three Ideas for Presidential Debates
For some unfathomable reason--maybe bad judgment exacerbated by extreme fatigue--I watched the entire Democratic debate from Las Vegas last night. You probably know all you need to know about it: nobody fucked up too egregiously, Hillary Clinton was deemed "the winner" by virtue of this fact, and CNN did an atrocious job from soup to nuts, punctuated by pushing an absurd and embarrassing question to end the debate and then parading Clinton adviser James Carville as a non-affiliated expert analyst in the painfully inane post-debate "coverage."

But the frustrations of the event itself got me thinking about how to do them better. My ideas are as follows:

1) Let each candidate either moderate a full debate or control the discussion for 20 minutes, asking questions of his/her competitors. This would both give the front-runners a chance to go at each other directly, and allow the candidates farther behind to actually direct the conversation rather than be shoehorned in by the starfucking moderators in a pro forma way, as happened to every one of the candidates aside from Obama, Clinton and to some extent Edwards last night.

2) Set a full-debate time limit on each candidate rather than constantly having the moderator cut them off or, as the execrable Wolf Blitzer did last night, passive-aggressively prompt them to finish by mumbling, "Thank you." Here's one way to set this up: Take the full time available to debate–-say, 110 minutes of the two hours of airtime last night, minus commercials-–subtract a set amount of time for the asking of questions and moderation-–12 minutes, say (this also has the advantage of forcing brevity upon those clueless gasbags)-–and then divide the remainder (98 minutes) among however many candidates are on the stage (seven, last night). In this scenario, they’ve each got 14 minutes available to speak. They can use that 14 minutes however they want–-a long opening harangue, a mix of longer answers and shorter answers, a closing statement, whatever. But once they use it, their mic is cut off.

3) Every candidate has to drink a shot of bourbon every 15 minutes in a two-hour debate, every ten minutes in an hourlong, and only the last half-hour of the debate is available for media clips afterward. Admittedly this probably gives Richardson and Dodd an edge among the current Dems; in Richardson's case, he's a big guy, and Dodd evidently used to party with Ted Kennedy. But there's something to this: to a lesser or greater extent, all these candidates are so tightly wound, so scripted, so cautious. Let's see how they act, what they say, when they're crocked. We've all been drunk; you know that it's not like you become an idiot. You're just sloppier--and in some cases at least, more honest: in vino veritas. Yes, you'd have to run the thing on a time delay because there's candor and then there's the hair-curlingly obscene vitriol I suspect Hillary would fire at Edwards. But that's a small price to pay for such a deeper look at those who would lead our short-attention span democracy.
The Tiny Speech of Lady Triangula
It's been pretty clear since the jump that the most interesting, not to mention consequential, rivalry among the Democrats running for president is between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. I've never made any secret of my preference here; Obama is the candidate I'm most strongly for, while it's extremely unlikely that I could even vote for Clinton. (The scenario in which I'd do so--she's running against Giuliani and it's actually close in New York--probably means that she's be roadkill in the general election anyway.)

Friends and colleagues have argued, somewhat understandably, that the substantive difference between Clinton and Obama is so small that my strong support of one, and even stronger disdain for the other, makes no sense. I don't exclude myself from the millions of Americans who perhaps irrationally and almost surely disproportionately revile Senator Clinton. (Though, unlike most of them, in my case it's not because she's this super-liberal but because she's not nearly liberal enough. John Edwards has done the party a service in pointing out that Clinton is a "corporate Democrat" par excellence; I hope he keeps it up.) But the substance, in terms of policy proposals--which are very slightly better than meaningless as a guide to what these individuals would actually do in office, since legislation originates in Congress and, in Clinton's case, even a shriveled Republican minority would have tremendous political incentive not to let her do anything of significance--misses the point. It's the planted questions, the tight control over media availability, the endless moneygrubbing, and above all the spin and triangulation.

