Friday, August 31, 2007

Warner announces departure

Far more significant than the exit of the undistinguished Larry Craig (R-ID) is the announcement by John Warner (R-VA) that he will not seek another term in the Senate in 2008. Warner, who is a terrific advertisement for old age (he's a VERY healthy looking 80) made headlines last week when he, albeit belatedly, told the White House publicly that the time has come to start pulling troops out of Iraq. Warner is also one of the more-or-less true conservatives, as distinguished from the reactionaries of Deadeye Dick's ilk, who has maintained at least a semblance of civility in Washington during the Bush administration.

Warner's departure puts the Virginia senate seat even more in play than it would have been had he run. The Old Dominion has been trending Democratic in recent years, as a swelling Hispanic population and a shift of gravity toward the Washington suburbs have reduced--and even eliminated--the state's traditional conservative tilt. Virginia has elected two consecutive Democratic governors and last year Jim Webb knocked George "Macacawitz" Allen out of the Senate. (We New Englanders might say that Virginia is the southern New Hampshire). Will Mark Warner, the former Democratic governor and no relation to the retiring senator, declare for the Senate? He was overwhelmingly popular as governor; he could be a very strong candidate next year. (For one thing, voters could keep their "Warner for Senate" bumper stickers). Stay tuned.

So long, Larry

Larry Craig will slink out of Washington by announcing his resignation from the Senate on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. Apparently, he thinks no one will notice.

More outrage

Hard to believe that this administration could engage in even more outrageous conduct, but The Washington Post reports that American authorities in Baghdad's Green Zone have been handing out "tip sheets" on Democratic lawmakers who have come to Iraq as part of their congressional oversight responsibilities (and to help their credibility back home, let's admit). These sheets, which aptly notes "read like they were written by the RNC," represent the latest effort to politicize every aspect of United States government policy. If politics no longer stops at the water's edge, we might at least have expected it to stop in the war zone. But no.

Even after all this time, we need to remind ourselves that they truly have NO shame.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Curiouser and curiouser

Even as someone who's expressed sympathy for Larry Craig (R-ID), I must confess to amusement at the way that his fellow (no, I don't mean it THAT way) Repubs are leading the pack calling for him to resign from Congress. The wonderful Gail Collins explains it all for us in today's New York Times.

I particularly liked this gem: "Mitt Romney absolutely raced to condemn his former campaign committee luminary. Really, it was a good thing that when word about Craig first came out there weren’t any small children or elderly people between him and the nearest microphone. Romney not only wanted to distance himself from anything involving the term 'he said-he said,' he was also fighting the whole school of thought that discounts the importance of a candidate’s private behavior. As the only leading Republican candidate for president who is still on his first wife, Romney wants private behavior way, way up there at the top of the list."

The more I see of Mitt, the harder it is for me to tell whose hypocritical moralizing I like less, his or Larry Craig's.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Different strokes

Yesterday, I gave you my take on what is looking more and more like the downfall of Sen. Larry Craig (D-ID). Other folks are less charitable.

Hillary Rosen: "Larry Craig isn't gay. Thank god cuz we don't really want him to be. Ick. Now that he has told the country that he isn't gay in a press conference, I am so relieved."

Katie Halper: "Today is a terrible day for America, public bathrooms, a cappella music everywhere. The arrest of Senator Larry Craig by an undercover police officer for lewd conduct in a public men's bathroom is the final nail in the coffin in which rots the once vibrant barbershop quartet known as the Singing Senators."

As they say, that's what makes horse races. And political scandals.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A turning point?

From a regular reader who wishes to remain anonymous:

If it weren't for the bloggers, Alberto Gonzales would still
have a job as the head of the DOJ. Is this a turning point in
American journalism? Yes, I think it is. No, the bloggers have
NOT replaced traditional journalism, they've augmented it in,
I think, a much needed way.

I like to think we do our part

Hypocrisy claims another victim

Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID) says that he now regrets pleading guilty to a disorderly-conduct charge stemming from his arrest at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport in June. I'm sure he does, now that the story has made the national news. The arrest was made by an undercover police officer, who alleged that the Senator propositioned him for sex in a men's room at the airport.

This is not the first such incident for Craig; allegations of homosexuality have dogged him for many years. (The Senator, who is married and has children, has consistently denied all of such charges, and in May told the Idaho Statesman that has never engaged in a homosexual act. However, in 1982, he had to deny that he had sexual relations with underage Capitol pages.)

