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December 31, 2005

Bush and Congress: What Went Wrong?

Why did President Bush not do very well in Congress this year? Was it because he was politically inept? Was it because he offended members of his own party? Was it because they were afraid that sticking with him would kill any chance of reelection?

All of these are possibly correct. But I think that there is a more efficient answer -- and that is that the President, in dealing with Congress, simply bit off more than he could chew. He thought that there were consensus positions for reforming certain issues, but there were none. He misread the number of people willing to agree to any kind of tax cut extension, Social Security reform, immigration reform, or Patriot Act extension.

His fundamental mistake, I think, was that he failed to appreciate the nature of Congress. Congress is not the sort of body that passes lots of big pieces of reform legislation by small margins. Its structure is such that you usually have to find a very large consensus within the institution itself -- and this is very often hard to come by. At certain points in time and with certain types of issues, it is downright impossible.

This is the point that Stanford's Keith Krehbiel makes in his book Pivotal Politics. This is one of the few books I have read that tries to explain congressional activity in the broader context of the presidency. Krehbiel argues that the structure of Congress is very important. It creates roadblocks to getting what you want out of the institution. Think of all the different structural "pivots" in Congress:

1. Any bill must find a majority in both houses.

2. Any bill must, if it is opposed by the President, find a majority of 2/3rds.

3. Any bill must find a majority of 3/5ths in the Senate.

 

These structures explain, according to Krehbiel, why gridlock is the status quo in Congress and why, when it is broken, it is usually broken by large majorities. Think of it this way. Suppose you have a status quo policy that a bare majority of Congress wants to change to an alternative policy. Is this enough? No way. There are still two more "pivots". If a 2/5th minority of the Senate prefers the status quo to the majority's proposal, it will filibuster. If the President prefers the status quo to the majority's proposal, he will veto; his veto will be successful unless 2/3rds of Congress prefers the alternative to the status quo.

But, one might respond, what about political parties? Is it not easier to get big changes when the President and Congress are of the same party? According to this theory, not necessarily. This theory presumes that members of Congress and the President vote according to their own interests. If they prefer one position over another, they vote for their most preferred position. The party does not have the power to induce them to vote against their interests. From what we know about congressional parties, this is a very reasonable assumption. They are weak compared to European parties. Our legislative parties usually work by controlling what goes on the agenda, not by controlling members of Congress. Party leaders know that they can really do nothing to stop "mavericks".

As a practical matter, then, we will only see Congress and the President act to reform a situation when a very large majority prefers the policy proposal to the status quo.

This also explains why Bush had trouble this year. He tried to reform certain policies where there does not seem to be a large enough consensus on any given reform proposal. In other words, it was not just a matter of Bush refusing to give the other side what they want. It was a matter of impossibility: it was impossible to find any alternative to the status quo -- on Social Security, taxes, immigration, etc -- that Bush, any majority of the House, and any 3/5ths of the Senate would find acceptable. For instance, what would have happened if Bush had compromised with his Democratic opponents so much on immigration that they would have agreed with his proposal? His Republican supporters would have turned into his opponents!

Ultimately, it is impossible to reform certain issues at certain times in American history. Sometimes the size of the majority willing to go along with any given reform is too small.

So, maybe Bush's legislative mistake this year was not that he is stubborn and refuses to modify his positions. Maybe it was not that he did not sweet talk Congress enough. Maybe the mistake came last January when his White House decided what they were going to push for. They chose too many wrong things -- things that Congress could not possibly have agreed upon. In other words, Bush failed in Congress for the same reason he failed with the public -- he presumed that his election meant something more than it did. He misread his mandate. His election did not mean, for the public, that certain issues were settled. It did not mean, for the Congress, that a consensus position of sufficient size had emerged within the body. It only meant that he could keep his job for another four years.

December 30, 2005

The 109th Congress...So Far

The conventional wisdom about the 109th Congress, now at the end of its first session, has largely emphasized Republican division and a derailed agenda. This is an interesting theory -- and there are two ways one could look at it. On the one hand, one could examine start-of-session expectations and then examine end-of-session assessments of how Congress has met those expectations -- placing it in the context of the congressional soap opera. This is the usual method of assessing congressional performance.

There is, however, another way to evaluate congressional performance. One could compare this session with the average legislative output of other congressional sessions to see how the 109th thus far compares to congressional history. I have seen no attempts at this latter method. This is surely valuable, as it gets beyond the influence of start-of-year expectations, which are almost always unrealistic.

David Mayhew's Divided We Govern serves as a good starting point for this second line of analysis. Mayhew, examining end-of-year session write-ups in The New York Times and The Washington Post (in addition to miscellaneous supplementary material, and what he calls "retrospective judgments" written by experts at a future date) from 1946 to 1990, finds that, on average, when the same party controls the presidency and Congress, Congress produces 12.8 "major" acts per two-session Congress. That would work out to 6.4 acts per session under unified government. This gives us some perspective: if we find about six to seven major pieces of legislation, we can tentatively conclude that this session was average.

Actually, we might expect a little bit less than six to seven. As I mentioned, Mayhew uses newspaper write-ups as a "first sweep" to see what contemporary observers thought were important. He then examines retrospective judgments -- comments by policy experts who evaluated certain pieces of legislation -- to see if the journalists missed anything.

So, how does the first session of the 109th stack up? Fairly well, as it turns out. Looking at the The New York Times' assessment of what Congress did, there seem to be six major pieces of legislation Congress has passed. Quoting Sheryl Gay Stolberg:

ENERGY -- The first comprehensive energy bill in years sets rules to increase the reliability of electrical supplies, encourage construction of nuclear power plants and finance research into alternative energy sources.

CENTRAL AMERICA FREE TRADE -- Most trade barriers between the United States and six small Central American countries are removed.

HIGHWAY SAFETY -- More stringent safety measures are instituted, including the first performance standards intended to reduce rollovers. States can now receive additional federal money if they enact laws allowing the police to pull over drivers for not wearing a seat belt.

BANKRUPTCY OVERHAUL -- The first major overhaul of bankruptcy laws in 27 years disqualifies many families from erasing their debts and getting a ''fresh start.'' Significant new costs are imposed on those seeking bankruptcy protection, and lenders and businesses get new legal tools for recovering debts.

CLASS ACTION LAWSUITS -- The ability of people to file class-action lawsuits against companies is sharply limited, and many such cases will now be transferred to federal courts from state ones.

TORTURE -- Cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of prisoners in American custody is banned in a bill sponsored by Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican and a former prisoner of war, that was originally opposed by the White House.

This is just a rough estimate -- as Mayhew has sources other than the NY Times write-up on one session of a given Congress (and the write-ups in the period he studied were more elaborate than the 2005 write-up I found). This does not amount to a repetition of Mayhew's method, by any stretch of the imagination. For instance, I had to estimate that several of the pieces of legislation mentioned by Stolberg, e.g. $3.9 billion to prepare for bird flu, would not find their way into the kind of write-ups Mayhew found, and therefore would not count as an "important" piece of legislation. But it seems, as rough as this data is, that this session has not been unproductive. The average session produces six to seven pieces of important legislation, and this session seems to have produced six.

Unfortunately, this method does not evaluate the extent to which the President led Congress. Obviously, Bush did not get everything he wanted -- notably Social Security reform and an extension of the Patriot Act. Further, the torture law was something he had to compromise upon. So, it seems fair to say that Bush's presence was not felt as strongly as it could have been in this session (though it is difficult to judge how Bush stacks up against other presidents who enjoyed a Congress of the same party).

However, this should not detract from the fact that the 109th is, thus far, on par with previous Congresses. So, when pundits are discussing how unproductive this legislative session has been, they are not really doing so with much historical perspective. For a Congress that is controlled by the same party as the President, this session seems to have been normal.

December 29, 2005

Measuring Media Bias

It is very rare that an article in The Quarterly Journal of Economics finds its way into the mainstream media. But an article in its recent edition, by Tim Groseclose and Jeffrey Milyo, entitled "A Measure of Media Bias," did just that last week.

Most of the reports I read were based upon the press releases that announced the article's publication. Much of the details of the article, which is 46 pages in length, went largely unnoticed. Having just finished reading this piece, I thought I might comment upon it.

The authors theorize that the mainstream press is (a) more leftist than the average member of Congress and (b) more leftist than the average American voter. This is an argument that many have made in the past, but rarely has it been done systematically, i.e. with some kind of objective measure of bias. The authors of this article develop such a measure.

What they do, in essence, is compare the frequency with which members of Congress reference think tanks in House or Senate speeches to the frequency with which 20 news sources reference think tanks in their news reports. The theory behind this test is that a conservative member of Congress will probably mention the same think tanks that a conservative media outlet will mention - and a liberal member of Congress will probably mention the same think tanks that a liberal media outlet will mention. If you have an objective measure of liberal/conservative among members of Congress (and Groseclose and Milyo use each members' Americans for Democratic Action voting score - a standard measurement in academic work), you can then develop a measure of liberal/conservative for media outlets.

In their words:

As a simplified example, imagine that there were only two think tanks, and suppose that the New York Times cited the first think tank twice as often as the second. Our method asks: what is the estimated ADA score of a member of Congress who exhibits the same frequency (2:1) in his or her speeches? This is the score that our method would assign the New York Times.
As has been reported, they found that most think tanks are more liberal than the average member of Congress from the same period.

What has gone relatively under-reported are two interesting findings. First, the results of Groseclose and Milyo tend to go against the arguments made by people like Eric Alterman and Neal Gabler that the media has a corporate, and therefore conservative or pro-business, bias. One result that they find, for instance, is that News Night with Aaron Brown and Time magazine have different ADA scores, with the former being about 9 "points" more conservative than the latter. Yet, both are owned by Time-Warner. This does not amount to a strong refutation of the theory of "conservative bias" but nevertheless the result is problematic for those who advocate that idea.

Another point that has gone under-reported is that almost all media outlets are more liberal than the average Republican member of Congress and more conservative than the average liberal member of Congress. The media outlets that are measured would, if they were members of Congress, be mostly Democratic - but also mostly conservatively Democratic. So, it is important not to overstate the scale of bias they find. The direction of the bias is left, but the strength of the bias is not overwhelming.

One argument that Groseclose and Milyo make that I think is overstated is the argument that we now know that the media is more leftist than the average American voter. They make this argument by inferring what the average voter's ADA score is. They estimate the average member of Congress's ADA score -- weighting it to account for factors like gerrymandering, population variance among senatorial constituencies, and the absence of congressional representation for Washington DC -- and use this estimate as a proxy for the average American's ideological position on the ADA scale. The problem with this is that I think it gives too much credit to the average voter. The consensus among political scientists is that only about 30% of the American electorate is ideological in the sense that the ADA would rate members of Congress. Thus, comparing the ideology of the electorate to the ideology of the media is, by and large, like comparing apples to oranges. The public is largely, as Donald Kinder once put it, "innocent of ideology." Unfortunately, this article lacks a discussion of this compelling literature - and so their argument in this regard is not very persuasive. Furthermore, even if we assume that the public is ideological, we cannot assume that they vote for members of Congress based upon ideology. We know for a fact that they do not. Accordingly, it is difficult to infer the average voter's ideology based upon the average member's ideology.

A final point is worth mentioning. This article does not prove that the media is biased toward the left. It produces a result that is consistent with that theory. That is an important distinction. The fact that this article is in the Journal of Quarterly Economics indicates that the article is methodologically valid (i.e. all of their statistics are good) and theoretically plausible and honest (i.e. they are not putting forth some insane theory or some insignificant way of testing the theory).

But that does not necessarily mean that it is theoretically perfect. The objectivity of this measure of bias is, as mentioned earlier, legislative voting. But consider how this measure is "filtered" in the study. One moves from congressional vote choices, to the ADA's assessment of what constitutes liberal and conservative vote choices, to the ADA's assignment of liberal/conservative scores, to speeches by members where think tanks are referenced, to references in the media to think tanks, to ADA scores for the media, to a comparison between media and congressional scores. This is not a very parsimonious measure in that it takes many different steps across institutions (Congress, ADA, media) and across actions (vote casting, speechifying, news reporting). It might be possible to construct a more parsimonious indicator of media bias that is just as objective - and such an indicator might provide a different result.

