Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Stones, Political PTSD

Weird. Kevin Drum and Andrew Sullivan were both thinking along the lines I was this morning. How does that happen?

In the 90s, Democrats were still fighting the countercultural backlash of the 70s and needed ways to demonstrate their willingness to abandon old orthodoxies. Hanging with the DLC was a terrific way of signalling to both the press and the public that the party had reinvented itself....

But it's not because the average Kossack is to the left of the average DLCer. The real difference is that the average Kossack is obsessed with Democrats having the stones to stand up to the modern Republican machine.

No one's talking about rolling back welfare reform. No one's proposed a healthcare initiative even half as comprehensive as the 1994 Clinton plan. All three candidates continue to claim they're personally opposed to gay marriage. Their rhetoric on guns and abortion is much more muted than in the past. They mostly agree that some of the Bush tax cuts should be allowed to expire, but not much more. They want to get out of Iraq, but that's a thoroughly mainstream position, and none of them are willing to commit to a complete withdrawal in any case.
And Andrew:
Clinton is from the traumatized generation; Obama isn't. Clinton has internalized to her bones the 1990s sense that conservatism is ascendant, that what she really believes is unpopular, that the Republicans have structural, latent power of having a majority of Americans on their side. Hence the fact that she reeks of fear, of calculation, of focus groups, of triangulation. She might once have had ideals keenly felt; she might once have actually relished fighting for them and arguing in thier defense. But she has not been like that for a very long time. She has political post-traumatic stress disorder. She saw her view of feminism gutted in the 1992 campaign; she saw her healthcare plan destroyed by what she saw as a VRWC; she remains among the most risk-averse of Democrats on foreign policy and in the culture wars.
I wonder if this is more than just a coincidence. Maybe last week's Obama-Clinton scuffle will get the ball rolling on Democratic courage.

Finding Their Morality

We are living through one of the most corrupt times in American politics. Corruption in turn breeds incompetence, and the two breed, among voters, cynicism. In response, the Democrats, to everyone's astonishment, don't seem to be able to find their voice. They waffle, equivocate, and fall back on politicalese. Last week's spat between Obama and Hillary about foreign diplomacy was the most recent case in point. Why this has happened seems clear, but first, it's relevant to deconstruct recent Republican rule to see how we got here.

The process by which the GOP managed to consolidate power included a strong moral argument: government as an institution is corrupt and malign--witness the travesties of Roe and welfare. Morality is a potent weapon; it allows you to distinguish your position from the mire of politics as usual while simultaneously identifying your opponents as that mire. The Democrats did the same thing in the 30s and carried it through the civil rights movement. With social issues and "small government" on their side, Republicans turned the tables in the 80s.

The power of this identification (GOP=morality) becomes the standard position. In any debate, voters and--to a far larger degree (quite bizarrely)--the media assume the GOP are right. So even though Bush lied his way through a war, bogus tax cuts, a phony social security debate, ad infinitum, the assumption has been that this is still the moral position. Even over the weekend, as I listened to the debate about Alberto Gonzales play out on the talk shows, there was an instinctive mistrust of the Democratic position despite overwhelming evidence that Gonzales is a toady, a liar, and a bum. (Media position: "yes, Gonzales appears to have lied, but aren't the Democrats still only interested because it gives them partisan advantage?")

Corruption, of course, resulted from the connections to K Street, the motivation of most of the GOP to rule, not govern, and a sense that reality didn't matter--there was no catastrophe that couldn't be spun to implicate the Democrats. Voters, who by nature have only a dim understanding of politics, don't know how to sort all of it out. The party of morality seems to be corrupt, and the other party--the chumps--don't know their asses from a hole in the ground. So cynicism prevails.

So why are Democrats so lame? I think they have a kind of Stockholm syndrome. It's not only the media and voters who genuflect to the moral authority of the GOP; in a certain sense, the Dems to it reflexively, too. (Unlike Republicans, who turned "liberal" into a profane description, Democrats regularly refer to "solid conservatives" as those with principles, as distinct from the cancerous Abramoff/Bush wing.) They naturally mistrust the politics of spin, and being the wonkier party, default to policy discussions rather than emotional appeals. What results is a timid, equivocating party that almost never speaks about policy in the language of morality. And, even when they do, they take a very mildly heterodox position that seems to undermine the very moral point they're making.