News of the arrest and plea led Craig to sever his ties to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign; he had been the co-liaison (whatever that means) from the campaign to the Senate. Craig is only the latest in a line of highly-placed Republican whose personal peccadilloes have been revealed this year. Rudy Giuliani's South Carolina chairman had to leave the campaign to defend himself against drug-trafficking charges, the co-chair of John McCain's Florida campaign was charged with soliciting homosexual sex from an undercover police officer, and Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) has admitted that his name appeared in the little black book of a Washington D.C. madam.

My purpose here is not to gloat or poke fun at the problems Republicans are having. (It is hard not to point out, however, that Sen. Craig's connection to the Romney campaign may be poetic justice for the Mitt-man's holier-than-thou attitude toward Giuliani and McCain.) What is more significant is the hypocrisy that has led to so many of these scandals. Well, not the drug-trafficking charge, but the others.

The intolerant attitude toward sex exhibited by most--not all--of those who style themselves conservative has caused untold (in both senses of the word) misery among so many who espouse the same political cause and, through the enactment of draconian laws, among millions who do not. If the charges about Larry Craig are true, think of the agony that he must have experienced over the decades as he tried to reconcile his feelings with his public persona. Hypocrisy? Yes. And it is all too easy for us to scorn the hypocrites (that's my first impulse). But let's take a moment to consider what it costs the hypocrite to straddle the barrier between truth and appearance. Let us have sympathy for people who feel forced to divide their public and private selves, and then let us consider what needs to be changed so that fewer of them--those who are not engaged in truly criminal or anti-social behavior, that is--need do so.

Parting words

In announcing his departure yesterday, Alberto Gonzales (misspelled "Gonzalez" in an earlier post, for which I apologize) said that his worst day as Attorney-General was better than his father's best day; his father has been described as a construction worker.

My wife, the lovely Diane, was repelled by this comment, which to her seemed to show disrespect for the man who brought him into the world and brought him up. I take a somewhat more tolerant view, that the soon-to-be former A-G was trying to express, albeit clumsily, his gratitude at being given the chance to serve as the nation's highest-ranking lawyer. I also think, however, that the attitude underlying his words reveal how the son of immigrants became a Republican, and was happy to consort with Bush, Cheney and the rest of the imperial-presidency crowd.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Electoral College

Last week, The New York Times editorialized in favor of abolishing the Electoral College. That is a popular position among progressives.

Let's be honest: the Electoral College is going to be with us for a long time to come. Amending the Constitution to abolish it would require the consent of too many small states that benefit from its undemocratic distribution of electoral votes. (The mal-distribution of votes comes in part from the fact that they are handed out only after every decennial census, but more from the allocation of electoral votes by the total number of senators and congressmen that each state has; a state like Wyoming gets one vote for its single congressman, but two for its senators. Thus Wyoming, though not a significant source of electoral votes, has proportionately much more influence than New York, California or Florida. Why would Wyoming, Alaska, Rhode Island, Maine, Vermont or other small (in population) states give up that power? They won't.)

Actually, the Electoral College has good features. What if we had had to recount the entire nation's vote in 2000? If you think the shenanigans surrounding the hanging chads in Florida were bad, imagine what would have happened in reviewing 100 million ballots. We might not have a winner yet. (I know what you're thinking: we still don't know--and probably never will--who actually won that election.)

This does not mean that the electoral college should not be reformed. It should be. However, as The Times pointed out in the editorial mentioned above, there are good ways and bad ways to make changes. Repubs in California are hoping to sneak through a change that would allocate the state's electoral votes based on who wins each congressional district, with the winner of the most electoral votes getting the two additional ones allocated for the state's senators. That's a palpable attempt to give the GOP perhaps 20 more electoral votes than it would now get, under the winner-take-all system. (The proposal would be voted on in a referendum. As argued in a letter in today's Times, that would be patently unconstitutional.)

The present system, where all of a state's electoral votes go to the winner of the popular vote by even the smallest margin, is plainly undemocratic, and leads to crises such as we had in 2000. The idea of allocating electoral votes by congressional district is equally unfair, however; should a candidate win an overwhelming majority in, say, two of eight districts, and lose the other six by small margins, he or she might have the most votes in the state as a whole, but get only two of ten electoral votes under the system proposed for California.

A practical, and fair, change would be to allocate electoral votes for each state in proportion to the popular vote. Take that state mentioned above, with ten electoral votes. If candidate A got 52 percent of the vote, he or she would get 5 of those votes. Candidate B, with 48 percent (assuming there are no significant third parties) would also get 5. That is not perfectly democratic, true, but it is far more fair than the system we now have. (Because there are ten votes, one is allocated for each 10 percent of the popular tally. To get one, a candidate would have to obtain more than half of that ten percent. Thus, the winner of 5 to just under 15 percent would get one vote, the winner of just over 15 to just under 25 percent two votes, and so on.)