(One such possible improvement might be an independent indicator of whether a think tank is liberal/conservative. Their theory assumes that liberals prefer to cite liberal think tanks. That is how they conclude that media outlets are liberal when they see them referencing the same think tanks. But they do not test that assumption. One would need an independent measure of think tank ideology, which they do not provide, to see whether liberals in fact use liberal think tanks, and vice-versa. Maybe they do not.)

It is also not necessarily the case that, simply because the media is biased in this domain (i.e. its use of think tanks in its reports), it is necessarily biased in all domains. For instance, the media might have a tendency to use pro-leftist think tanks, but it might show a conservative bias in its selection of news stories. Maybe, in other words, its bias is compartmentalized - in some instances it is leftist, in others it is rightist. This article is only directly measuring a type of bias. The fact that objective indicators of bias are difficult to develop, and so rarely done, means that we simply cannot say with certainty whether the media is generally biased.

In other words, the results they find are consistent with a general bias, but they do not "prove" that there is such a thing. It is very possible that these results could eventually be explained by an alternative theory that does not conceive of the media as being generally biased. That would first require the development of another objective indicator of media bias.

The Problem with Psychoanalyzing Bush

Like many people, I read Newsweek's mid-December, high-octane burn of Bush with more than a bit of wonder, and not a good "Christmasy" kind. Halfway through the article, encountering what must have been the twenty gigillionth unnamed source, I thought to myself, "This is what happens when a President plugs all the leaks. The stories don't stop -- they just become a reflection of the journalist's preconceived notions."

This Newsweek piece was the latest in an ongoing series of attempts to psychoanalyze this President. Here is Newsweek's take on the essence of the Dubya:

Bush may be the most isolated president in modern history, at least since the late-stage Richard Nixon. It's not that he is a socially awkward loner or a paranoid. He can charm and joke like the frat president he was. Still, beneath a hail-fellow manner, Bush has a defensive edge, a don't-tread-on-me prickliness.
OK -- fair enough. Quite plausible. I have seen people in my life who are like that. Next, important question -- putting aside the sexiness of your conclusion, what is your evidence?

They respond:

It shows in Bush's humor. When Reagan told a joke, it almost never was about someone in the room. Reagan's jokes may have been scatological or politically incorrect, but they were inclusive, intended to make everyone join in the laughter. Often, Bush's joking is personal-it is aimed at you. The teasing can be flattering (the president gave me a nickname!), but it is intended, however so subtly, to put the listener on the defensive. It is a towel-snap that invites a retort. How many people dare to snap back at a president?
Seriously? The way Bush jokes is the window into his soul? That is all you have?

But really, in the course of reading the article, you cannot help conclude that is pretty much all they have. It boils down to five cent psychoanalysis that would have made Peanut's Lucy proud: he's in a bubble, he will not listen to criticism, he is stubborn. Why? Here is, at least by my reading, the evidence they provide:

1. He has angered some congressmen. Now that is compelling, is it not? Who could envision members of Congress having the kind of self-conceit that they could get angry by being "slighted"? They are so humble, after all.

2. His jokes make the press corps twitchy and mildly offended. But, am I to really believe that the offended elements of the press can take any joke without being offended? Am I to believe that they are not full of themselves and the utter, deadly seriousness of their sacred, patriotic project to protect democracy, liberty and the First Amendment by reporting (cue dramatic music) the Truth? Did you see how Rather reacted to the National Guard fiasco?

3. All of these unnamed sources say something that the authors can interpret as being consistent with their theory.

4. He just will not admit that we are losing that damned war in Iraq.

Am I supposed to be compelled by this data set?

The Newsweek story is, at this point, no longer inducing chatter. But it gets to a broader trend in the media -- one that today's Washington Times piece by Bill Sammon tosses cold water upon. Consider again the metaphor that Newsweek chose to describe Bush -- a bubble. If you are in a bubble, nothing gets into you. But, importantly, nothing gets out as well. Throughout the Newsweek piece, you see the authors justify again and again the anonymity of their sources. A typical line reads, "A White House aide, who like virtually all White House officials (in this story and in general) refused to be identified for fear of antagonizing the president, says..." In other words, the fact that Bush does not show his hand is a piece of data that can be used to psychoanalyze him. He lets nobody leak because he likes a "tight circle of trust" that is inviolable. Accordingly, nothing gets through that circle, and nothing gets out. The "no leaking" is proof of that.

So to these four pieces of pseudo-evidence, we must add a fifth:

5. He and his associates will not share themselves to the press corps' satisfaction.

To use this as evidence is, however, to engage in a logically faulty program. The fact that this White House is very effective at preventing its officials from talking to the press is not a piece of data that one can use to psychoanalyze the President. It is, rather, a sign that this President cannot, currently, be psychoanalyzed. We have no data to do so. We really have little-to-nothing in terms of reliable information about how the man thinks. Why? Because he runs a tight ship. He does not suffer leakers. No leakers mean no inside scoops that are worth anything. It means that you get four junky pieces of data -- a few pissed off members of Congress, offended pressies, anonymous and vaguely agreeing sources, and a war "nobody" thinks we are winning -- to make an argument about the essence of a man. You do not salvage the value of this data, and you certainly do not strengthen your conclusion, by adding, "He won't tell us anything!"

There is a synonymous term for "arguments based on no quality data". It is: idle speculation.

This is why Sammon's piece is so compelling. It is not that Sammon demonstrates to letter certainty that the Newsweek account is incorrect. He largely relies upon unnamed sources as well. It is, rather, that, since this White House is so tight-lipped, you can get fundamentally competing accounts of Bush as a person from two reputable news sources in the course of 14 days. It shows that the whole project of psychoanalyzing Bush is illegitimate. (N.B. what makes the Sammon piece better journalism is that Sammon does not jump from the fact that Cheney is still close to Bush to any conclusions about Bush's psychological state).

The bottom line is the following. The desire to psychoanalyze a president is very strong among almost all serious observers of the White House. But a psychoanalytic conclusion must follow from a data set that has some empirical value. As the quality of that data set diminishes, so does the power of the conclusion. What is more, the conclusion will begin to look more and more like one's preconceived notion, as there is less and less data to test those initial impressions. That is exactly what I think happens in these "Bush's Mind" pieces. Bush has given us so little data that those who wish to figure him out are left rephrasing how they felt about him before they started researching, and bringing forth utterly absurd pieces of "evidence" to make their conclusions seem like something more than their initial impressions.

This is why, if I am asked what I think about Bush's mind, I will demur. I lack enough data to make a conclusion worth your while.

After all, who wants to read idle speculation?

Thursday Morning Observations: Always Follow Cheney's Advice

I've been sitting back most of the week enjoying Jay's commentary on politics and intelligent design, but I wanted to toss out some quick links, observations, etc. Here goes:

-- Key graphs from Bill Sammon's article on the relationship between Dubya & Cheney:

 Mr. Bush often lunches in private with Mr. Cheney, who has no compunction about disagreeing with his boss. The president welcomes such dissent, although he does not always follow it.
    For example, Mr. Cheney was thought to be less than enthusiastic about the president's nomination of White House Counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court earlier this year. Miss Miers withdrew her nomination after Republicans complained that she was not demonstrably conservative enough for the bench.
    Secondly, throughout 2005, Mr. Cheney appeared more interested in democratizing Iraq than in reforming Social Security, an issue that the president spent much of the year promoting. After failing to persuade Congress to enact the reform, Mr. Bush belatedly returned to aggressively defending his Iraq policy. 

Lesson: Always follow Cheney's advice.

--Michael J. Totten writes about his recent travels to Libya.

--A reader email on the NSA spying kerfuffle:

Let's win the war on terror. If that means suspending a few rights - fine.  Actually, more rights have been lost to the Environmental Protection Agency than to the Patriot Act or any other legislation meant to keep us safe.  For example, and this is only a partial list: I can no longer fish where I want, burn leaves when necessary, drive where I want, water where I want, smoke where I want, dispose of cuttings where I want, swim where I want, have access to inexpensive fuel, make our wine where we want, press our olives where we want, and frankly do quite a few other things because our rights to do so have been subjugated to a few fanatics. 

Liberals have been trying to spin this Rasmussen poll (64% approving of the NSA intercepting telephone calls between terrorist suspects overseas and people in the United States) as bad news for President Bush (see here and here for two examples) but I just don't see it. If Democrats believe they can reframe this debate as anything more nuanced than "Bush is doing his best to battle the bad guys and Democrats are once again being soft on national security" then I think they're spitting in the wind.

--Jake Tapper reports on an interesting case of white voter disenfranchisement in Mississippi.

--Despite being sick and on vacation, McIntyre was on Hugh's radio show last night talking about 2006. 

-- How much of ANWR are we talking about opening up for drilling? I'm Not Emeril puts things in perspective.  

December 28, 2005

An Early Handicap of 2008

It is very difficult to make any interesting arguments about what will happen in 2008 this far out. It is impossible, for instance, to say (a) which candidates on either side will run, (b) which candidates will receive the nominations or (c) which candidate will win the general election.

It is easy, at this point, to get a sense of who is thinking about running and who is not. But that also makes it relatively uninteresting -- a quick peek at whom C-SPAN is covering on its "Road to the White House" will tell you everything you want to know.

There are a few valuable points that we can make with a higher degree of confidence. For instance, we can confidently identify a few who stand no chance at acquiring the nomination of either party. I tend to view the Republican primary as being fairly wide open, even for McCain and Giuliani (New Hampshire provides a nice x-factor for these two). The Democratic Party, however, is definitely not wide open, insofar as some of the known presidential aspirants/ponderers are aspiring/pondering in vain.

There are three potential candidates whom I think it is safe to say stand no chance. All three of these have shown, to varying degrees, an interest in running. These three are: Al Gore, John Kerry and John Edwards. None of these fellows will nab a nomination -- POTUS or V-POTUS.

There are two reasons I think this is the case:

1. As known losers, they have a real strategic disadvantage. First and foremost, they do not know how to win general elections. Second. primary opponents know what to expect from them. Thus, in a crowded field, it is likely that these three guys will manage to work their respective ways to the bottom of the barrel.

2. As known losers, it will be difficult for them to attract primary voters. The Democrats want to win in 2008; and so, in a crowded field, primary voters will move away from these three guys. They wanted a win in 2004 and picked Kerry because, for some reason I have still not quite fathomed, they thought he would beat Bush. They forced Kerry to pick Edwards because, again for some inscrutable reason, they thought he would help beat Bush. Democrats will not make the same mistake twice with these two (and, for that matter, neither can claim that he is electable) -- and Gore is risky for the same reason. Gore is perhaps more risky, as he now has a track record of making extreme utterances.

None of this is to imply that former candidates cannot become future candidates, as with Adlai Stevenson, or successful future candidates, as with Richard Nixon. I am not trying to postulate some general law of presidential dynamics. But, in a crowded field, the known loser is not the smart money.

Schumer's Plan

The AP had an interesting story this morning about Charles Schumer, DSCC Chairman, and his plan to take back the Senate next year. Usually, stories like this are built around one small bit of information, but this story actually provides two interesting insights.

(1) Currently, the DSCC has a $22 million more cash on hand than the RSCC.

(2) Schumer plans to sponsor major challenges in 7 Republican-held Senate seats. Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri, Montana, Tennessee, and Arizona

Taken together, these points indicate, I think, the frustration that 2006 will bring for ambitious Democrats. On the one hand, their financial advantage is nothing to sneeze about. It is a sign that their party's base is more amped up than the Republican base, and/or their political elites are doing a better job of acquiring dollars. It seems to me that with an incumbent President who is still loved by the financial backers of the Republican Party, the Democrats will not have a financial edge next year; however, it also seems likely that the two parties will be at financial parity (which, I hasten to add, is good news for Democrats).

On the other hand, consider again the set of states in play and the Democratic margin for error. Four of these seven states are states that Bush won by 5% of the vote or more in the last two elections. Furthermore, six of these seven are currently held by incumbent Republicans. In a pro-incumbent, largely realigned electoral environment, that is a less-than-ideal electoral situation to find oneself, especially for a Democratic Party that, as we discussed earlier in the month, does not have the capacity to nationalize 2006. The GOP had a much better environment in 2004 when it had open Democratic seats in five Republican states.