The "third way" politics of the DLC contain a deeply structural fault. While it may have been a successful wedge politics for the middle of the GOP era, it is by design without morality: it splits the difference. To a certain extent, all Democrats currently labor in Clinton's shadow, and his damnable DLC politics.

At some point, an overarching politics of morality is going to have to emerge that buoys and animates all their arguments--and which abandons the third way. Liberals actually believe government is good: it regulates to keep markets healthy and competitive, it redistributes to give all Americans a chance, it offers justice so that no citizen is greater or lesser before the law, and it offers security through competent foreign policy. The GOP has so profoundly dominated the politics of morality, that even to suggest that government is an agent for change seems not only unutterable, but wrong. But in fact, in every liberal democracy besides the United States, that is the default view and the unquestioned morality of politics.

If the Democrats find the courage to express this morality, 2025 might feel a lot like 1945, when those values went unquestioned. If they don't, we may be in for years more of political gridlock, polarization, and cynicism.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Iraq Names Project

A woman named Nancy Hiss has begun a temporary art installation she's named the "Iraq Names Project." Slowly, laboriously, she's writing the names of the dead on the sidewalks of Portland, Oregon. I didn't know about the project until this afternoon, when I came out of my local Buddhist center and saw the names stretching down the block:

She has subtitled the work "honoring sacrifice and interdependence," which is quite appropriate in the Buddhist context. A central piece of Buddhist theology rests on the idea of interdependence--a simultaneity of causes and conditions that create the arisal of circumstances and objects, including people. Much like the "six degrees of separation," it doesn't take long for us to start seeing the threads that tie us all together. She also adds, I think quite necessarily:
"As you reflect on these names also remember the hundreds of thousands of nameless Iraqis and others who have been scarred by this war."
The artist is tying these names into the web of city streets, bringing them into our experience. Drawing on another central tenet of Buddhism, her installation is tenuous and fleeting. As soon as the Oregon rains fall, the names will be washed into the streets. Names woven into our lives, but, like our lives, impermanent. It is a wonderful inspiration.

(Sorry about the photo quality--it's a cell phone picture.)

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Moore is Smarter than You

If, that is, you're an unreflective conservative ideologue. A nice clip from a recent appearance on Hardball. (It ends a little abruptly, but the original tape only ran on a few seconds longer before cutting to commercial.)

Notice the little impromptu poll Matthews runs with the gathered crowd. First he asks who's Dem and GOP (the GOP segment is louder, but it appears pretty evenly split). Then he asks who would support government financed healthcare. The applause rate is 80-20 in favor.

Democratic candidates should take note.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Begin Impeachment

Until a couple weeks ago, I was in the "don't impeach" camp. My thinking went like this:
  1. Bush has committed a number of major and minor crimes against statutory laws and the Consitution, and he must be held accountable.
  2. Moving to impeach him before we've had a chance to run Congressional investigations in a relatively nonpartisan environment would polarize the issue, make it harder to investigate his crimes, and lead to defeat. Thus there would be no accountability, and Dems would be accused by half-wits in the media as mindlessly partisan descendants of a polity that gave us the Clinton impeachment.
  3. As a result, Leahy and Waxman should continue their investigations until they had a body of evidence that would expose Bush's crimes. Sufficiently defamed, Bush would have no support on the Hill and impeachment could either go forward or not--the point having been made.
But then came the Bill Moyers piece which, more than anything, has galvanized the lefty core for impeachment (no wonder Bush tried to run him off PBS). Amazingly enough, one of the guys who makes the most compelling arguments is Bruce Fein, who wrote the first article of impeachment against Bill Clinton. (The other is a writer for the Nation.) The entire conversation is rich (it's really a must-read or watch--follow the link above if you haven't), but here's the pith of the argument. First, Nichols:

Well, let's try a metaphor. Let's say that-- when George Washington chopped down the cherry tree, he used the wood to make a little box. And in that box the president puts his powers. We've taken things out. We've put things in over the years.