Proportional allocation has a particular value when the vote in one or more states is very close. Take the example above, but let's assume that one candidate has 54.9 percent of the vote and one 45.1 percent. A recount might swing candidate A from 5 to 6 electoral votes, and candidate B from 5 to 4, but there would not be a wholesale change. In other words, the likelihood of an election turning on a recount would be much diminished. Had such a system been in place in 2000, Florida and its hanging chads would not have been an issue.

(For any who might be wondering, I have not gone through the state-by-state results to calculate who would have won in 2000, had the system I've described been in place. I'll try to find the time to do that, and if I do, I'll post the results, even if they show that W would have won.)


Josh Marshal suggests that W will fill the AG's position with a recess appointment. Maybe that explains why they let Gonzalez's resignation out of the bag on Monday morning, instead of late on Friday afternoon, on the eve of the Labor Day weekend. But I suspect that even Bush realizes that using a recess appointment to get in someone Congress would not approve would only prolong the uproar over the way that he has treated the Justice Dept. and the law generally.

A clue to his intentions may be found in his statement on the resignation this morning (if you can bear to watch his self-pitying distortion (to be kind) of reality). At the end, he says that he has asked Paul Clement, the Solicitor-General, to be acting AG until a new nominee is confirmed by the Senate. You can see the statement here:

My theory about the timing is that too many people knew what was going on: the story would have broken long before Friday and they'd have looked even worse if they tried to hold it that long.


We're not going to have Alberto Gonzalez to kick around any more.

Well, actually, we will. He's still going to be fair game for congressional committees, not to mention Democratic candidates. In fact, I'd say we're going to hear Gonzalez's name from Democrats almost as many times as we'll hear Bush and Cheney mentioned.

(I must admit to being surprised that this came out on Monday morning. It's the kind of thing this administration announces late on a Friday afternoon, and Labor Day weekend is coming up. Was there some new revelation that prompted Gonzalez to resign now? Stay tuned.)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Just what amendments is he against?

I heard Fred Thompson on NPR last weekend, then saw him on PBS. Fred ("I'm not really a law-enforcement official, I just play one on TV") was at the Iowa State Fair, "testing the waters." He made a point of telling the crowd that he was "pro-Second Amendment."

That's interesting, because it implies that there are amendments that he's against. I think that's something we should know about, because if he were elected President, he would have to swear to uphold the entire Constitution.

So tell us, Fred, how do you feel about the other amendments? Are you against the Third, which forbids quartering troops in private homes except in times of war? (That might not go over well with the Repub right.) We wouldn't be surprised to find that you've got your doubts about the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments, which tend to stand in the way of law-enforcement agencies' desire to do whatever they please.

But how do you feel about the Eleventh Amendment, which forbids citizens of one state from suing another in federal court (an Amendment that has been misinterpreted by the courts since it was enacted)? Or the twelfth, which provides for election of the President and Vice-President on one ticket? (The Amendment that gave us Deadeye-Dick Cheney.) Do you favor the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which ended slavery, enshrined equality before the law without regard to race and extended voting rights to all Americans? (Being as you are from the Old South, this seems a fair question to ask.)

Now, Fred could be against the Eighteenth Amendment--the one that inaugurated Prohibition--because it was repealed by the Twentieth. But he'd better be pro-Nineteenth, because that was women's suffrage, and more than half of the voters are women.

So, Fred, let us know--how do you feel about all the Amendments to the Constitution you want to uphold, protect and defend?

The if-onlys

Get ready to hear from the if-onlys. We're going to hear a lot from them, for a long time. The if-only's are the ones who are going to say "if only we'd stayed in Iraq longer," "if only we hadn't drawn down our troops," "if only we'd been more patient."

They will be Repubs of course. And Joe Lieberman.

They are building the case for this already. Yesterday, the President addressed the VFW and compared Iraq to Vietnam. That is a little bit like the Prime Minister of France in 1940 recalling the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, but Bush's real point was to lay the groundwork for the "who lost Iraq" argument that the Repubs will use to cover their tracks.

Let's be honest: American participation in the Iraq (civil) war is ending. The only question is how soon, and with what human and material cost. Surge, splurge, there's no doubt that we are going to be "drawing down" our troop strength, if only because DOD admits that after April there won't be enough troops to sustain it.