I finally found someone who expressed this the way I'd been trying to put it. After noting at the outset that he's supporting Obama and retains some fondness for Edwards, technology sector icon Lawrence Lessig writes:

The other front running Democrat, however, is not a close call for me. (Saying this is what terrified my newly allcaps friend.) She supported the war, but as my support of Edwards last time round indicates, I can forgive that. The parts I can't get over all relate to the issues around corruption. I signaled as much in my comments about her comments about lobbyists. We see two radically different worlds here. And were she President, I'd bet everything that we'd see radically little change.

But the part that gets me the most about Senator Clinton is the eager embrace of spinelessness. I don't get this in Democrats generally. I never have, but I especially don't get it after two defeats to the likes of George Bush (ok, one defeat, but let's put that aside for the moment). Our party seems constitutionally wedded to the idea that you wage a campaign with tiny speech. Say as little as possible. Be as uncontroversial as you can. Embrace the chameleon as the mascot. Fear only that someone would clearly understand what you believe. (Think of Kerry denying he supported gay marriage -- and recognize that the same sort of people who thought that would win him support are now inside the control room at ClintonHQ).

All politicians of course do this to some degree. And about some issues, I even get it. But what put me over the line with Senator Clinton was the refusal to join the bipartisan call that presidential debates be free. Not because this is a big issue. But because even on this (relatively) small issue, she couldn't muster the strength to do the right thing.

Her failure here was not because her campaign didn't know of the issue. I spoke directly to leading figures (or so they said) in the campaign. The issue was discussed, and a decision was made. And the decision was to say nothing about the issue. You can almost see the kind of tiny speak that was battered around inside HQ. "Calling for free debates might be seen as opposing copyright." "It might weaken our support among IP lawyers and Hollywood." "What would Disney think?" Better to say nothing about the issue. Better to let it simply go away.

We (Democrats) and we (Americans) have had enough of this kind of "leadership." That (plus the Lincoln Bedroom) made it impossible for me, honestly, to support Senator Clinton. No doubt I would prefer her to any Republican (save, of course, the amazing Ron Paul). But I can't support the idea that she represents the ideals of what the Democratic Party must become.

Aside from the Ron Paul love (about whom maybe I'll write another time; I'm glad he's in the race and I think he has one supremely important idea-- that we're on a path to empire abroad which will inevitably, in fact is already, destroying our democracy at home--but I just can't take seriously the fantasyland ideology of Libertarianism), he nails it.

The "tiny speech" line is both the key, and indicative of a fundamental problem. From the candidates I really like (Obama, who wants to move the country past the argument over the 1960s; Dodd, focused on restoring the Constitution after the Bush abuses) to those I'm basically okay with (Edwards, economic justice; Biden, a return to bipartisan foreign policy realism) to the ones I dislike (Romney, better management in government; Thompson, because his hot wife wants to be First Lady) to the one I detest (Giuliani, to speed up the push toward authoritarianism in the name of "fighting terror"), I think I get what the point would be; I think I understand why they're running.

But not for Hillary. Even Bill Clinton started out with a good idea: to reconcile the left and the center. Maybe what happened in his second term just demented them both, because he certainly wasn't doing anything progressive by the end of his administration; what good came out of those years (the tilt toward surpluses, which unfortunately just enabled the disaster who followed him) was the result of divided government. Power became the point in and of itself.

The only thing I remotely see from Senator Clinton is the health care plan--which happens to be a decent plan, far as I can tell. But her political persona gets in the way here: that thing will never pass, because the Republicans would never let her get the victory, succeeding where Truman, LBJ and Bill failed. They might not let any Democrat do it; William Kristol's warning that passing universal health care would "give the Democrats a lock on the crucial middle-class vote and revive the reputation of the party" is as or more true now as it was then. But certainly not the woman who's the embodiment of everything they hate about "the Left"... despite their failure to understand either the woman or the movement.