On January 20th, 2009, if George Bush and Dick Cheney are not appropriately held to account this administration will hand off a toolbox with more powers than any president has ever had, more powers than the founders could have imagined. And that box may be handed to Hillary Clinton or it may be handed to Mitt Romney or Barack Obama or someone else. But whoever gets it, one of the things we know about power is that people don't give away the tools. They don't give them up. The only way we take tools out of that box is if we sanction George Bush and Dick Cheney now and say the next president cannot govern as these men have.

Then Fein:
In some sense, yes, because the founding fathers expected an executive to try to overreach and expected the executive would be hampered and curtailed by the legislative branch. And you're right. They have basically renounced-- walked away from their responsibility to oversee and check. It's not an option. It's an obligation when they take that oath to faithfully uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. And I think the reason why this is. They do not have convictions about the importance of the Constitution. It's what in politics you would call the scientific method of discovering political truths and of preventing excesses because you require through the processes of review and vetting one individual's perception to be checked and-- counterbalanced by another's. And when you abandon that process, you abandon the ship of state basically and it's going to capsize.
It's a better argument. Accountability is critical, but the critical function of checks and balances trumps it. If Congress is unwilling to stand up to an acknowledged imperial president, accountability is probably a lost ideal in any case. The very act of beginning impeachment procedings as a way of exerting Congressional authority now appears to be the only thing that could stop this dangerous executive branch land grab. Time to begin.

Half-Wit Pundits

When you carry water for the president, you can look incredibly foolish. I wonder if David Brooks will be able to salvage any credibility as an independent thinker (let alone the intellectual he once fancied himself to be). From Meet the Press, Brooks notes that even now, at this late date, Bush's confidence in his imperial powers is undiminished:
And the second thing which impressed me about that meeting, his faith in his own power, the power of the presidency to change the world, he has not budged on that. And so you might think that’s strong leadership, you might think he’s deranged. But, but his basic attitude, I think, has not changed....

I would still think he thinks the fundamentals are, are true, that in the long run he’ll be proved right, and that’s kind of remarkable.
Rare is the American--half-wit pundits included!--who do not admit that Bush has lied and likely broken laws in order to protect his power. And seven years in, he doesn't see anything wrong with that. But when Brooks is questioned about Russ Feingold's proposal to censure the president (which is to say, exercise the Congress's Constitutional right to contain the executive), Brooks responds:
I think a big tactical mistake from a Democratic perspective. There are 30 Republican senators who are desperate to get away from President Bush. They’ve been pushed back toward President Bush by, one, Harry Reid making this more partisan, and a censure resolution would make it hyper- partisan. So I think it would be huge for the whole political landscape if those Republicans drifted away from Bush. But it’s not going to happen if there’s censure resolutions, if it’s a partisan debate.
Hoy. Brooks blames the Democrats for partisanship here and believes it's their duty to back down in order to preserve some kind of comity, despite having just acknowledged that the president is disconnected with reality and may be deranged. Yet any sense of irony eludes him--as always.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