And there's no doubt that the Iraq we leave behind will be neither stable nor democratic. That "success" we're having in al Anbar province is not the birth of a multi-sectarian Iraq; its the Sunnis girding themselves for the war with the Shia after we leave their country.

When the if-onlys make their argument, it's important to remember that the Iraq misadventure was a fiasco in conception as well as execution. It was the wrong war at the wrong time against the wrong foe. Even if it had been well-handled, it would have been a distraction from the struggle against our real enemies--people like bin Laden--and a strategic mistake. With that kind of a start, it was never going to go well. The fact that it has become a total disaster is almost secondary--although we need to remember that as well, so that we make sure to point out to the if-onlys that their monumental incompetence should disqualify them from any role in carrying out American policy in the future.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The debate on Iraq is over

or should be.

If you don't think so, read these two pieces from the NYT:

In "The War as We Saw it," seven enlisted members of the 82nd Airborne provide much more than an account of their time in the war zone; they are far more perceptive than all most all of the experts and certainly all of the commentators and pundits. (It's not giving away too much to say that one of the authors was shot in the head while they were writing the piece.)

"Elegies from and Iraqi Notebook," is extracts from the reports of an unnamed (presumably to protect him or her with anonymity) Iraqi correspondent in Diyala Province.

Read these and you'll realize that the only question is the path to be taken to get American troops out of Iraq with the least cost to everyone involved.

Tom Friedman catches up

There’s only one thing at this stage that would truly impress me, and it is this: proof that there is an Iraq, proof that there is a coalition of Iraqi Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds who share our vision of a unified, multiparty, power-sharing, democratizing Iraq and who are willing to forge a social contract that will allow them to maintain such an Iraq — without U.S. troops.

Tom Friedman, "Seeing is Believing," The New York Times 8/19/07

When I say that there are too few Iraqis I mean that--from all appearances--there is no substantial number of people in that country who identify themselves as Iraqis first. If you asked Iraqis "what are you?" a clear, perhaps overwhelming majority would answer, "I am a
Shi'ite," of "I am Kurdish," or "I am a Sunni." Few--and fewer each day--would say, "I am Iraqi."

(I couldn't resist the urge to blow my own horn. The chance comes along so infrequently.)

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The question

One question that should be asked of every presidential candidate, Democrat, Repub or other:

What specific steps will you take to ensure that the unwarranted, and even unlawful expansion of executive power by George W. Bush is not continued in your administration?

And a follow up that should be asked of all:

When you say that, do you intend to cut back executive power to where it was before Mr. Bush, or are you merely saying that you will not seek to expand that power further?

Friday, August 17, 2007


On The Huffington Post, Peter Chase discusses what it's like to be caught up in the Kafka-esque world of the new "national security." Chilling.

As a library trustee, I have said that if we are served with an order under the Patriot Act, I'll hold a news conference on the library steps to announce it, then see if the government can get a jury to convict me. But it's easier said than done. (I can't tell you, for reasons of national security, whether I've been afraid to keep my promise, or haven't had to.)

So, what's new?

Notes taken by the director of the F.B.I. say Attorney General John Ashcroft was "barely articulate" shortly after a hospital-room meeting in March 2004 in which two White House aides tried to persuade him to sign an extension for domestic eavesdropping

Teaser on the front page of the NY Times 8/17/07

And this was different from other times, how?

(For the full article, go here.)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Hillary stalling?

A new poll done for NBC in Iowa has John Edwards continuing to lead, with 30% of likely Democratic caucus voters backing him. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) is second at 21%, with Barack Obama (D-IL) just behind at 18%.

Edwards, who has been finishing third and well back in most national polls, has to be gratified with the results, but has to worry, too, that his Iowa backers are hearing about those surveys and will begin to believe that he can't win. Clinton, meanwhile, should be concerned that she's only slightly ahead of Obama.

Should Edwards' support dip in Iowa, who would pick up more of his voters, Clinton or Obama? My bet is on the Senator from the Land of Lincoln. (Remember, he's a neighbor from just across the Mississippi; that won't hurt him in Iowa.)

Mitt--exposed again

The redoubtable Josh Marshal, of, shows more absurd verbiage from Mitt Romney. Take a look--it's worth it.

Opportunity knocks

Deborah Pryce (R-OH), an 8-term congressperson from the Columbus area, announced her retirement today. Pryce--who was the 4th ranking member of the Repub majority in the House in the last Congress--barely squeaked out re-election last year, and her opponent had already announced plans to run again. As if that were not bad enough, the district has been trending (as they say) Democratic for years.

This news comes on the heels of former Speaker Dennis Hastert's (R-IL) announcement yesterday that he, too is hanging them up. Hastert followed fellow Illinois Republican Ray LaHood in announcing his retirement.