In addition to this, consider the very small margin of error for Democrats. They will have to take SIX of these seven to assume control of the Senate (remember that Cheney is the tie-breaker). And, not to mention, I think it is quite unreasonable to talk about AZ being in play. That means the Democrats will have to go six for six -- and still hold off the GOP in both Minnesota and Maryland. It also seems likely that at least one or two or three of these six will turn out to be non-contests (at this point, it is too early to say which will be which, but it seems unlikely that the Democrats will have an opportunity in anything more than four to five states).

It is still early in the year, too early to make any initial predictions about seats. Candidates are still being recruited, electoral strategies are still being fleshed out, primary opposition is still indeterminate, financial contacts are still being made. At this point, we still have to talk in the aggregate -- and the aggregate is such that it looks now as though the Democrats will pick up a few seats, but not enough for control. The Democrats have certain advantages at the moment -- money, anti-Bush sentiment in the country -- but these seem to be insufficient for recapturing the Senate.

Schumer's comment -- "If the stars align right we could actually take back the Senate." -- sums the situation up perfectly. Recapturing the Senate is a little bit more than a technical possibility, but the Democrats will need some supernatural assistance to make it happen.

Is Bush Finished?

The talk among many in the punditocracy of late has been that Bush is, in some way, "finished". What people mean by this is usually unclear, but the general gist is that Bush has lost the capacity to persuade Congress and the public, and that this ability is not coming back.

That is an interesting idea. Minimally, its value is that it touches upon the idea of informal presidential power. Bush still has all the same formal powers that the Constitution grants to him, but he has lost some kind of power that exists "between the lines". There is, however, a lack of theoretical clarity in this discussion -- for the key (often unaddressed) question is the following: has he lost these powers in a way that they cannot be reacquired?

On the one hand, Bush might simply be in a bit of a slump. Presidents find themselves in slumps all the time. The public is increasingly in disagreement with Bush, and Congress has responded to this disagreement by disagreeing in turn. But, if it is just a slump, Bush can turn it around. On the other hand, Bush might be "finished" in that his reputation is no longer such that he can lead the nation or the Congress the way he used to -- he has lost something he cannot reacquire. Presidents have experienced both types of power nadirs.

Perhaps recounting an anecdote will help amplify the question. Harvard's Richard Neustadt, one of the first to address the issue, tells the following story in his seminal Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents:

Early in 1958 a technician from the Bureau of the Budget testified before a subcommittee of the House on the provisions of a pending bill within his field of expertise. As he concluded, he remarked for emphasis what he recommended was essential to "the program of the President." Whereupon everybody laughed. The hilarity was general and leaped party lines; to a man, committee members found the reference very funny. This incident occurred only fifteen months after Eisenhower's smashing re-election victory. Yet it is perfectly indicative, so far as can be judged from the outside, of an impression pervading all corners of the Capitol (and most places downtown), as a result of what seemed to happen at the White House in the months between.
In other words, Eisenhower was not taken seriously. Why? He let develop a reputation of being out of control. Thus, members of Congress found it funny for an administration man to imply that the President wanted something specific, as if Ike had an opinion on the matter.

Neustadt goes on to assert that President Eisenhower was not viewed as being in control of the White House agenda because he allowed the public and the Capitol to develop that impression. He was not mindful of his reputation. And, as Neustadt argues, reputation is almost everything in the modern presidency. The presidency is so powerful because the President has the ability to persuade people in the Washington community to do what they would not otherwise do, and (closely related) has the ability to convince the American public to think in ways they would not otherwise think. He can persuade -- and persuasion is first and foremost about reputation.

So when we say that Bush is down, we really mean that Bush's reputation today is such that he is not really convincing many in either Congress or America. When we ask if Bush is finished, we are asking whether he can rehabilitate his reputation. So, is Bush finished? Ultimately, it depends upon Bush. As Neustadt argues, "A President can change his reputation. This is the essence of his opportunity."

I personally think that Bush's standing will improve over the next few months -- providing that he keeps moving in the direction that he has been in the last few weeks. Since roughly Thanksgiving (maybe a bit earlier), we have seen Bush actively working to counteract the negative aspects of his reputation. He has been working against the impression that developed this year that he is out-of-touch and stubbornly insistent on old policies, even at the expense of his congressional allies or the public good.

Bush and his advisors are thus following Neustadt. How does a president change his reputation? The scholar answers:

His general reputation will be shaped by signs of pattern in the things he says and does. These are the words and actions he has chosen, day by day. His choices are the means by which he does what he can do to build his reputation as he wants it. Decisions are his building blocks. He has no others in his hands.
The President has the power to make and remake his own destiny. Bush seems to be doing just that, and doing it correctly by focusing on the weak spots. His reputation, similarly, suffered by his own hand. He did not protect it -- and so his opponents were able to recharacterize him; indeed, he aided them in that regard. Why did Bush's reputation go from being steady in times of trouble to being stubborn and unyielding? George W. Bush let it happen.

So is Bush out? You will have to ask Dubya. There is no logic that the calendar dictates -- Bush will not necessarily be finished at a certain date (even Ike made a comeback in 1959). If Bush makes his choices carefully and prudently, he will reemerge. Above all, he must be mindful of his reputation, recognizing that the entire set of his informal powers -- that which separates the modern president from a mere clerk who executes the laws enacted by Congress -- are dependent upon it.

The bottom line is not just that Bush should not be underestimated because he can always come back. It is also that the modern presidency should not be underestimated -- it almost always offers an opportunity to the man who occupies it to come back.

December 27, 2005

The Third Party in the Debate

In my last entry, I made a preliminary statement about what science is and why ID does not qualify. This is not the end of the story. There is a third party who is just as unscientific as the ID theorist. This person uses scientific evolution as the cornerstone of a naturalistic philosophy known as scientism or evolutionism. This is the position that what science discovers is all there is. The "evolutionist" argues, in varying degrees of sophistication or explicitness, that evolutionary theory tells us something "deep" about life's origins.

Stephen Jay Gould is a good example. In 1994, Gould wrote,

History includes too much chaos...Humans arose...as a fortuitous and contingent outcome of thousands of linked events, any one of which could have occurred differently and sent history on an alternative pathway...
There is a subtle transition that Gould undertakes in the quotation above - from the science of randomness to the metaphysics of indetermination. Chaos is a concept that implies, as Gould rightly notes, that certain phenomena, like the weather, are unpredictable at a certain level of precision because of small initial variations. It is related to "random" -- there is "random error" in your scientific theory when there are observations your theory fails to predict.

What Gould concludes however, goes beyond chaos. Chaos is not "replay the same event and you can yield a different result." It is, "replay a seemingly same event and you can yield a different result." The former position is indeterminism, which is what Gould implies at the end of the passage, and more explicitly in the following:

The pedestal (on which human hubris rests) is not smashed until we abandon progress or complexification as a central principle and come to entertain the strong possibility that H. sapiens is but a tiny, late-arising twig on life's enormously arborescent bush (H. sapiens) would almost surely not appear a second time if we could replant the bush from seed and let it grow again.
The force of this moral argument is predicated upon the misuse of the word "replant." To say that something is chaotic or random is not to say that the same cause will yield a different result, but that we cannot recreate the causes with a sufficient level of precision to recreate the result. This is far different than saying that a perfect repetition of the experiment would yield a different result - which is what Gould must imply if he wishes to assert that we are not meant to be or that progress is an illusion. In other words, Gould is advocating a position of indeterminism and not chaos or randomness. Indeterminism is objective -- things literally could have gone in any direction. Chaos and randomness are subjective -- we cannot get things to go in a certain direction.

Indeterminism on this scale cannot be arrived at scientifically. Hypothesize, with Gould, that resetting the evolutionary clock will yield an entirely different result. That is an intuitively plausible hypothesis - especially since we know from quantum physics that indeterminism exists on the sub-atomic level. How might this hypothesis be tested? One could do what physicists do to study electron indetermination when they run a series of electrons through a test, holding all variables constant, to see how they vary in their motion. A possible test of Gould's indetermination hypothesis would be to repeat evolution on Earth, holding perfectly constant all variables, and see how (if at all) life develops differently.

That is an experiment that we cannot perform. Accordingly, we have no way to test the validity of Gould's hypothesis. That Gould held it nevertheless indicates that the grounds of his acceptance were non-scientific - and therefore he was, in the course of deploying this argument, acting as a philosopher and not a scientist.

Gould's transition from science to metaphysics is quite subtle and it is easy to appreciate how this would inspire strong feelings in those who disagree with his metaphysical conclusions. He uses scientific packaging to make an argument about the meaning of human life. I appreciate the desire to make science “matter” to humanity. However, science cannot be made to "matter" in the way that Gould wishes. This is because science does not have the capacity to answer the big questions. Science is the process of making descriptive and causal inferences - identifying the existence of that which is not initially known or identifying the cause of that which initially seems uncaused. Scientists do this by manipulating variables that can be brought under our control. If we cannot possibly control a variable, and control of that variable is necessary for testing a theory, we cannot test that theory. Thus, the most important moral and ontological questions - what should I do, why are we here, where are we going, is there a God, is there life after death - cannot be answered scientifically. We cannot control the variables to test our answers.

In conclusion, it is important to make the following clear. One can disagree with evolutionary biology's argument about the origin of life being "random," but one cannot claim that this randomness in any way contradicts Judeo-Christianity's religious narrative about life's origins. Random does not mean uncaused. It means unpredictable. When evolutionary biologists say that life is random, they mean the cause of life has never been known to cause life any other time. In other words, life is unique and it is not the product of a general, pro-life “law” in the universe, as gravity is. An apple falling from a tree is not random, but life developing from non-life is. This does not mean that the former is caused and the latter not caused. All it means it that the cause of the former is a general law that causes apples to fall all the time, while the cause of the latter is not general and therefore life's development is unique. That is all random means to the scientist.

Wilson on ID

James Q. Wilson had a very good column yesterday in The Wall Street Journal about Intelligent Design. Wilson is one of the most influential and important political scientists of the 20th century. From studies of political parties, to the bureaucracy, to urban politics, to the sociology of crime, Wilson is a giant among those who try to understand politics scientifically.

This is why his critique of Intelligent Design was so devastating - the man knows what science is about. He argues that ID is not science because it is not subject to empirical testing. Writes Wilson,

God may well exist, and He may well help people overcome problems or even (if we believe certain athletes) determine the outcome of a game. But that theory cannot be tested. There is no way anyone has found that we can prove empirically that God exists or that His action has affected some human life. If such a test could be found, the scientist who executed it would overnight become a hero.
This is a point that cannot be understated. Intelligent design may be a correct theory, just as Hegelianism may be a correct theory. However, neither is scientific because neither is testable (i.e. falsifiable). Wilson here advocates the position that falsification is what separates science from non-science.

Unfortunately, Wilson actually gives ID too much credit. If you look closely at his essay, you will see that he later implies that ID is falsifiable and that it has been falsified:

But if an intelligent designer had created the human eye, He (or She) made some big mistakes. The eye has a blind spot in the middle that reduces the eye's capacity to see. Other creatures, more dependent on sharp eyesight than are we, do not have this blind spot. Some people are colorblind and others must start wearing glasses when they are small children. All of these variations and shortcomings are consistent with evolution. None is consistent with the view that the eye was designed by an intelligent being.
The key word in this passage is “consistent”. Wilson implies that there is empirical evidence that is inconsistent with ID. However, to say that there is inconsistent evidence is to presume that ID makes predictions about the world that can be compared with the data to determine consistency. In other words, it is to say that ID is falsifiable and therefore scientific. Accordingly, Wilson here is arguing that ID is scientific and false.

I think that Wilson's initial claim of unfalsifiability is much stronger. I do not think it is possible to find empirical evidence that is inconsistent with ID. The reason for this gets to the heart of ID itself. In broad outline, the theory asserts that life is too complicated to have occurred “randomly” (a word that is often abused by people in this debate, but that is another story) and that therefore it unfolded according to a designer's intention.