At best for the Democrats, Hillary will get her 50.00001 percent, take office, and then... nothing will change, and we'll keep drifting toward the edge.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Two Steps Forward
It hasn't gotten much press attention that I can discern, but the country took a long-overdue step forward yesterday when the House of Representatives passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act by a vote of 235 to 184. This measure, for which supporters have been fighting since 1974, would make it illegal for businesses to base hiring decisions upon perceptions of sexual orientation. Though some on the left are sufficiently upset with what the bill leaves out--protections for transgendered individuals--that they could not support it, anyone familiar with the history of civil rights movements understands that you never get everything you want in one shot. Once the principle of nondiscrimination is enshrined in the law, it becomes easier to make the broader case--and once hysterical opponents are faced with the fact that the measure they deplore hasn't led to the downfall of civilization, or in fact any discernable change at all, their objections become much easier to refute.

Heartening as this is for anyone who deplores the fact that homophobia remains our last societally accepted prejudice, it is unlikely that the legislation will become law anytime soon. Prospects in the Senate are favorable, with Ted Kennedy set to champion the bill and Maine Republican Susan Collins interested in co-sponsoring. But Bush is going to veto it, of course, and supporters do not have the votes in the House to override.

Nonetheless, the passage of ERDA is a welcome reminder that the Democrats' victory in last November's midterm elections did, in fact, mean something. Under the Republicans, the agenda of Congress was filled with non-issues like flag burning, and the leadership was more interested in measures restricting the rights of homosexuals--namely the Hate Amendment to the Constitution--than protecting them. The Senate will pass this bill early next year; Bush will veto it; and any Democratic president--yes, even Our Lady of Perpetual Triangulation--will make it the law of the land, provided Democrats retain congressional majorities, in 2009. This might be the single finest thing the 110th Congress has done to date, and upon hearing the news, for the first time in a long time, I felt proud of my country.

It was also thrilling for me to see one of the great heroes of the last civil rights movement, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, rise to support the cause of justice in the current movement. Check it out.

Another encouraging step came today in a House hearing on torture. An Arizona Republican named Trent Franks asked Col. Steve Kleinman, a military interrogator and intelligence officer who strongly opposes torture, whether perhaps "extreme measures" can be justified in a "ticking timebomb scenario"--you know, when you've got the suspect in custody, there's a nuke set to go off somewhere in the city, and he knows where it is and how to defuse it but won't tell you unless and until you hook up a car battery to his balls. Kleinman said, in essence, No--and offered an argument about the inefficacy of torture that I'd like to think might resonate even with the growing legion of right-wing creeps who are ever louder and prouder in their support of techniques embraced by the Inquisitors and the SS:

...[H]e offered a brief explanation of that process that sheds light on why torture is counterproductive for a professional interrogator, leaving aside questions of morality and law.

It's not just what a subject says in an interrogation that an interrogator needs to watch for clues, Kleinman said. The way in which he expresses himself is significant: does the subject fidget? Does he shift in his seat? Does he gesture, or suddenly stop gesturing? All of these non-verbal clues -- "clusters, groupings of behaviors," Kleinman called them -- provide interrogators with valuable information to observe what a detainee is like when he's lying, when he's being uncooperative, and when he's being truthful, or a combination of the three.

But if a detainee has his hands tied, or if a detainee shivers because a room is chilled, then "I don't know whether he's shivering because the room is cold or because my questions are penetrating," Kleinman said. That degree of abuse "takes away a lot of my tools." It's one of the clearest explanations in the public record about what torture costs professional interrogators in terms of actionable intelligence, as the debate is so often set up as what a lack of torture ends up costing national security.

If those who know best don't think it works, then what you're left with is an essentially pornographic wish by some deeply disturbed individuals to utilize these measures for their own sake. I'd like to think the public will recognize this for what it is.

Monday, November 05, 2007

A Lethargic Cheer for TV's Fred
I think it's increasingly clear that if we had to have a Republican president in 2009, Fred Thompson would be the least worst option. Yeah, the guy has the energy level of late-second term Reagan, and it would be weird to have dirty thoughts about the First Lady. He's way too hawkish on foreign policy for my tastes, and he hasn't always shown total command of the issues. But Thompson seems to have a quality that eludes, certainly, all the other serious Republican contenders and arguably the top-tier Democrats as well: willingness to stick to principle over political expediency.