All three of these seats present opportunities for the Democrats to pick up seats. Even if the GOP is able to hold on to them with rookie candidates, it will have to use valuable resources to do so--and in an age when, mirable dictu, the Democrats have far more congressional campaign money.

Over on the Senate side, Wayne Allard (R-CO) has announced his retirement in a state that has been turning more blue. In Minnesota, smarmy Democratic turncoat Norm Coleman faces a challenge from comedian Al Franken. Some commentators wrote Franken off early, but he has a national fund-raising operation (and profile), he's genuinely funny--a skill too little found in politics today--and Coleman is going to be in trouble for backing George W so often. The bridge collapse in Minneapolis is also going to present a tough obstacle to all Minnesota Republicans. (Remember when the phrase "Minnesota Republican" could have been used to describe a group barely big enough to fill a phone booth?) Finally, in Maine--another state that has been turning more blue--Cong. Tom Allen is taking on Susan Collins (R-ME), whose recent votes on the war show how nervous she is.

With a little good fortune and a lot of hard work, Democrats will substantially expand their congressional majorities in 2008.

The Padilla verdict

A Miami jury convicted Jose Padilla and two co-defendants today.

It may be that one, two or all three of the defendants are guilty as charged. But I despise this administration--and what it has done to our Constitution--so much that I really wanted the jury to acquit them.

I confess that I did not follow the trial--which took three months--in great detail. However, based on what I know, it seems that a large part of the prosecution's case, especially against the co-defendants, was based on interpretation of wiretapped conversations that were, in the government's version, in code. This was not the kind of code that can be broken through mathematical means or letter-substitution. What the government was really talking about was interpreting slang. And, apparently, the prosecution was unable to show that the slang at issue was so widely used in the defendants' community that its interpretation could be clear. Indeed, the defense called witnesses who said that the government investigators--who knew what the prosecution wanted, after all--had it all wrong. They gave innocent interpretations to the conversations in question.

If you think about it, we all speak in code much of the time. I used to say that if you wanted to find out whether a suspected spy was really an American in the '50's, 60's or '70's, you'd ask him to interpret this sentence: "The Bosox return to friendly Fenway to face the Tribe under the arcs as they continue their pursuit of the gonfalon in the junior circuit." (Translation below.) No Russian, now matter how well-trained in American mores and customs, would get it.

Against Padilla, the government's main piece of evidence was an alleged application for admission to an al Qaeda terrorist training camp. Forget the very improbability of that idea. (Does bin Laden put "Terrorist" down as his occupation on his income-tax return?) Padilla's fingerprints were on the document, but from what I have seen, the government was not able to show that he had not left them when he handled it during his lengthy (to say the least) "interrogation." (Some of us call it torture.)

So, did Padilla and the others get a fair trial? Given the culture of fear that has pervaded the nation these last six years, the nature of the charges, the locale of the trial (Miami) and the jury-selection process, could the jury be impartial? Remember that originally, Padilla was charged by the highest law-enforcement official in the land (John, "Too Dumb To Beat A Dead Guy" Ashcroft) with planning to set off a "dirty" nuclear device. Could Padilla assist in his own defense--a requisite of fair, or even legal, trials, after 3 1/2 years of solitary confinement interrupted by interrogation and abuse (some of us call it torture)? I doubt it. I doubt it very much. Could the trial have been fair? Let's just say that the defense faced substantial obstacles.

A prediction: Padilla will get a long sentence. His conviction will be upheld by a Republican-dominated Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court will refuse to hear the case. He will be pardoned by a future President, but not until he has served a lengthy period in jail.

(For those who are baseball-challenged, the test sentence translates as follows: The Red Sox come home after a road-trip, to play a night game against the Cleveland Indians in the American League pennant race.)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The smart guys (and gals) are wrong

What should we learn from the newly-apparent problems with the mortgage markets, and the stock market's recent dive? That once again, the smart guys (and gals) were wrong.

The smart people were the ones who devised the "securitization" of mortgages. I don't claim to fully understand this process--I think that it was made supremely complex just so the smart guys could tell the rest of us that we don't understand it--but it involves taking a large number of mortgages and putting them into entities like mutual funds. You might think that all of the top-drawer mortgages would be put into one fund, the less-good ones into another and the low-quality mortgages into a third, to be sold at prices that reflect the risks and returns involved. But no, the smart guys mixed mortgages of different qualities together, then got rating companies (Moody's is perhaps the best-known, although not the only one) to rate them.