The only way this could be falsifiable, and therefore scientific, is if it makes specific claims about the designers' intentions. These claims, further, must not be dependent upon the evidence used to test those claims. In other words, to be scientific, it must first make predictions about what specifically we should see in the world and then see whether those predictions come true. But it does not. ID argues that we know the design intention only from the observed design product. It makes no attempts to theorize what the will of the designer is beyond, “What you see is what you get!” Thus, there is no imaginable state of the world that goes against ID.

Wilson, however, implies that ID has an independent idea about what is in “God's” design plan - the principle of efficiency. Consider again Wilson's discussion of the human eye and why it is evidence that is inconsistent with ID. The reason that he sees it as being inconsistent with ID is that he is presuming that ID holds that the designer values efficiency and that we can expect the design product to be efficient. But ID does not claim that efficiency is part of the designer's scheme. ID theorists are quasi-Protestant in their outlook, arguing that the designer's will is inscrutable, except when inferred from the design product.

Thus, an ID theorist is “immune” from the point that Wilson makes. In actuality, ID “predicts” that creation is efficient when the design schematic says it is efficient and it is inefficient when the design schematic says it is inefficient, but it says nothing about the design schematic independent of what it observes in the world. Bill Preston has 20/20 vision: all part of God's plan! Ted Logan is blind as a bat: all part of God's plan! It is a theory that cannot possibly be shown to be wrong by empirical evidence.

So ID is not science. Does this mean that science, in any way, implies the non-existence of God? No. Does this mean that belief in God is irrational and that we should all be "free thinkers"? No. Does this mean that it is impossible to arbitrate between various theories of the existence/non-existence of God and come to some reasonable conclusions? No. Does this mean that we cannot say that humanity is meant to exist? No.

In other words, rationality outside of science is quite possible, and has been around for a long time. How do you think humanity invented science in the first place? We surely did not do it scientifically. Science as we know it is the product of millennia of philosophical debate -- from Aristotle to Lakatos. Science depends upon philosophy, which itself is unfalsifiable and unscientific.

The debate about ID has been blown way out of proportion because of the social status that science has acquired in 21st century Western society. For better or for worse, deserved or undeserved, science is a very powerful concept. It is quite coercive. If somebody tells you that you are not being scientific, you will probably take that as a criticism. You should not necessarily, though. The fact of the matter is that, despite the message of our culture about the authority of science, it is not the end-all-be-all of rational thought. Science is a very limited form of inquiry that produces results that are, from a certain perspective and with certain assumptions, reliable. But they also do not tell us all of the things we need, or want, to know about life. Man cannot live by science alone.

Neither, for that matter, can science. Do you have a snarky friend who thinks that science is the only legitimate type of inquiry? Tell him to prove that one scientifically!

December 26, 2005

The End of the Pirro Bid

Jeanne Pirro, the ersatz challenger of Hillary Clinton, is now officially the erstwhile challenger of Hillary Clinton. She will not challenge the junior senator from New York next year. She has decided to run for Attorney General of New York instead.

The Pirro “campaign” was not much of anything at all. It was rocky from the start - she actually lost a page of her announcement speech and stood silent for half a minute. After George Pataki endorsed her, many Republicans in the state must have been scratching their heads, doing their best impersonation of Michael Bluth…“Her?”

So Pirro is gone and nobody who stands a chance is in sight. I have been skeptical of Hillary's presidential potential for a very long time. She must, however, be credited as an adept freshman senator who has cleared the way for an easy victory next year. The fact that Hillary will face a second- or even third-rate challenger is no coincidence, and a testament not just to her political acumen but also to the uphill battle Republicans face in New York.

In other words, it is important not to make too much of this. Clinton is, after all, a good ideological fit with the Empire State. Many politicians could do what she has done. It is not so much that she has demonstrated that she is an above-average politician and more that she has demonstrated she is not a below-average politician. I still see very little evidence on Hillary's part of any political excellence that does not boil down to the ring on her left hand's ring finger. What, for instance, is the difference between Hillary's presumptive victory next year and Barbara Boxer's landslide win last year? A Democrat is doing very well in a Democratic state. Surprised?

Analysts who say that Hillary's reelection will be a boost to her 2008 ambitions are incorrect. Easy victory next year is a necessary condition for her 2008 bid - but it is nowhere near a sufficient condition. It is like having your supporters follow you around New Hampshire with campaign signs. It does not help you get any votes, but if you did not have those people around you, it would cause you to lose votes, as people would wonder, “Well, if he is such a good candidate, where are his supporters?” Hillary's chances would be severely diminished by anything less than 55% next year - but anything over 55% will not enhance them very much.

Hillary Is The Frontrunner. Is That Where She Wants To Be?

Today, most in America who follow these sorts of things would claim that Hillary Clinton is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 2008. By that, people tend to mean that she is somehow "in the lead" and therefore, if things remain linear, will be the Democratic nominee.

The trouble with this logic is that the Democratic nomination process is hardly ever linear. Those who are in the lead early are almost never in the lead late. Usually, the nominee is some fella whom nobody saw coming. Consider the years where there is no incumbent, either president or vice-president, seeking the nomination: 1972, 1976, 1984, 1992, 2004.

The first year that the Democrats relied upon the primary system in large measure was 1972. That year, George McGovern pulled off a spectacular comeback victory against Edmund Muskie and Hubert Humphrey. Despite the fact that Nixon was much more afraid of these candidates, they both did poorly among Democratic primary voters.

Jimmy Carter in 1976 was an even bigger darkhorse going into the primary system. Carter was really the first candidate to take advantage of the new, primary-dominated landscape, and thus beat "insider" candidates like Birch Bayh, Fred Harris, Henry Jackson and Morris Udall.

In 1992, of course, Bill Clinton was a major underdog -- first behind Mario Cuomo and then (when Cuomo decided not to run) Paul Tsongas. For the first few months of the campaign season, people knew Clinton -- if they knew him at all -- as the scandal-ridden candidate. Somehow, Clinton managed to turn a second place finish in New Hampshire into a victory. The rest is history.

2004 is the most telling example of Democratic non-linearity (they were downright parabolic!). Early on, John Kerry was considered the frontrunner. Then, in the fall of 2003, rank and file Democrats rallied behind Howard Dean. John Kerry's candidacy was declared DOA. But, the same Democrats -- true to form -- abandoned their new frontrunner and rallied behind the old one!

The only exception in this story is 1984. That year, Walter Mondale, who was considered all along the front-runner, did indeed obtain the nomination over Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson. Usually, though, Democratic primary voters seem to take a special pleasure in defying the experts and nominating a darkhorse. One might even go so far as to say that being in first in the lead up to the Democratic primary is a severe handicap.

Thus, if you want to correctly predict who will win the Democratic primary -- pick an unlikely candidate and then keep it to yourself, lest your Democratic primary voting friends catch wind that the new conventional wisdom is for that person!

On the other side, the Republicans are as certain as the tides in their nominations of front-runners. Ford, Reagan, Bush, Dole, Bush -- all front-runners. Whoever gets in the lead in the GOP nominating process will have history on his side. Maybe that is why Mitt Romney and Bill Frist are retiring from their current jobs so early.

Welcoming Jay

Jay Cost has graciously accepted an invite to guest blog in this space for the next week.  For those who aren't aware, Jay is a graduate student in political science at the University of Chicago and one of the most astute young political analysts around. He ran the widely acclaimed Horserace Blog in 2004 and recently authored a great three-part series for us looking ahead at Election 2006 (Part One, Two, Three). We're honored to have him.

I'll be lurking in the shadows this week and may pop in from time to time, but for the most part, it's going to be Jay's show. So without further ado...

Bush's Mandate Misread

First off, let me say how privileged and honored I am to have been invited to guest blog here at RealClearPolitics for the final week of 2005. Few political websites rise to the level of indispensable as this site does, so for John and Tom to think of me for this is very flattering indeed.

Since it is the end of the year, it seems fitting to try to assess how various political agents fared in 2005. The most obvious place to start is George W. Bush, who - let us face it - had an awful year. It was certainly the worst of his presidency. The pressing question: why was this the case?

I think that this year was as bad as it was for Bush because he fundamentally misread his electoral mandate. The Bush Administration was convinced last January that, in the words of Washington Times columnist Helle Dale, “The American people endorsed Mr. Bush's foreign policy in the 2004 election and gave him a mandate for leadership.” The administration also claimed for itself a mandate on domestic policy. Said Bush last January (as quoted in The Washington Post at the time), "I campaigned on this issue of Social Security, and the need to strengthen it and reform it…This is part of fulfilling a campaign pledge."

The Democrats, on the other hand, had a different view of the matter. Even after the stinging defeat they suffered last year, they were emboldened to block each and every one of Bush's major initiatives. More than this, they felt they could continue to debate the major questions from the 2004 campaign, most notably the Iraq question. They bet that Bush's election did not represent a decision on the part of the public that they were willing to bite on his “ownership society”, or any other Bush proposal, foreign or domestic.

The Democrats were correct. And we all saw what happened as a consequence. What was Bush's mistake? Simply stated, he misread his mandate.

It is a common mistake that presidents make. Even the great presidents misread their mandates. FDR, for instance, incorrectly guessed that the public had demonstrated in 1936 that they were willing to support his plan to redesign our governmental institutions for the sake of his domestic programs. He, of course, was wrong. This was the first time this type of mistake has been made in the modern presidency - and it is one that has been repeated time and time again.

Presidents misread their mandates all the time. They assume that their electoral victory implies some kind of empowerment to do anything more than take the oath of office and see where things go from there. But, in reality, it implies little more than this. The reason for this is that, as political scientist E.E. Schattschneider once famously said, the American people collectively have a vocabulary of just two words: "yes" and "no." And the question that was put before that public in 2004 was “Do you want George W. Bush to continue to serve as President?” The answer was a monosyllabic response: yes. It was not, “Yes because we like his Iraq policy” or, “Yes because we want to have an ownership society.” The American public, taken as a whole, lacks the ability to make such a sophisticated statement.

In the case of Bush, his electoral constituency did not have a uniform set of reasons for voting for him. Some voted for him to support the troops, some liked his domestic agenda, some liked his personality, some loathed John Kerry, and some even pulled the wrong lever. And there was no single bloc of Bush voters that voted for him because of any given issue that was large enough to induce the Democrats to honor Bush's demands for reform on that issue. Take Social Security. How could the Democrats so boldly thwart Bush's Social Security reform agenda, despite the fact that he was elected with 51% of the vote? The reason is that only a small portion of that 51% (a) knew that Bush wanted to reform Social Security, (b) knew with any detail what Bush's idea to reform Social Security was, and (c) agreed with Bush that his idea of Social Security reform was a good one.

Simply stated, all presidents who enjoy success with Congress do not enjoy that success by virtue of their electoral mandate. They enjoy it rather because of their proper reading of Congress and its relationship with the public. They know what to ask for, when to ask for it, whom in Congress to ask, how to ask, etc. Successful presidents do not rely on any mandate to get their proposals through our legislature. For proof of this, just look at how successful Bush was in his first term - two wars fought, major domestic reforms of almost all major domestic issues, and 49% of the vote.

Most presidents enjoy no substantive policy mandate moving forward, i.e. no consensus among the public about what the president should do. This means that they have to claw and scratch for every inch they can get from Congress without recourse to reminding that body what the public “said” several months before. However, they usually enjoy the luxury of having previous issues that they have settled remaining settled. Most presidents, when they take that second oath of office, do not need to worry about the issues in between oaths being revisited. Bush was not so lucky. His electoral victory in November, 2004 did not even signal that the public was necessarily ready to accept what Bush had already done.

This was the White House's key misreading of their mandate. They came to believe that the Iraq policy was largely settled with the November election. But, again, the only thing that was settled in November was Bush over Kerry, not Bush's Iraq policy over Kerry's Iraq “policy”. Perhaps the fact that we need quotation marks to discuss Kerry's pseudo-position on Iraq is why the public never coalesced around an opinion on the matter -- there was no clearly identifiable policy choice last year. The choice was rather between Bush's status quo and Kerry's hollow rhetoric. Perhaps it is because the Bush Administration was able to characterize the foreign policy questions of last year as boiling down to capacity, i.e. Kerry's total lack thereof, that resulted in Iraq policy remaining unsettled. For whatever reason, the public had not solidified behind a pro-Bush opinion on Iraq after the November election.