NIE for Dummies

The new NIE is out. And my, isn't it insightful. Americans understand very little about, say, tax policy. But they know a few things about the so-called war on terror. They understand, for instance, that bin Laden yet runs around and means to do us harm and that our failure to capture him is, on the whole, not the best thing for our safety. They know that al Qaida is a terrorist organization and will use unconventional means to blow up innocents in the most dramatic, telegenic way they can imagine. And they have a sneaking suspicion that Bush administration-led intelligence agencies don't know their asses from a hole in the ground. And of, course, they're right. The brand-spanking new National Intelligence Estimate, purportedly a draft of the best knowledge we have at our fingertips, offers the most obvious insights that even 12-year-olds already know.
  • "We judge the US Homeland will face a persistent and evolving terrorist threat over the next three years."
Comment: They limited the horizon to three years, because who knows what might happen after that. Maybe the threat will be over!
  • "Al-Qa'ida is and will remain the most serious terrorist threat to the Homeland."
Comment: Good thing we invaded Iraq.
  • [A bulleted point] "As a result, we judge that the United States currently is in a heightened threat environment."
Comment: Well in that case ... better invade Iran.
  • "We assess that al-Qa'ida will continue to enhance its capabilities to attack the Homeland through greater cooperation with regional terrorist groups."
Comment: Which have proliferated as a result of the Iraq invasion.
  • "We assess that al-Qa'ida will continue to try to acquire and employ chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear material in attacks."
Comment: Oh no! I thought they would constrain themselves to shovels and discarded baseball bats.
  • "We assess that globalization trends and recent technological advances will continue to enable even small numbers of alienated people to find and connect with one another, justify and intensify their anger, and mobilize resources to attack—all without requiring a centralized terrorist organization, training camp, or leader."
Comment: The CIA has discovered the internets, and suspects the terrorists have, too.
  • "The ability to detect broader and more diverse terrorist plotting in this environment will challenge current US defensive efforts and the tools we use to detect and disrupt plots."
Comment: It's likely we won't be able to stop future attacks, but hey--vote Republican!

Three monkeys and a bottle of vodka would have produced a more interesting assessment.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Tin-Pot "Democracy"

A reminder, from one of the bloggers who impugned the antiwar left in the run up to the war:
But when you have an unhinged, incompetent fanatic in power, unable to recognize let alone govern reality, sometimes you have to pick the least worst option. And when the "conservatives" explode entitlements, lose wars, legalize torture, violate the Constitution or abuse it for electioneering, what's a real conservative supposed to do? Sometimes, punishing a party for its betrayal of core principles is a necessary act of cleansing.
Yes, he's a Republican, albeit a gay, English-immigrant Republican (still no movement in the Texas wing of the party). What he's talking about can be seen in the testimony given by Sara Taylor last week, which I've been meaning to post for days now. It is a rather shocking spectacle and will remain in my memory as one of those pitch-perfect metaphors for our current government:

SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: And then you said, "I took an oath to the President, and I take that oath very seriously." Did you mean, perhaps, that you took an oath to the Constitution?

SARA TAYLOR: I ahh, ahh, I--yes. Yeah, you're correct; I took an oath to the Constitution, but what--

LEAHY: Did you take a second oath to the President?

TAYLOR: I did not. What I should have said--

LEAHY: So the answer was incorrect.

TAYLOR: The answer was incorrect. What I should have said was I took an oath, I took that oath seriously, and I believe that taking that oath means that I need to respect, and do respect, my service to the President.

LEAHY: No, the oath is that you take an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States. That is your paramount duty. I know the President refers to the govenment as being his government, but it's not. It's the government of the people of America. Your oath is not to uphold the President, nor is mine to uphold the Senate. My oath, like your oath, is to uphold the Constitution.
President, F├╝hrer, constitution. It's all the same, right?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


Rising, rising...
9:04 am _- 74.5° F
9:47 am _- 78.8° F
10:33 am - 82.6° F
11:18 am - 87.1° F
11:46 am - 90.0° F
Okay, I was away from a computer for awhile, but this is illustrative of how the day turned out:
8:53 pm _- 87.0° F
9:29 pm _- 83.6° F
Even in New Delhi, that's a pretty hot day.

Saturday, July 07, 2007


It is now 7:07 on 7/7/07. As usual, I fail to see everything that's gone into this moment.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Cell Phones and Polling

I know that for the most part, no one who (ever read, never mind still) reads this blog cares about polling, but there's a very important post at pollster.com (formerly Mystery Pollster) on the effect of polling in the cell phone era. It's massively long and scholarly, but nevertheless very clear to a layperson.