In past weeks, Thompson has suggested that the federal government shouldn't have intervened in the Terry Schiavo case, and that he wouldn't support a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage--two views severely at odds with the rabid theocratic followers who serve as the backbone of the Republican electoral coalition. Sunday on "Meet the Press," he finished the hat trick, coming out against a nationwide ban on abortion. His reasoning was the same as in the previous two apostasies: principles of federalism always trump Washington's fiat. Yesterday he covered all three topics:

MR. RUSSERT: Let me ask you about an issue very important in your party’s primary process, and that’s abortion.


MR. RUSSERT: This is the 2004 Republican Party platform, and here it is: “We say the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution,” “we endorse legislation to make it clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children. Our purpose is to have legislative and judicial protection of that right against those who perform abortions.” Could you run as a candidate on that platform, promising a human life amendment banning all abortions?


MR. RUSSERT: You would not?

MR. THOMPSON: No. I have always—and that’s been my position the entire time I’ve been in politics. I thought Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided. I think this platform originally came out as a response to particularly Roe v. Wade because of that. Before Roe v. Wade, states made those decisions. I think people ought to be free at state and local levels to make decisions that even Fred Thompson disagrees with. That’s what freedom is all about. And I think the diversity we have among the states, the system of federalism we have where power is divided between the state and the federal government is, is, is—serves us very, very well. I think that’s true of abortion. I think Roe v. Wade hopefully one day will be overturned, and we can go back to the pre-Roe v. Wade days. But...

MR. RUSSERT: Each state would make their own abortion laws.

MR. THOMPSON: Yeah. But, but, but to, to, to have an amendment compelling—going back even further than pre-Roe v. Wade, to have a constitutional amendment to do that, I do not think would be the way to go.
MR. RUSSERT: And also with gay marriage, according to the Associated Press: “Thompson favors a constitutional amendment that bars judges from legalizing gay marriage, but also leaves open the door for state legislatures to approve the practice.” So if a state said, “We want to have gay marriages in our state,” you would be OK with that?

MR. THOMPSON: Yes. This, this, this—the—marriage is between a man and a woman. Nobody ever thought that that was contested until recently, and we’ve had a couple judges in a couple states decide to turn all that on its head. So we’ve, we’ve had, again, a judge-created problem. I would support a constitutional amendment that addresses this judge-created problem. But at the end of—and, and say judges can’t do that. But, at the end of the day, if a state legislature and a governor decide that that’s what they want to do, yes, they should have, they, they should have the freedom to do what Fred Thompson thinks is a very bad idea.

MR. RUSSERT: In March of ‘05, the Congress, the president signed legislation allowing a federal judge to intervene, to perhaps re-insert a feeding tube in the famous Terri Schiavo case.


MR. RUSSERT: You’ve spoken about that, about the death of your own daughter. Your view is it is a family’s decision to make whether to insert or remove a feeding tube.


MR. RUSSERT: And that should...

MR. THOMPSON: And then, and then, obviously, in consultation with their doctor.

MR. RUSSERT: But there should be no laws involved?

MR. THOMPSON: No. I’ve not said that. What—I mean, you, you got to put your lawyer hat back on, you know, with this most personal, should be nonlegal consideration. If there is a family dispute, then there’re courts in, in every state in the nation that you can take a dispute like that to. I said the federal government should not be involved.

MR. RUSSERT: But the government should not have gotten involved in Terri Schiavo?