If you examine the tactical maneuvers of the Bush Administration in the first few months of this year, you can see very clearly that Bush and his advisors were of the opinion that the Iraq issue was essentially settled; the public was concerned about the casualties, but, so the White House thought, largely felt that Bush was on the right track. They took Bush's reelection as proof of this. And thus, the Administration decided to move forward with Bush's slate of domestic reforms.

Democrats, however, correctly saw that Bush did not have a solid majority of the public on his side either on Iraq or on his domestic reform agenda - and therefore they could thwart his domestic reform proposals while continuing to question the wisdom of the Iraq policy. As the White House did not respond to these criticisms for months, they began to take hold within the mind of the public. Thanks to the fact that for months Bush was talking about Social Security and the Democrats were talking about Iraq, public opinion slowly began to move from Bush: the lack of a mandate for Bush's Iraq policy, indeed the lack of any majority opinion in the public on the Iraq question, transformed into a majority opposing Bush.

This was Bush's major tactical error in 2005. Unfortunately for Bush, this error was compounded by events that negatively affected public perception of the Administration - Katrina, Libby-Rove, Miers. Some of these were within his control. Some of these were not. But they added up to Bush being seriously off his game by October.

As it stands, and to the White House's credit, the Administration seems to have bounced back. They seem to have recognized that Iraq is not a closed issue, that they must continue to address it if they wish to have the kind of public support they need to force Congress to act. Unfortunately for Bush, he only began to return to form at the end of the legislative session, thus ensuring that his influence over legislative output this year was minimal. Perhaps we can see this most clearly in the problems that the Administration has faced in getting the Patriot Act renewed.

This year was most definitely a wasted year for the Bush Administration. They made a major tactical error early in the year, and did not realize their mistake until the summer had come and gone.

This just goes to show that presidents should not be too hasty in reading a mandate into electoral returns. The American public is a hodgepodge of interests, values and preferences - and it is only rarely that this hodgepodge manages to coalesce behind an issue and a president at the same time. Smart presidents recognize that the mandate a president enjoys is the mandate to assume all of the formal and informal powers that a president enjoys - so that he can finagle what he can from Washington. That is the mandate of an incumbent president - a mandate to continue to be president. It is rarely, if ever, a mandate to do a certain thing. This is why, in the age of the modern presidency, the campaign never actually ends - the president must continuously coax, coerce and convince both Congress and the public to see things his way. He can never assume that any issue, large or small, is settled. The Administration forgot that in 2005. This is why it was such a rough year for the 43rd President.

December 23, 2005

When It Leaks, It Pours

Unbelievable.  Yet more top secret, national security related programs leaked to the press. This time, U.S. News & World Report does the deed:

In search of a terrorist nuclear bomb, the federal government since 9/11 has run a far-reaching, top secret program to monitor radiation levels at over a hundred Muslim sites in the Washington, D.C., area, including mosques, homes, businesses, and warehouses, plus similar sites in at least five other cities, U.S. News has learned. [snip]

The nuclear surveillance program began in early 2002 and has been run by the FBI and the Department of Energy's Nuclear Emergency Support Team (NEST). Two individuals, who declined to be named because the program is highly classified, spoke to U.S. News because of their concerns about the legality of the program. At its peak, they say, the effort involved three vehicles in Washington, D.C., monitoring 120 sites per day, nearly all of them Muslim targets drawn up by the FBI. For some ten months, officials conducted daily monitoring, and they have resumed daily checks during periods of high threat. The program has also operated in at least five other cities when threat levels there have risen: Chicago, Detroit, Las Vegas, New York, and Seattle. (emphasis added)

This is insane. Can we not settle the legality of these types of programs in private? Or must we reveal every method we're employing for national security to the world, handicapping our ability to protect ourselves because of the willingness of one or two people to leak highly classified information out of "concerns" that may or may not turn out to be valid? As with the NSA case, the leakers should be rounded up and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Past war-time Presidents must be spinning in their graves over what is happening today.

A Soldier-Samaritan Responds

To my RCP column today:

Thank you, thank you, thank you for your wonderful article today praising the United States military as a humanitarian group.  I can't tell you how pleased I am to see it.

Last year, while a field director for President Bush in Ohio, I made a life-changing decision to join the Army National Guard and entered Basic Training in January.  Although it was the toughest thing I've ever done, I can't tell you how proud I am to be able to say I am a soldier.

Here's the thing: like many new soldiers I met, I didn't join the Army to take lives . . . but to help save lives.  Although you won't hear it from the MSM, It's my opinion that the United States Military is the greatest humanitarian organization in the world . . . even greater than groups like Greenpeace and the Peace Corps that reap most of the press attention.

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to volunteer to be mobilized to Mississippi and New Orleans with Ohio's 73rd Troop Command in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and I can't tell you what a wonderful feeling it was to be able to help those wonderful people while wearing my country's uniform.

So thank you, again, for so eloquently stating what I've come to learn in the past year: that the U.S. military does much, much more than just kill people and break things.  I maintain a blog dedicated to proving just that: www.campkatrinablog.com. I hope you'll visit it some time and read some of the wonderful soldier stories we have there.

Keep up the great work, my friend.

Sincerely,
Spc. Phil Van Treuren
Ohio Army National Guard
JAG Corps
www.campkatrinablog.com

The Robots Hit 50

This morning Bush hit 50% in Scott Rasmussen's three day rolling average for the first time since July. Overall, Bush's average job approval now stands at 46.0% with 51.2% disapproving.

Backsliding Towards September 10

Michelle Malkin has an excellent post questioning the wisdom of George Will’s latest column attacking the President's decision authorizing the NSA program of eavesdropping on international-domestic communications involving terrorist suspects. Malkin writes:

Earlier this week George Will argued that President Bush should have asked Congress for permission to carry out warrantless eavesdropping of Americans. He is confident that Congress would have changed FISA to approve the program:

Congress, if asked, almost certainly would have made such modifications of law as the president's plans required.

Just one teensy weensy problem: the NSA program was (and still is) classified. Is Will suggesting that Bush could have requested the authority he needed without revealing the existence of the NSA program? Or does he think Bush should have trusted 535 members of Congress to keep the program secret?

On those key questions, Will is silent.

Will goes on to say that the key legal brief about the NSA program written by former deputy assistant attorney general John Yoo "should be declassified and debated."

Even if that means disclosing technical details about the program that would help al Qaeda evade surveillance?

Will not only does not answer the question, he doesn't even bother to address it, as if disclosing highly classified information about our intellgience-gathering techniques is a niggling detail that doesn't deserve even the slightest acknowledgement.

It's the sort of unreality-based thinking one expects from Molly Ivins or a Daily Kos diarist, not the nation's premiere conservative columnist.

I had a similar reaction when I read Will’s column Tuesday. Michelle goes on to cite National Review’s editorial on the subject which begins: "We are once again living in September 10 America." Daniel Pipes strikes the same theme with a recent column in the New York Sun titled “My Gloom: Back to September 10.” Pipes documents a whole host of troubling items that point to a backsliding in the nation’s commitment to fighting and winning this war.

In my column at the beginning of the week I alluded to the fact that most in Washington seem to have forgotten about 9/11. It's hard to dispute that with all the angst and hand-wringing in the last 18 months over Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, whether we’re treating suspected terrorists too “harshly,” and now with this last controversy over whether the President has the authority to authorize the NSA to monitor int’l-domestic communications originating with a terrorist suspect. The unfortunate reality is this backsliding will likely continue and the only thing that is going to arrest it will be another attack.

December 21, 2005

Finally, A Ray of Hope For Congress

The improvement in Bush's job approval numbers since he began an aggressive pushback on Veterans' Day has been widely commented on. In fact, a number of other indicators have improved recently as well: consumer confidence, the percentage of people who feel the country is headed in the right direction, etc.

However, one number that hasn't improved at all, despite the uptick for the president and of the mood of the country in general, is the public's impression of the job Congress is doing.  Look at a comparison of job approval rating gains and losses for Bush and Congress in the most recent round of polls:

Poll
Bush JA

Chg vs
Last Poll

Congress JA
Chg vs.
Last Poll
NBC/WSJ
39
+1
25
-3
FOX
42
+1
30
-4
CBS News
40
+5
33
-1
AP-Ipsos
42
+5
31
-1

Congress finally got some good news this week with the release of the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll. The big headline from the poll was that Bush's job approval surged 8 points to 47%, but I'm sure what got the most attention on the Hill is that Congress' job approval surged as well, up 6 points to 43% from 37% in the last poll taken in early November.

Obviously, one poll does not a trend make. But given the steady decline of Congress' job rating throughout 2005 - the folks in Washington started the year with an average approval rating of 42.3% and finished at 29.8% - any piece of good news, no matter how small, has to be welcome.

The Legal Case

Former Clinton Associate Attorney General John Schmidt says Bush's decision to authorize NSA eavesdropping is perfectly legal. John Hinderaker of Powerline cites Schmidt before asking the reporters from the New York Times to clarify whether they are aware of current case law and if they can cite any authority to back up their implication the NSA's program is illegal.  Hinderaker is pulling together a post which should make clear the legality of the program under current case law is beyond dispute. We'll post it when we get it.

UPDATE: Here are parts two and three to Powerline's discussion of the legality of the NSA program. 

Quote of the Day

"A United States Senator has significant tools with which to wield power and influence over the executive branch. Feigning helplessness is not one of those tools." - Senator Pat Roberts questioning fellow Senator Jay Rockefeller's claim that his only option to voice a concern about the NSA program after briefed by the Bush administration was to write a letter and keep it sealed for two years.

The NSA Story: Bombshell or Dud?

This might seem like a silly question, what with Congress just now starting to gnash its teeth and gearing up to launch hearings on the NSA program. But consider the following items:

Item one: this morning James Risen and Eric Lichtblau follow up their "blockbuster" story last Friday by reporting that it's likely a few fully domestic calls have been snared during the course of the NSA's secret program:

But in at least one instance, someone using an international cellphone was thought to be outside the United States when in fact both people in the conversation were in the country. Officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the program remains classified, would not discuss the number of accidental intercepts, but the total is thought to represent a very small fraction of the total number of wiretaps that Mr. Bush has authorized without getting warrants. In all, officials say the program has been used to eavesdrop on as many as 500 people at any one time, with the total number of people reaching perhaps into the thousands in the last three years.

The article does nothing to further the impression that the Bush administration has been involved in widespread, abusive eavedropping that is somehow trampling on the civil liberties of average law-abiding Americans. In fact, it does the opposite, suggesting that 1) the NSA has been very judicious in its use of resources and 2) it is an exceedingly difficult job for even the most advanced experts we have to try and keep up with possible terrorist-related communications in today's complex technology environment.

Item two: Drudge is headlining a report that while in office both Clinton and Carter signed executive orders authorizing domestic surveillance without a court order. Needless to say, revelations like this - which never seem to be reported initially - tend to strip the sensationalist shine off the NSA surveillance story rather quickly and put it more context.

Item three: Having been scooped on the NSA story altogether, the best the Washington Post can do today is to report that a Clinton-appointed FISA judge submitted his resignation yesterday - possibly as a protest to revelations about the NSA program. This story may be news, but the fact the Post slapped it above the fold on A1 instead of on A10 where it belongs suggests a rather forced effort to 1) join the frenzy and 2) give this story some additional legs.

Where does this leave us? The story certainly isn't going away any time soon, but that doesn't mean it may not end up filed away in the "more heat than light" category in retrospect.  Some Congressional Democrats have predictably (and foolishly) jumped out to far edge of the political envelope with loose talk about impeachment (as have liberal members of the media like Joe Conason) but that's nothing more than a deranged fever-swamp fantasy.

Where this story goes depends on the details, of course, many of which we won't know for some time. But if the administration is on even the thinnest plot of Constitutional ground (my impression is that they are, though I'm not a legal expert), then it's hard to see the story going very far.  What's more, Vice President Cheney may be right about the final result: "So there's a backlash pending, I think the backlash is going to be against those who are suggesting somehow we shouldn't take these steps in order to defend the country."

Waiting For The Rapture in Iran

Scary. As usual, Krauthammer was on the case first.

December 20, 2005

Did The NY Times Do Democrats A Favor?