You should read the whole thing, but here are a couple of the more interesting facts:
  • For the most part, pollsters don't call people on cell phones.
  • By the time the election rolls around in '08, fully 25% of Americans will only use a cell phone (up from 7% in '04).
  • Even this figure may be understated, as many of the people (like me, for example) who have a landline use it almost exclusively for DSL.
  • The people most likely to have a cell phone only are young people, people living in group housing, and poor people.
  • So far, the differences are shaking out so that the effects within age groups are not substantially different between cell/landline users (<2%),
As the cell-phone-only group grows, these subtle differences may become exaggerated. Or, possibly the cell-phone-only group will start to become the normative sample and even more closely resemble landline users. For now, not such a big deal, but worth revisiting in '09.

Not Sufficiently Godly

If there is any question about which wing of the Republican Party--theocratic or fiscally conservative--has ascendency, let this settle it:

The House has apparently changed its mind about how the new dollar coins honoring U.S. presidents should display the national motto “In God We Trust,” after more than 600 million of them have been produced.

An amendment by Rep. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., adopted last week to the fiscal 2008 financial services spending bill (HR 2829) would bar funding for minting $1 coins with the motto on the edge rather than on the face.

The move reverses Congress’ expressed intent in the 2005 law authorizing the presidential coin program, which specified that in order to enhance the “aesthetic beauty” of the coin, “it is appropriate to move many of the mottos and emblems, the inscription of the year, and the so-called ‘mint marks’ that currently appear on the two faces of each circulating coin to the edge of the coin.”

But after seeing the new coins, which were first issued in February, Wicker felt that the motto was not sufficiently prominent, spokesman Kyle Steward said Thursday.

It’s unclear whether the Senate will follow the House on this issue. The Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to mark up its draft version of the legislation next week.

It resists further commentary.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Errata on the Libby Commutation

In no particular order.

1. The first of the gutlessness observations: commutation by press release? Cojones grande, amigo. I guess this case hadn't attracted sufficient attention to warrant a public acknowledgement.

2. Gutlessness cont. On the week of the Fourth of July? Worse than a Friday news dump, this was certain to go into the black hole of public attention.

3. One more on gutlessness. It's bad enough that he didn't have the balls to pardon Libby outright (the famous poll-ignorer somehow thought this would appease all), but worse that he gave Libby a lecture: " My decision to commute his prison sentence leaves in place a harsh punishment for Mr. Libby. The reputation he gained through his years of public service and professional work in the legal community is forever damaged." Of course, Bush is pure grit and energy, a man who was never bailed out by his bettors, so I guess kicking Scooter with a moral boot isn't hypocrtical.

4. Irony: Men rot in Guantanamo with no hope of release--or legal representation--but Bush was concerned that Libby's sentence was "excessive." He's sent dozens of men and women to the gallows in Texas, is proud of his heartlessness toward "evildoers," but when a man with a $500 manicure from his inner circle is threatened with the indignity of spending soft time with lowlifes, Bush found his compassion.
[Update: via Andrew Sullivan, "I don't believe my role is to replace the verdict of a jury with my own," - George W. Bush on why he signed death warrants for 152 inmates as governor of Texas.]
5. Executive privilege. A traditional Bush MO: cite the opinions of others until they begin to disagree with you, then overrule them. Never allow the cocoon of false reality be sullied by heterodoxy. So follow the generals until they say Iraq's a mess, then find new generals. Say you won't talk about the Libby case because you so deeply respect the rule of law, then ignore it and commute Libby's sentence.

6. What about the BS of drumming out of the White House anyone who had leaked Plame's name? Where does an executive commutation fit in there?

Monday, July 02, 2007

Libby Declared Independent

I wondered why Bush hadn't pardoned the Scootman, given that only the neocon fringe still approved of his job and were now also wavering. So he did:
President Bush spared I. Lewis Libby Jr. from prison Monday, commuting his two-and-a-half-year sentence while leaving intact his conviction for perjury and obstruction of justice in the C.I.A. leak case.
It's what presidents do: they protect rat finks who helped them climb the rungs of power. Of course, Bush, for whom generosity is not a reasonable adjective, left the scarlet "F" (felony) on Libby. A decision that makes everyone feel dirty--nice.

What a beautiful ending to a beautiful saga.