MR. THOMPSON: No. Now, you know, keep in mind, now, the, the government didn’t come in and say “You got to do this; you got to do that.” It gave federal court jurisdiction. Federal court didn’t need jurisdiction, in my opinion. These are kinds of things where the, the, the—well, you mentioned it myself, my own personal situation. Let’s just say you never know when you make the right decision, what—it, it wasn’t totally comparable, but it was, it was the same, it was the same general end-of-life kind of consideration. And I, I—I’ve resisted and, and resent, frankly, the political football that’s been made out of all that, and, and it’s unfortunate. The less government, the better.

Those last five words represent a worldview. It's not a worldview I strictly agree with; I think when it comes to, say, making sure meat and produce sold isn't poisonous, or that a new anti-anxiety medication doesn't cause seizures, the opposite is closer to true. But it's a principle, and for a Republican Party that has almost gleefully thrown away any principles in pursuit of unlimited power to be wielded through a messianic leader, it's a start.

I doubt that Thompson wins the nomination and I think it's less than 50-50 he'll even win a single primary. He's not a good campaigner, and these deviations from right-wing dogma would seem to scuttle the media narrative of his candidacy as "the reliable conservative who isn't personally scummy (Giuliani) or the opposite of what he was five years ago (Romney)." Sadly, it's the fact that Thompson does seem to be a "reliable conservative," of the type that Barry Goldwater and Bob Dole might recognize, that's likely to ensure his defeat.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Crazed Clown
If we really are a Torture Nation, the moment this will go beyond argument is when Rudy Giuliani is sworn into the presidency on my dad's 66th birthday, January 20, 2009. Giuliani, to a greater extent even than George W. Bush, is the embodiment of all the worst deficiencies in the American character: unbearably arrogant and self-righteous, incapable of self-reflection or second thoughts, dishonest, and perhaps above all cruel.

Like many New Yorkers, I grew entirely sick of these flaws during the second half of Giuliani's mayoralty. The excesses of the police were matched only by the excesses of the mayor himself, constantly looking for new enemies against which to define himself. Ultimately, New York magazine, the Brooklyn Museum, and ferrets--not to mention his second wife--didn't prove as suitable as squeegee men and welfare cheats had been. But at the figurative eleventh hour, he found an enemy worthy of his abundant hate, and leveraged the unspeakable tragedy of September 11 into, first, many millions of dollars, and then a political resurrection.

On the merits, there is no way Giuliani should even be under consideration for high office. Beyond the failings of his own character, he was a bad judge of others' character, and despite the constant touting of his own executive experience, he wrecked the city's finances and made a mess of a number of key city agencies. But his confrontational temperament is better suited to the angry, fearful mood of today's Republican party than any of his competitors', and that willingness to loudly and ostentatiously hate--Muslims, liberals, the press, taxes, anyone and everyone who angries up the righties' blood--could be enough.

The New Republic recently ran two very good pieces on Giuliani. The first is a devastating analysis of his economic views, which come fairly close to making Bush look like Tip O'Neill. The second is a terrific and surprisingly even-handed analysis of Giuliani's views on "freedom and authority," and how his worldview played out over eight years in City Hall. Both highly recommended.
Torture Nation
Sometimes it seems that every day brings new proof that America is no longer a nation of ideals, no longer deserving of the historically heroic stature we've always awarded ourselves. It's always easy simply to blame the Bush administration, and liberals (and not just liberals) have availed themselves of that expedient. But really, it's not them; it's us. It's Democratic officials who have allowed the administration to run roughshod over our laws and traditions, and Democratic voters who have enabled them to do so.

We are about to have a second consecutive Attorney General, in theory the nation's foremost upholder and enforcer of the rule of law, who condones torture. Once is an accident--in the case of Alberto Gonzalez a historical abortion, in fact--but twice is a trend. Michael Mukasey's nomination will be successful because two prominent Democratic Senators from the two most influential liberal states, Chuck Schumer of New York and Dianne Feinstein of California, will vote to confirm him. Feinstein has long been a sort of pre-2006 Joe Lieberman with pearls, a pro-corporate, pro-war pseudo-Democrat at the front of the line when there's a principle to be tossed aside. Schumer's decision wounds me more, in part because he's my Senator (the one I've voted for, in fact), in part because he's a political genius, and in part because on other issues--includes ones I've worked on personally--he's terrific. But on this one, he rolled. He put his own credibility--it was Schumer who supported Mukasey in the first place--ahead of a foundational moral principle. If that doesn't indicate a lack of integrity, I can't imagine what does.