Liberal blogger Will Bunch says "Bush gamed the media to get re-elected in 2004" and suggests that by not running the NSA story the New York Times helped him win last November:

It's too early to gauge reaction, but we expect that it [the NSA story] will be highly negative, not just from the usual suspects on the left but also from the vast political middle -- the heartland types who just barely propelled Bush to re-election in 2004.

And there lies the real story behind the story. Because it appears it may have been possible for the Times to publish at least some of the details of the Bush-ordered domestic spying before Nov. 2, 2004, the day that the president nailed down four more years. Although Bush won by 2 percent nationally, a switch of just 59,302 Ohio voters from Bush to John Kerry would would have put the Democrats back in the White House.

Would Bush won the election if the extent of his seemingly unconstitutional domestic spying had been known? We'll never know.

Here we see more evidence that the left is much closer to being divorced from reality than it is to being "reality-based."  Not to beat a dead horse, but as John has now stated twice in the last two days (here and here), liberals really don't have a clue how bad of an issue this is for them politically.

If the New York Times had published this story prior to the 2004 election it would have been a disaster for John Kerry. Kerry would have looked weaker than ever spouting legalisms and spinning the nuances of Constitutional law while Bush stood there telling the folks he was doing everything he could to protect them from the evil-doers. 

How do we know this is so? Because the election in November was fundamentally about strength on national security, and the country judged Bush superior to Kerry in that regard. Remember the lead Bush jumped out to after the Republican National Convention and the anniversary of September 11? Now imagine what Zell Miller would have said about John Kerry opposing an NSA program to monitor suspected terrorist-related calls.

Remember also that even as the race tightened down the stretch, the final nail in Kerry's coffin was the appearance of a videotape of Osama bin Laden.  Kerry tried to counter the tape with some macho mumbo-jumbo about tracking bin Laden down himself, but it was too little too late. The public simply didn't trust John Kerry to do as good of a job protecting the country as Bush. The NSA surveillance story would have only made the choice that much more clear to voters and, contra Bunch's suggestion, it probably would have showed in the results.

A final bone to pick: the implication being made by Arianna and others that the New York Times was somehow in the tank for the Bush administration gives the word "ludicrous" a bad name. This the same paper that blacked out the Swift Boat Veterans story for more than two and half weeks before running a front page story attacking the connections between the Swiftees and Karl Rove. If memory serves it's the same paper that colluded with CBS News on the timing and publication of the National Guard fake document story that exploded into Memogate. And it's the same paper that dumped the dubious, anonymously-sourced story of al-Qaqaa on the front page just eight days before the election.

Liberals can fume over The Times' decision to sit on this story, but all likelihood Keller & Co. did Democrats a favor by not running it before last year's election.

The Arthur Fonzarelli of Politics

This AP article focusing on Arizona's other Senator, Jon Kyl, contains an irresistable quote about John McCain:

"McCain just has that charisma that very few people have, then you put his life story on top of that," McCain adviser Max Fose said of the former Vietnam POW. "He's like the Fonz. He's the Fonzie of politics."

We've heard a lot recently about how "beltway" conservatives have been "warming to" and "taking a second look at" McCain. But then you see things like this letter in today's Arizona Republic and it makes you wonder:

If you think John McCain is going to be president of the United States, or even be on the final ballot, you're wrong.

Conservative Republicans are not going to vote for him and there are more of us than you think. - Joyce Ready, Phoenix

McCain may be the "Fonzie of politics" with the press, the public, and even beltway types in Washington, but he'd better hope he hasn't jumped the shark with true red-state conservatives:

 

Jonathan Alter & The Ghost of Nixon

Jonathan Alter provides a classic liberal misreading of the political dynamics at play in the leaked story on the NSA’s covert spy program. Alter reports that President Bush called in both the publisher and the executive editor of the New York Times on December 6 in a “futile attempt to talk them out of running the story…..one can only imagine the president’s desperation.”

Alter ridicules the idea that Bush’s concern in seeing the story published was U.S. national security.

No, Bush was desperate to keep the Times from running this important story…..because he knew that it would reveal him as a law-breaker…..the president knew publication would cause him great embarrassment and trouble for the rest of his presidency. It was for that reason—and less out of genuine concern about national security—that George W. Bush tried so hard to kill the New York Times story.

Yeah, Bush looked real desperate yesterday at the press conference when he was defending his decision to authorize the NSA to monitor those communications. The left-wing mind is so warped by the prism of Vietnam, Nixon, and Watergate they seem utterly incapable of any type of objective political analysis.

First, there is a complete misconception about the politics of the late 60’s and 70’s due to the glorification of the hippie, anti-government culture by the press and Hollywood. A student of history who only watched American TV and movies and read The Washington Post and  The New York Times wouldn’t understand the four presidential results between 1968-1980.

Just to recount the facts: in 1968, Richard Nixon and the virulently anti-hippie George Wallace got 57% of the vote. In 1972, Nixon received over 60% of the vote. In 1976, with Republicans utterly on the ropes after Nixon’s disgrace and impeachment, Jimmy Carter barely beat that political powerhouse Gerald Ford. The public put a final punctuation point on the era in 1980 with Reagan’s 489 electoral vote wipeout of Carter.

But to someone like Alter, the late 60’s and 70’s were the penultimate halcyon days for the press and politics. It was when the “good guys” in the liberal press took out the “bad guys” in the Republican party. The mindset survives among many to this day who constantly see the ghost of Nixon around every corner.

Alter is clueless when it comes to the political ramifications of this story. Politically, the White House loves this story. As I mentioned in my column yesterday, it dovetails nicely with the debate over the Patriot Act, Iraq and works to reinforce the existing image of the Democratic party as just not serious when it comes to the nation’s security.

Monitoring phone calls between al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan or Pakistan and individuals in the United States when the there is a gray area when it comes to the legal issues is not going to incite a public rage against the president. To repeat, this is a political loser for Democrats.

Alter and his ideological colleagues are the real ones in a bubble.

December 19, 2005

Four Pearls of Wisdom

This month Esquire interviewed a number of personalities under the theme "What I've Learned." Here is a collection of four of the choicest quotes:

John Kerry: "One word I'd like on my tombstone to describe myself for generations to come? President would be a good one." 

Arianna Huffington: "I kept hoping for the John Kerry who led the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. But it never happened. When the old John Kerry put down the young John Kerry on Meet the Press, he disowned his better self.  It was one of the most tragic moments of the 2004 campaign."

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin: "I was emotionally spent, and I let all my emotions out during that radio interview. Afterward, I said to myself, Oh, my God, I have really screwed up. I have basically called out a president and a southern governor.  Maybe the CIA will swoop in and do some secret poisoning and I'll be dead in two weeks."

Finally, actress Alyssa Milano: "I went to Iraq on a USO tour. This was two months after the war was declared over. When we got on the ground, they started throwing us helmets and bulletproof vests. I'm wearing a little Prada shirt, you know. I wanted to look good for the boys. Basically, I was doing my service to the country. And so I put this vest on, which was about ten pounds, and this helmet and I go over to Tommy Franks, General Franks? And I said, 'I have to be honest with you. I'm freaking out a little bit right now.  I just need to know that we're going to be okay.' And he said, 'Little darlin', I guarantee you this: We've got more bullets than they got assholes.' Not quite the answer I was looking for."

Let me try to summarize the wisdom accumulated from these quotes:  John Kerry is delusional, Arianna's political instincts haven't improved since she lost the California Governor's race by 48 points, Mayor Nagin may be nuttier than anyone previously thought, and Tommy Franks ought to be the next Senator from Florida.

Bush Surfing the Waves

I've been trying to think of a metaphor to describe the current political dynamic in Washington and I can only think of one thing: waves.  If you've ever been to the beach you know that waves travel in sets: each wave rises, crests, washes ashore and then recedes back into the following until the entire set is complete. Some waves break earlier than others and some wash much higher onto shore. It all depends.

Over the past few weeks we've seen a series of national security-related waves hit Washington. The first wave, which had been building for a year (and perhaps longer), was the theme that "Bush lied." It crested around Veteran's Day when the President hit back at critics in a tough, public speech.

That wave was followed by the rising debate over troop withdrawal, a wave cresting with John Murtha's call for immediate withdrawal on November 17 and the subsequent vote in the House. 

The issue of CIA "black sites" was another wave that came ashore, rising dramatically after Dana Priest's November 2 article in the Washington Post and cresting a month later with Condi Rice's trip to Europe. In some ways this was a mini-break of the larger wave of torture and detainee abuse, a debate that has been raging for quite some time and finally crested last week with Bush coming to an agreement with John McCain on a torture ban.

The election in Iraq last week was the break of another big wave, this one decidedly in favor of the President. But even as the positive news out of Iraq was washing ashore in the U.S. on Friday, the New York Times set the next big wave in motion by splashing the details of the eavesdropping program authorized by Bush in 2002 across the front page.

The conventional wisdom is that these waves have been slamming the president who is adrift, but the reality is that he's been surfing them rather skillfully - as the polling since the middle of November indicates.  As John argues in his RCP column today, Democrats continue to operate under the mistaken assumption that there's a positive benefit to be had from going toe-to-toe with Bush on national security when there is a far greater likelihood they will end up reinforcing the worst "soft on security" stereotypes already held by the public.

December 16, 2005

The Media's Incurable Myopia

The coverage of the Iraqi election by the press has been extensive and generally positive, but as sure as the sun continues to rise in the east, by next week we will be back to a steady diet of chaos and carnage in the newspapers and on TV.

The problem isn't necessarily that the press covers car bombs and kidnappings, or that it is composed of bad people who want to see the U.S. fail in Iraq - though it's undeniable there are plenty of members of the mainstream media who dislike this president and don't approve of the war. The more general problem, however, which is part institutional and part individual, is that the press is either unwilling or unable to put events in Iraq in any sort of historical context.

Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld chastised the media for this is his speech last week, and yesterday the estimable Thomas P.M. Barnett piled on:

The press always wants a quick and easy answer to the question: Who wins and when does it happen? Either the U.S. is winning or the enemy is winning, and it has to be done by Tuesday. If Bush speaks to the long fight and says we'll always pursue victory even as it takes years and decades to unfold, then he must be speaking illogically. The Second World War should have been over by 1943. The Cold War should have ended in 1953. If the GWOT isn't done by 2005, then we've lost and we must retreat from the world.

We lost over 20k* in Iwo Jima and we won. If we lose 2k-plus in almost three years in Iraq, then we must be losing.

Where are the wise men? Hell, where are the journalists with any sense of history?

Karl Zinsmeister drives the point home even further by questioning how historical events might be viewed in today's environment:

I’ve been looking back at World War II recently and remembering, for instance, the Battle of the Bulge. In the Battle of the Bulge, American soldiers were sent to fight in waist-deep snow with no winter clothing, and I’m thinking to myself, “today, that would be reason to hang somebody. What commission is going to attack them for that?”

Look at Iwo Jima. I believe 7,000 men were killed at Iwo Jima. It's a four-mile by two-mile island in the middle of nowhere with no resources. I wonder, would we, in our contemporary worldview be able to look at that and say, "that’s a glorious triumph for the US Marine Corps," or would we say, "somebody’s got to be court-martialed over that screw-up?"

There is just an insane amount of handwringing today, all driven by the deluge of round-the-clock media coverage. News organizations can't get the cameras to the flames in Iraq fast enough and day after day the public reacts emotionally to the images put before them through the lens of a soda straw. How many times have we heard people come back from Iraq and talk about how different reality is from what they've seen on TV and read in the papers?

And how many times have we heard members of the press talk about their duty to inform and educate the citizenry about issues? In the matter of Iraq, that means news organizations have an obligation to their readers and viewers to put events in perspective and provide historical context. They have failed the public miserably in that obligation.

The public bears its share of the burden, too. As Thomas Sowell wrote earlier this week: "Utter ignorance of history enables any war with any casualties to be depicted in the media as an unmitigated disaster."

Iraq is tough, to be sure, but it's far from a disaster. The only thing missing from the picture today is knowledge of history and context.

*Barnett seems to have confused the number of U.S. casualties suffered at Iwo Jima (26,000) with the number of combat deaths (6,800).