The rating was key to the deal: a high rating gave a fund the imprimatur it needed to be acceptable to the market. So, how did the rating agencies get to examine particular funds? They bid for the business from the issuers. In other words, they offered their services at a price. Were their opinions trimmed to help in getting the opportunities--and the fees--involved? They deny it, but human nature says that it would be difficult to keep the raters' conclusions from being affected by their self-interest.

It used to be that you got a mortgage from the bank around the corner or downtown, and for the next fifteen or twenty years you dealt with that bank. No more. Now your mortgage comes from a mortgage company or broker. Whether you know the issuer of the mortgage or not doesn't matter, because in most cases your mortgage is going to be sold to someone else shortly after you close.

In the old days, if you had a problem paying the mortgage, you dealt with a bank that at least knew about local conditions. Today, you are likely to have trouble finding out who, exactly, owns the mortgage. Your local bank might have put you out on the street--they were bankers, after all--but you could have tried to negotiate with people who had some idea of what you were dealing with. Now, you could be facing foreclosure before you find someone to talk to who has some authority to deal with your problem.

The thing about the smart guys is that they sold the market on the idea that they had created something new--and what they had created was a solid, secure investment out of individual assets (mortgages) that were not as high in quality as the rating of the overall fund. And other smart guys--mutual fund managers, the people who invest billions of pension dollars and the like--accepted what they were told and bought these mortgage-backed securities.

Did anyone really believe that the housing market would not turn down? Did the smart guys think that the no-money-down mortgages and the adjustable-rate mortgages would all be paid off? Didn't they know that the unqualified borrowers were going to default in large numbers? And didn't they know that when those mortgage-holders defaulted, the value of the funds holding their debts would be hammered?

The more realistic inquiry would be whether they failed to tell the true answers to these questions, or whether they failed to ask them--especially of themselves.

And what about the other smart guys and gals who told us, just a few months ago, that the downturn in the housing market would not have ripple effects on the rest of the economy? What were they thinking?

The exposure of the mortgage-marketeers would not be especially significant if it were not an example of a frequent phenomenon. Look at the bubble of the 1990's or the real-estate boom of the 1980's. Or look at Iraq, where the "experts" told us that we would be welcomed as liberators.

When should we expect that the smart guys will prove wrong? When they tell us that they have something new--not something technical or physical, but something that deals with human nature (such as the behavior of markets, or Iraqis). Human nature doesn't change and neither does the way that we behave--including our repeated tendency to deny history and to fail to ask questions that will bring answers we don't want.

You knew it would come to this

Diebold busted for editing critical comments about its voting machines out of Wikipedia. Which, of course, only makes us think that there's even more the company wants to hide.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The big con

A guy I knew once told me how his father used to say that the first person a con man cons is himself. That has always had the ring of truth to me. To hoodwink others, it helps if you believe the bilge water you are selling, at least a little bit.

I was thinking about that over the weekend, spurred by Mitt Romney's bought-and-paid-for victory in the Iowa straw poll. The announcement that Karl Rove is jumping ship also reminded me.

As regular readers will know, I remain shocked that Mitt Romney hasn't been laughed off the stage yet. To say that this man is a faker is like calling the ocean damp.

When he ran for the Senate against Ted Kennedy, and again when he ran for governor of Massachusetts, and won, in 2002, Romney convinced a lot of people that he was what passes for a moderate on social issues. And while he was openly opposed to gay marriage (easy as a lame-duck governor), he never tried to pass legislation to call Roe v. Wade into question or anything like that.

Now that he's running in a distinctly more conservative milieu, Mitt is a born-again pro-lifer. Forget what he said in several campaigns. Forget that his wife gave money to Planned Parenthood. Just pay attention to what he's saying now.

Romney might as well quote the great political philosopher Marx (Groucho, not Karl): "Are you going to believe me or your own eyes?"

And yet people buy it. Not too many people, yet: the latest national poll gives him support from only 14% of Repubs, but enough to make him "credible." (That's credible in a political sense, not in the sense that he's telling the truth.) And, given the defects of the other GOP candidates, Romney's numbers could grow--unless someone is able to unmask him.

How to explain this? The easy answer is that Barnum was right: There's one born every minute. Maybe. But part of Mitt's story is that he believes the snake oil really will cure. He's convinced himself that the man who said government should not get involved with a citizen's personal choices was someone else--a guy who looked a lot like him, but wasn't the same man.

George W, I think, is much the same. He lies constantly, but my sense is that he's not a good liar. So, either he is a very, very good liar or he convinces himself that his inconsistent stories are somehow the truth. I go with the latter. If that makes him a bit more pitiable and less loathesome, so be it.