It is all but official that torture is now the legally sanctioned policy of the United States. I quote Andrew Sullivan (whose blog I've added to the links on this page):

Even though waterboarding has always been regarded as torture and is illegal under any meaningful understanding of English; even though the United States prosecuted Nazis as war criminals for performing exactly the same torture techniques now authorized by the United States under the rubric of "enhanced interrogation"; even though the United States has court-martialed soldiers for doing what the president has authorized; unless the specific techniques are entered explicitly into the law, according to Lowry, the Geneva Conventions and settled law don't apply. And so any vote for Mukasey will now be interpreted by torture advocates like Lowry and Bush administration officials as legal support for torture. Here's [National Review editor Rich] Lowry's proof:
If waterboarding is torture, whoever has authorized and conducted this training should -- as a strict matter of the law -- be vulnerable to war-crimes prosecutions... If the Senate disagrees [with allowing the president to waterboard prisoners], it should put itself clearly on record forbidding waterboarding. Otherwise, it should confirm Mukasey as the careful legal mind he has shown himself to be throughout his career and during this controversy.

See? This is how they keep pumping the poison of torture into the American constitution. And so a new precedent will be set; and the torture program, already well-established, will further entrench itself into US law and practices. The current law is not in any way mysterious. Schumer's promise that the Congress will now pass a law specifically banning verschaerfte Vernehmung, to use the Gestapo's name for the Bush-Cheney techniques, is insufficient. It presupposes that the torture techniques described are not already illegal, thus retroactively exonerating all those who authorized them.
Many seem to think that because these techniques are only used on terrorists, they are no threat to American liberty. What this complacent view doesn't grapple with is that these torture techniques can be used against any terror suspect; that such suspects are not subject to due process under president Bush's understanding of his powers; that such suspects can be captured within the United States; that they can be citizens; and that the war that justifies this extraordinary power is defined as permanent. That is why combining the power to detain without charge with the power to torture is an effective suspension of the rule of law and the Constitution. And such a suspension is astonishingly broad and open-ended.

That is why this has become a fight for the West's values against the moral relativists, legalistic parsers, and advocates of total executive power. The point is not a subjective judgment about the intentions of the torturers. It is not about whether Cheney and Bush can be trusted. It is about whether any individual can be trusted with such power. In a republic based on the rule of law, the intentions of the torturers - whether good or bad - are utterly irrelevant. In the West, we assume that the intentions of our rulers are likely to be evil. That's what distinguishes the Anglo-American tradition from those who trust individuals to govern them, rather than those who trust the law to allow us to govern ourselves. The point is that no person in the United States should ever have the power to detain and torture another person without due process. Once you make an exception for one man, the rule of law is over. The Decider may decide out of his own benevolence not to torture again. But he can still torture. And the knowledge that he can, and the knowledge that he was never stopped, and the knowledge that he was able to distort the plain meaning of the law to mean whatever he wants it to mean is a precedent that is staggeringly dangerous.

Emphases mine. With these standards in place, the entire frame of our politics changes. We are no longer a nation of laws; we are no longer a people of principle. Our political structure is teetering between a devalued but still somewhat functional democracy, still ruled in part by the legacy of the rule of law, and what I would call laissez-faire or just-in-time authoritarianism: it's all but certain that I (or Sullivan, or Markos Moulitsas, or Greg, or anyone) won't be detained and tortured for writing this post or anything else on my absolutely insignificant little blog, but I could be, and if the cost/benefit calculus were sufficiently different, I probably would be. All we're fighting for now is the preservation of the remaining Constitutional tools and governance traditions, and the chance to one day reassert them as the legal and moral basis of our society.