The Timing of The Times

Did the The New York Times harm national security by running a story today reporting President Bush signed an order in 2002 giving the NSA authority to eavesdrop on certain domestic communications without a FISA court warrant? Hugh Hewitt thinks so:

When the next attack comes, one question will be how did the terrorists evade detection. Today the odds increased that one of their methods will be careful reading of the New York Times.

I think Hugh goes a bit over the top here. I am curious, however, as to the timing.  Why would The Times chose to run this clearly controversial story today, of all days, after it had been sitting on it (at the administration's request) for more than a year?

The Road Ahead In Iraq

As officials sift through the millions of ballots cast in Iraq yesterday  - up to 11 million or 70% turnout, by early estimates - it's hard not to think we've just caught another glimpse of the country's potentially bright future.

But the road ahead in Iraq still contains the same dangerous potholes. One thing the reports from yesterday's elections make clear is that we still face the same security conundrum: how to clear and hold towns infested by the insurgency without being seen as an occupying force. Jim Carroll of the Christian Science Monitor spent election day in the Sunni city of Husbayah:

 

This town and two neighboring ones were mostly cleared of insurgents last month and now house several US Marine encampments.

But while many residents said they were glad for the relatively recent peace, most were voting for deeply religious Sunni Arab candidates with ties to the insurgency. These candidates have run on a platform of resistance to what they term occupation.

"We all want a religious man,'' Mr. Hasan says gravely as he pulls a pamphlet of Koranic verses from his pocket to illustrate why he supports the party of Sunni religious leader Adnan al-Dulaimi.

In a community that feels persecuted by the Iraqi government and its security forces run by the majority Shiites, many Sunnis are looking for a leader tough enough to protect them.

"We want only security and all the terrorists to be finished,'' says Umm Thafur, her face covered in Bedouin tattoos and engulfed by her abaya. "God willing everything will be better ... we want a strong leader who's truly Iraqi." [snip]

From a side street and behind a cement barrier meant to stop car bombs, Abu Latief, who didn't want to give his full name, watched the lines of voters swell throughout the morning. "The Iraqi Army is no problem, but the occupation forces are a problem,'' he said as an Iraqi soldier watched.

"After the election, God willing, there will be security, and the American forces will leave Iraq. This is very important to all the people, that the American forces leave. Because if they are here, the terrorists come."

John Burns of the NY Times filed a similar dispatch from the Adhamiya district in Baghdad:

Another thing many Sunnis seemed to agree on was the possibility of a reconciliation between the Americans and the Sunnis, and a distancing of the Sunnis from some of the Al Qaeda-linked insurgent groups. Many were critical of American troops, saying, as Mr. Saleh did, that "they came as liberators, but stayed on as occupiers." But pressed on the question of an American troop withdrawal, most seemed cautious, favoring a gradual drawdown.

"Let's have stability, and then the Americans can go home," said Mr. Sattar, the store owner. Told that this sounded similar to President Bush's formula for a troop withdrawal, he replied: "Then Bush has said it correctly".

This reinforces everything we already know: at the moment, U.S. forces remain a crucial component of the security solution in Iraq but also part of problem. The only viable strategy for success is to get enough Iraqi troops trained and equipped to take over the job. The sooner we do that, the sooner our troops come home.

This has always been the plan - not perfectly executed, perhaps, but it's not like we've been throwing darts at the wrong dartboard for two years, either. Training Iraqi troops takes time and patience, two things in drastically short supply in today's world of hyperpartisanship and 24-hour media.

December 15, 2005

McCain Wins Another One

Sources: White House to Accept Torture Ban.

Andrew will be pleased. By the way, I'm still pondering this recent statement by Sullivan: "For me, McCain was my candidate in 2000, and remains easily the best of the Republican field." Easily the best? Better than Giuliani?

After all, Guiliani is as hawkish as McCain on the war but also has a stronger record of backing Andrew's other defining issue. Yes, McCain came out against a Constitutional amendment banning gay marrriage in July of last year.  But then he turned right around the next month and voted for a ban in Arizona.

I suppose Andrew can view McCain's action as perfectly compatible with state's rights Republicanism, which it is, but it seems odd that he wouldn't find Giuliani the most preferable of the '08 bunch.

Why The Right Hates The Left

Put simply: because some on the left hate America:

Last weekend I did something I haven't done in a long time. Something I swore I'd never do again. Something I'm deeply ashamed of.

I stood during the singing of the national anthem. [snip]

I won't stand for the American flag because I won't stand for what is done in its name. I won't stand for the current war in Iraq, I won't stand for the last war in Iraq. I won't stand for all the wars before that. I won't stand for its selectively faulty elecotral [sic] process and I won't stand for its unelected, renegade government. I won't stand for its medieval attitude towards sexuality and privacy, for its violent misinterpretation of Christianity, for its refusal to deal sanely with AIDS and all other global health crises, for its environmentally suicidal stance on climate change, for the hypocrisy of its practices, for the torture of its prisoners, for its executions and its drug wars and its oil wars. I won't stand for any of these things, and I won't stand for the United States of America, or its flag or its anthem, until they change.

Read this closely and you'll see it is more than a garden-variety anti-Bush rant.  George W. Bush isn't responsible for the first Gulf War, nor any of the wars before that. He's not responsible for whatever flaws may exist in our electoral system (they've been around, and been much worse, long before he got here) and Bush has arguably done as much or more to combat AIDS than any president before him.

There are only two conclusions to be drawn from this woman's comments: either she is a partisan hypocrite of the highest order (did she vote for Bill Clinton after he flew home to execute Ricky Ray Rector?  Was she standing for the National Anthem while bombs were dropping on Kosovo or smoke was still rising from the ashes in Waco?) or she truly detests what America stands for regardless of which party is in control. Either way, it's not pretty. I'd be more angry about it if her self-absorbed navel-gazing wasn't so strikingly pathetic.

Hillary's Bind

In case you didn't catch my RCP column on Hillary today:

The tightrope Clinton finds herself straddling on Iraq is in many ways constructed from her own ambition. Back in 2000 Hillary leapt at the first (and best) chance to win high elective office, but by doing so put herself in the Senate – a place where no one has emerged to win a presidential election since John F. Kennedy in 1960.

You can read more here

RELATED: Richard Cohen ain't happy with Hillary's little flag-burning amendment stunt. Get more Hillary news (if you're so inclined) at JustHillary.com.

Project RG

Frank Foer offers an intruiging tease over at The Plank:

FLASH US YOUR SIRENS, DRUDGE:

Developing...Official Washington is preparing to be rocked by TNR's "Project RG." I'm not saying that "Project RG" will take down the Bush White House, but I'm not not saying that either.

 Your guess is as good as mine.

The Purple Revolution 2.0

This morning I feel much the same as I did the day after the first elections in Iraq eleven months ago:

The images from yesterday's election in Iraq are proof that pictures really are worth a thousand words - and in some cases much more than that.

In fact, at times words seemed wholly inadequate to describe the scope of what we witnessed yesterday. The courage, determination, anxiety, and hope exhibited by the Iraqi people was so powerful it moved all but the most hardened, Bush-hating hearts...

Only time will tell if January 30, 2005 will go down as one of the most important dates in modern history. I happen to believe it will. But between now and when the history books are written it was enough, at least for me, to stand by on a Sunday and marvel at the courage of people half a world away. 

Forget about politics for a minute. You're either moved by the pictures and news reports from Iraq or you aren't. You either believe what Iraqis are doing today is a courageous act of great significance or you don't. From an emotional standpoint there really isn't much of a middle ground.

The left can continue to deride the elections in Iraq as a sham, a myth and a joke, but they do so at their own peril. For the moment at least, I suspect most Americans are moved by what they see today and proud of it as well - proud not only for the Iraqi people but also for our troops and the  hand they've played in making today possible.

Iraq is fraught with difficulties, to be sure. And they won't end today, next week, or even next year. It's easy to lose sight of the progress we've made (and continue to make) in Iraq amid the constant drumbeat of pessimism and bad news in the press. Today is yet another powerful reminder that, irrespective of what people think about how we got there, what we're doing in Iraq today is important stuff with potentially monumental consequences.

December 14, 2005

Mean Jean: A Republican Hottie

I'm sorry, but I cannot resist. Take a guess at who said this:

"It's amazing. There have been three marriage proposals and lots of dates. They think I'm a hottie. Of course, I denied all of them. Have you met my husband and know how cute he is? ... Well, he's a hottie, come on!"

That's freshman Congresswoman Jean Schmidt (OH-2) talking about some of the response she's received from her well-publicized gaffe on the House floor where she was shouted down by Democrats for indirectly calling John Murtha a coward.

More Abuse From Earle

I happen to be one of many who think that if Tom DeLay does have any legitimate legal problems they're likely to be found in his close association with Jack Abramoff, not the sloppy and abusive prosecutorial mumbo-jumbo being served up by Ronnie Earle.

Earle's most recent moves  - one of which includes subpoenaing legal records from an unrelated civil suit against DeLay settled more than a decade ago - give yet another indication that his case is far from solid and that he's reaching out in all directions to desperately shore it up as best he can.

It's too bad there hasn't been more comment on the ethically-challenged manner in which Earle has prosecuted this case.  Prosecutorial abuse can cut against both political parties, and if this case ends in an acquittal or it's tossed out based on a finding of prosecutorial misconduct, Ronnie Earle will have set a new low for partisan abuse of the legal system. That will be a personal disgrace for Earle, but it'll also be a shame for those who either cheered him on or stood by silently for partisan political reasons.

Do You Trust Your Government?

In many ways the debate over reauthorizing the Patriot Act comes down to the question: do you trust your government? If you read Alberto Gonzalez in The Washington Post this morning you might be inclined to answer "yes." Then again, if you read Senator John Sununu in yesteday's New Hampshire Union-Leader you might answer, "not so much."

In debates like this where there doesn't seem to be a clear cut answer, often times the best thing to do is to find Congressional leaders you like and trust and see where they come down on the issue. That's not so easy to do here.  John Sununu is neither a RINO or a reactionary, and he's co-author of the bill in the Senate seeking to postpone permanent reauthorization of the Patriot Act. Larry Craig and Lisa Murkowski are also against. Arlen Specter, who most consider a rather liberal-leaning Republican, is in favor of reauthorization and says that concerns about protecting civil liberties have been adequately addressed.

I've written about how overblown some criticisms of the Patriot Act have been. We needed to change the way law enforcement worked in this country in the wake of 9/11 and Congress acted quickly and appropriately. That said, the revelation that no one, including Congress, was aware that the FBI had issued some 30,000 national security letters over the last few years should give everyone pause.  On balance, however, my sense is that the Patriot Act has been a net positive, which is to say that it has contributed in a meaningful way to our security without impinging too much on the civil liberties of law abiding citizens. So long as that balance is maintained, and so long as sunset provisions are kept at four years to ensure accountability, Congress shouldn't delay  reauthorizing the Patriot Act.

December 13, 2005

Albert Owens, Tsai-Shai Yang, Yen-I Yang and Yee-Chen Lin

Tookie Williams has been in the news quite a bit. Unfortunately, the four people he murdered over 26 years ago seem to have been forgotten, by and large, by the national press corps covering this story. In the name of fairness and justice, one would think that the media would have an obligation to balance some of the time devoted to Stanley Williams on the four people Tookie snuffed the life out of over a quarter of a century ago.

Albert Owens (picture) was a veteran and father of two young girls when he was shot in the back while lying face down on the floor of the 7-Eleven where he worked.  Owens' brother told the Kansas City Star several weeks ago:

“He did everything he was told to, he was not a threat, and they shot him to death,” Wayne Owens said. “And then in prison, bragged about the noise he made when he died.”

The District Attorney in his rebuttal asks:

What man orders another human being to lie face down on the floor and then proceeds to shoot him two times in the back at close range with a shotgun? What man later laughs when he tells his friends how the victim gurgled as he lay dying?

One can only imagine Albert Owens’ terror as he lay face down on the floor of the storage room at the 7-Eleven and heard the first shotgun blast that was fired into the security monitor. Was he hoping against hope he would not be shot to death? Was he thinking of his two young daughters and whether he would ever see them again, hold them again, tell them how much he loved them again?

Before crossing paths with Stanley Williams, Albert Owens had proudly served in the United States military. He had fathered two beautiful daughters. He had recently moved to Los Angeles to make a better life for him and his family. Stanley Williams took that dream away. He took it away from Albert, his daughters, and his entire family.