For a long time, my sense has been that Karl Rove is another story: a malignant manipulator who cynically used W as his front man. Listening to Rove on the White House lawn today, as he discussed his departure from the West Wing, I heard a tremor in his voice and realized that he, too, may have been conned into believing that the stuff he peddled really was the good stuff. Perhaps, just perhaps, there's some tragedy and even farce mixed with the evil that he did.

In his usual excellent way, Paul Krugman makes a similar point: He suggests that the nature of the GOP and its base attracts narcissists; Rudy and Mitt are his primary examples, and as he points out, W is similarly self-involved. Krugman asks an excellent question: Do the American people want another narcissist in the White House?

(Are there any Democrats who fit the same labels? I'll leave it to you to answer that question.)

Don't let the door hit you on the way out

It's not exactly right to say we won't have Karl Rove to kick around any more. We can keep kicking him til he's in an orange jumpsuit. (Orange is definitely his color, don't you think?)

On NPR this morning, Cokie Roberts pronounced Rove's departure as Bush's political obituary, although she was quick to point out that at this point in a fading administration (a week from today there will be 17 months left in W's term), sometimes young people come into the White House who will make a mark later. Dick Cheney was the first example she gave. Now there's a frightening thought.

Those of us who despise what Rove stands for and what he did have to give him credit for his achievements, evil as we may think them. But we also need to ask ourselves what we did to let such a malignant man get so much power. His success was built on our failure to speak effectively to the American people.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Weak on terrorism? No, strong on the Constitution

Six years ago, in the aftermath of 9/11, Congress rammed through the USA PATRIOT Act with little consideration of what that bill actually contained. Five years ago, Congress authorized a reckless and ill-advised war in Iraq. One year ago, Congress passed the deeply flawed Military Commissions Act. And late last week, a Democratic Congress passed legislation that dramatically expands the government's ability to conduct warrantless wiretapping, which could affect innocent Americans. It is clear that many congressional Democrats have not learned from those earlier mistakes, two of which happened when Democrats controlled the Senate. Once again, Congress has buckled to pressure and intimidation by the administration.
Sen. Russ Feingold, in The Huffington Post

The Senator is right, of course. Afraid of being labeled as soft on terrorism, Democrats have knuckled under, again. Their majority--a small one, let's recall--has proved no match for the tenacity (stubbornness, obstinacy, willful blindness) of the President and the fecklessness of Republicans who know that we are heading into a great disaster if, indeed, we are not already there.

What's going on here?

The problem is that those who oppose Mr. Bush's policy frame their stance as just that--opposition. That is, they are on the defensive, and they have been since the President put down "My Pet Goat" and took up the reins of warrior-in-chief. George W. Bush and his opponents both buy into the idea that the way to fight terrorists is with force. Once started down that road, it is almost impossible to stand up for little things like free speech, free thought and privacy.

It's time for those who oppose the way that this administration has managed its grandiosely-titled Global War on Terror have it mostly wrong. The way to fight terror--especially the bin Laden brand--is not so much with force as with ideas and logic.

Let's start with some home truths: bin Laden and his minions are lousy at being terrorists. The purpose of terrorism, as Stalin said, is to terrorize. (Old Joe had a taste for pithy sayings.) Have bin Laden and is people terrorized his great adversary, the United States? Were you terrorized by 9/11? If you were like almost all Americans, you might have been afraid for a few days afterward, but then you just got mad. This is not an aberration: al Qaeda's modus operandi is the spectacular attack, but such strikes require complex planning and, as a result, are spaced many months, even years apart even before the safe haven in Afghanistan was taken from them. Such occasional events garner much attention, but they do not affect the daily lives of the intended targets, and thus they do not terrorize. (When I use the name "al Qaeda" I refer to the original organization, headed by Osama bin Laden. As it happens, other organizations that have taken the name are probably more effective than the original.) Effective terrorism relies on multiple, random acts that leave the target population with the feeling that they are always under attack.

And let's face a hard fact: Terrible as 9/11 was, if it were repeated once a month--at least in terms of loss of life--America's strength would be little impaired. (I certainly do not mean to be as heartless as that may sound; as the Talmud says, to save one life is to save the world; the loss of every life is an unimaginable tragedy.) The strength of the United States is immense.

What has the Bush administration's response to al Qaeda been? Mainly, military. A number of observers have suggested that we should treat the terrorist threat as mainly a law-enforcement matter rather than a military one, but that has been rejected by the US government.

I say that we should not treat terrorism as mainly a security threat in either a military or a law-enforcement sense, although we surely need to take all reasonable steps to protect ourselves on those levels. What we have almost utterly failed to do, however, is to fight the terrorists with ideas, at least in any organized way. Indeed, our military exercises have frequently got in the way of setting America's ideals in the face of bin Laden and his ilk.

Bin Laden preaches a doctrine that promises poverty and death. In the end, that's a hard sell. We hear a great deal about Muslim fanaticism; we have seen mothers proclaiming how proud they are of their children who have martyred themselves for the cause of Islam, how they hope that their surviving children will choose the same path. Some of those mothers may believe that at the time, some of them may continue to believe it, but most of them will at some time (perhaps only when they are alone in the dark of the night) weep and wish for their children to survive into a comfortable and happy life.

The truth that we have failed to make clear is that there are many more things that unite human beings than divide them. All normal people want peace and sufficient food to stave off hunger, and love and the happiness of their families. All great religions and all successful non-religious, even anti-religious, philosophies deal with how to provide the essentials of a good life for their followers, and how to deal with the individual and the mass of the society in which he or she lives. These faiths and philosophies may have different paths to resolving these issues, but, again, they are more alike than different.

There have been faiths or strains of faiths that have preached a doctrine of death; they fail and they disappear.

So, in the end, the kind of Muslim fundamentalism that we face is not a serious threat to the existence of the United States or western society. (Western society includes Japan, China, India and other Asian states that have adopted Western norms; in general, these are the states that are part of the global world of trade and intellectual exchange.) This is not to say that that fundamentalism cannot cause great harm and many deaths, perhaps for decades to come, but in the end the outcome is fore-ordained.

How do we minimize the death and destruction that the deluded extremists can visit on us? Reasonable security is a part of the equation. But the most important part--and the part that we miss--is to explain our values, to let the rest of the world see why we believe what we do, and to make clear that we do not impose our mode of thinking on others. We believe that we have found certain truths--freedom, democracy and the free market principal among them--that aid societies in dealing with their problems, but we recognize that others may wish a different path. While we believe that they are mistaken, we shall not force them to divert from their chosen way, so long as they do not present an immediate threat to the health and safety of Americans.

And, we lead by example. We respect our own values. We do not trample them in the name of security. We do not give up our freedoms and imitate the totalitarian principles of those who declare themselves our enemies. We do not lower ourselves to their level, but give them the opportunity to raise themselves to ours.

So, we do not need to show the world that we are strong on terrorism. We show ourselves and the world that we are strong on the values that ground this nation, and that have allowed it to become the world's leading power: freedom (and not just for those who believe as we do), democracy and due process of law. Even under attack, we uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. Which, of course, is just what our leaders are sworn to do.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Which side is he on?

Mitt Romney criticized Barack Obama for saying that he might send American forces into Pakistan to get al Qaeda, if the Pakistanis failed to do so. "I do not concur in the words of Barack Obama in a plan to enter an ally of ours... I don't think those kinds of comments help in this effort to draw more friends to our effort," the Mittster said.

Remember when Repubs couldn't talk tough enough on national security? When the game plan was to make the Democrats look weak on anything to do with national defense?

We've got used to the minority party (it sure does feel good to call them that) being in favor of high deficits and government corruption, but weakness on national defense, too?

Memo to Mitt: Be sure brain is engaged before putting mouth into gear.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Scariest headline of the week

Democrats Scrambling to Expand Eavesdropping

NY Times 8/1/07

Democrats appear to be worried that if they block such legislation, the White House will depict them as being weak on terrorism."

So much for political courage.

Iraqis stand down

While we're on the subject of the Iraqis' disinterest, unwillingness or inability to forge a nation, there comes word that the largest Sunni bloc in the Iraqi parliament has quit the government.

This comes as the parliament begins a one-month recess. (Anti-war forces in the US have made much of the lengthy recess--you'll recall that it was originally supposed to be two months. I never thought the matter all that important; it's not like they were actually doing anything while the parliament was in session, right?)

No amount of troops

Speaking of a new candor, the Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the Bush administration's nominee to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told a Senate committee that "no amount of troops in no amount of time will make much of a difference," if the Iraqis don't stand up.

Given the repeated (and repeated) reports of the unwillingness or inability of Iraqis to form the kind of consensus necessary to a building a nation, that kind of says it all.

OK, guys, strike the set.


"Vice-President Dick Cheney said he was wrong two years ago when he declared that the Iraq insurgency was in its 'last throes.'''

Presumably, this will herald a new era of candor from this administration, in which the rose-colored glasses will be tossed away and hard facts admitted freely.