The Yang family were the other three Stanley Williams was convicted of killing in March of 1979. Here are the details of that crime from the The LA County District Attorney's response to Williams' petition for clemency:

Once inside the private office, Williams, using his shotgun, killed seventy-six year old Yen-I Yang; Williams also killed Yang's wife, sixty-three year old Tsai-Shai Yang; lastly, Williams killed Yang's daughter, forty-three year old Yee-Chen Lin. Williams then removed the currency from the cash register and fled the location.

Robert Yang was asleep with his wife in their bedroom at the Brookhaven Motel when he was awakened by the sound of somebody breaking down the door to the motel's office. This sound was immediately followed by the sound of his mother or sister screaming, followed by gun shots.

When Robert entered the motel office he found his mother, his sister, and his father had all been shot.  Robert observed that the cash register was open and money was missing.  It was later determined that the robbery of the Brookhaven Motel and the murder of the three members of the Yang family netted Stanley Williams approximately $100.

Robert Yang called 9-1-1. Two deputies from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department arrived within approximately ten minutes.  When the deputies entered the motel they noticed a strong odor of gun powder.  The deputies observed that the door leading from the public entrance into Yang's private living quarters had been forced open and the doorjamb was split open and the woodwork was torn away from the doorjamb.

As they entered, they saw Yen-I Yang lying on a sofa. He was "soaked with blood," "gasping for air, and making gurgling noises."  They also saw the bloodied body of Tsai-Shai Yang. She was making "gurgling noises" and "gasping for air," with "her knees drawn up under her, and her face down on the floor," as if she had been forced to bow down before being killed. Lastly, the deputies found the body of Yee-Chen Lin lying on the hallway floor.

These four murders are why the state of California executed Stanley Williams last night. Governor Schwarzenegger was quite right in justifying his denial for clemency: "Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings there can be no redemption." Just as important as atonement, however, is to remember that the victims and their families deserve society's thoughts and prayers every bit as much as Stanley Williams. The glorification of Tookie by some in the press and many advocates on the left is truly disturbing.

This is not meant to be an argument for the death penalty or the denial of Tookie's clemency, though I support both, but rather an argument that when we as society debate the right and wrongs of government executions and the merits of clemency for convicted killers, we need to always remember who the true victims are.

December 12, 2005

NORAD Commander Speaks on Terrorism & Immigration

As the Commander of NORAD and Northcom, Admiral Timothy Keating is charged with monitoring and defending the airspace of the U.S. & Canada and for protecting the continental United States against any external or internal threat - including terrorism. Not a small job. That is what makes this interview with Keating in yesterday's San Diego Union-Tribune really fascinating. Keating covers a variety of subjects including combat air patrols, Katrina relief and Posse Comitatus. Most relevant to something I've written about recently, however, was this exchange:

The border with Mexico is part of your area of operations. Is there a terrorist component to your menu of issues on the border?

The nexus of terrorism and illegal immigration is a concern. That said, we are unaware, totally, zero, as to knowledge of terrorists using that avenue to infiltrate the United States of America. We're just as concerned about the Canadian border. So it's a two-front issue for us. We work as closely as we can imagine with all manner of domestic, local, state, national law enforcement agencies to maintain full situational awareness. We couple that with overseas intelligence apparatus and agencies so as to formulate as comprehensive a picture as we can of the movement of terrorists throughout the world.

Is terrorist movement across the Mexican border a potential threat?

It's a potential threat but we see no manifestation of the threat into reality. That is to say, we're unaware of any terrorists who are using that method of getting into the United States. We have no indication, zero indication, that the terrorists have used that as a method of entry into the United States.

Despite recent reports and rumors to the contrary, we still have no official indication or documentation that terrorists have crossed into the United States via our Southern border. So says the man directly in charge.  Keep that in mind as you listen to the ongoing debate on immigration reform.

"Is It 2008 Yet?"

That's the message on bumper stickers being sold to eager Democrats this past weekend at the annual meeting of the Florida Democratic party in Orlando.  Three likely 2008 presidential candidates showed up to address the gathering of 2,500 delegates: Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, former Virginia Governor Mark Warner, and former Senator John Edwards.

All three men tried to tap into a theme of a 'national community,' stressing their personal stories and humble upbrings. "None of us got here on ourselves," Edwards said. "What we do together matters. What we do as a national community matters."

According to most press reports, Edwards impressed, "mesmerizing" the group with talk about poverty and Katrina. Edwards received applause for telling the crowd, "we need to make sure Judge Alito does not go to the United States Supreme Court;" and he got a standing ovation for reissuing a mea-culpa on his war vote: "I want to say something very clearly: I was wrong. It was a mistake."

Vilsack got somewhat mixed reviews in his first appearance on a semi-national stage. One reporter said Vilsack drove some delegates to tears with the story of his tough-luck upbrining, but a delegate quoted in the Des Moines register said Vilsack's "delivery was flat." He did win the anti-Bush one-liner of the meeting award, telling the crowd on Friday night just minutes before Reggie Bush won the Heisman trophy in New York: "It'll be the first time a Bush has won when all the votes have been counted." (What good would a meeting of the Florida Democratic party be without at least a couple of reminders of the "stolen" election in 2000?)

Warner continued his reign as the hottest star in the Democratic party, stressing to Democrats his ability to compete in the "reddest of the red states" and to deliver results. So far as I could tell Warner did not mention Iraq, but his stance on the war hardly seemed to dampen the obvious enthusiasm for his candidacy:

"There's a policy piece of this and there's a human piece of this," said Warner, who was mobbed by Democratic activists looking for a handshake or an introduction. "I love human contact. This gives me a chance for people to hopefully get a sense of who I am."

As he ascended a hotel escalator, trailed by people still trying to catch a moment of his time, he quipped: "I'm surprised at how many people know me!"

Warner is fresh off of raising an obscene amount of money and clearly still in the post-Kaine victory honeymoon period. It will be interesting to see how long it lasts.

Two other 2008 notes: Barack Obama gave the keynote address this weekend. Irrespective of his true intentions, Obama will continue to be among the most interesting speculative angles of 2008. Also, Vilsack got a bit of a boost yesterday when the Democratic task force looking at potential changes to the 2008 primary calendar recommended preserving Iowa's first-in-the-nation status.

The Author of Victory

Here is an interesting profile of rising star Peter D. Feaver, author of the Bush administration's National Strategy For Victory in Iraq. Key quote at the end of the article from one of Feaver's colleagues: "He [Feaver] doesn't want anything to mess up his confirmation hearings when he becomes secretary of state."

Pulling the Plug on Fletcher?

Al Cross says Kentucky Republicans are so unhappy with Governor Ernie Fletcher some leaders have begun to whisper about the future:

Fletcher is so weak that key people in his own Republican Party are talking about "pulling the plug" on the first GOP governor in 32 years -- one who was elected by more than 10 percentage points, a record for a Republican in this state, but has largely lost the confidence of party leaders who paved his way into office.

Cross mentions 1st District Rep. Ed Whitfield and Lt. Gov. Steve Pence as possible replacements if Fletcher, whose 32% job approval rating is currently third worst in the nation, decides not to stand for reelection in 2007.

December 10, 2005

The Lieberman Chronicles

Joe Lieberman is giving Democrats fits. Today The New York Times and the Associated Press (The Washington Post, too) take a look at how the Dems are reacting to Lieberman's support of the war. It's not pretty. This passage from the AP article stood out in particular:

Democrats hope a surging anti-war tide in 2006 can help them shatter the GOP's 12-year lock on the House and win back the Senate for the first time since 2001.

"It's not a tidal wave now, but the ingredients are starting to fall into place," said veteran Democratic strategist Tad Devine.

Two problems here: first is the basic assumption that Democrats could ride a "surging anti-war tide" back into control of Congress in 2006. More important for Democrats, however, is the assumption behind the assumption: namely, that to actually get a surging antiwar tide between now and next November things would have to go terribly in Iraq - something Tad Devine says he and his party are hoping for. 

Say what you will about Joe Lieberman, but he isn't playing politics and unlike many other members of his party he understands that we should all be rooting for success in Iraq.

December 09, 2005

Recognizing Friends

Over the course of running RCP the last five and half years I've had the pleasure of emailing back and forth with a number of people on a regular basis, a few of whom have gone on to start their own blogs.  If you're looking for interesting new places to visit in the blogosphrere, here are three I recommend:

Cathi Warren has been a diligent and underpaid proofreader of RCP for more than three years. She's now writing at Life's A Symphony.

Peter Byrnes is a lawyer in Maryland now opining regularly on all things political at Liberty Files

And Nathan Wirtshafter is an attorney who moved to Israel from Los Angeles last year and now writes about Israeli politics and culture at The Western Word.

Enjoy. 

The Strolling Bones

A little variety for Friday afternoon. On the op-ed page of the Chicago Tribune, Cory Franklin says the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is already running out of worthy inductees and is on the verge of becoming a self-parody:

Hip-hop mogul and Def Jam founder Russell Simmons is not happy with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, especially its announcement of the 2006 inductees: Black Sabbath, the Sex Pistols, Blondie, Miles Davis and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Seeing no hip-hop artists honored, Simmons said, "I shudder to think that an institution like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame can continue to exist and ignore hip-hop ... if the trend of mainstream acceptance killing musical genres and cultural phenomenons [sic] continues, hip-hop can stay as far away from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as possible."

He may be on to something. With this year's nominations (that scraping sound you hear is the bottom of the barrel), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is facing an unenviable choice: run out of candidates while your fan base joins AARP or revitalize your business model. But once Grandmaster Flash, Public Enemy and Eminem are inducted, it won't exactly be the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame anymore. And what happens when Mariah Carey and Kelly Clarkson are honored alongside Little Richard (R&R HOF 1986) and the Jimi Hendrix Experience (R&R HOF 1992)? Where's your street cred then?

Good question. Read the rest.

The White Flag

Here's the widely hyped (thanks to Drudge) RNC video ripping Dems for being white-flag waving defeatists. I thought it was hard hitting and a bit over the top, John thought it was well within bounds. If you've got thoughts, send them here.

MORE REACTION:
Suitably Flip
says he "envisioned something much more acerbic."
Matt Margolis thinks the ad is "sure to not only be effective, but it will drive the Democrats crazy."

Rasmussen's Robots Backpedaling?

Since peaking at 48% percent on December 5, Bush's job approval has slid back down to 43% in the latest Rasmussen poll. Bush's job approval in the latest RCP Average (11/28-12/8) stands at 41.2% which is an uptick of about three and a half points from where it stood at the middle of November (37.6%, 11/3-11/13).

RELATED: Mark Blumenthal updates his ongoing analaysis of the recent Bush 'bump.'

December 08, 2005

Forty-Six Busybodies Limit Freedom

Forty-six to one. That was the vote by the Chicago City Council last night in favor of banning smoking in all restraurants and most public places, starting January 16, 2006. On July 1, 2008 the ban will extend to all taverns and restaurant bars.

But wait. Anti-smoking groups are upset over a "loophole" in the ordinance which says that exceptions may be permitted to restaurants that choose to filter the air to make comparable to "ambient outdoor air surrounding the establishment." Filtering air, however, doesn't come cheap:

Current top-of-the-line air scrubbers can cost $6,500 apiece, but several are needed for a large area, and it is unclear if the city will find current equipment acceptable.

Nevertheless, the provision suggesting their use was greeted with optimism Wednesday at places like the Funky Buddha Lounge, 728 W. Grand Ave., where owner Mark Klemen estimates he's spent $150,000 on air purifiers.

"There're going to be people that ante up on these systems," Klemen said of the lounge's 14 filtered air movers, which he says completely recycle the air in the 4,000-square-foot dance club once every 2 minutes.

He spends $2,000 on new filters every month, he added.

The fact that businesses will spend thousands upon thousands of dollars to comply with the new air quality regulations still doesn't satisfy the public health nazis who will settle for nothing less than a total ban:

"We are aware of that [exception for filtering] as a potential problem," said Kevin Tynan, deputy executive director of the American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago. "We are going to be looking at any restaurant that asks for an exemption on that basis."

Last week John Stossel warned we should be most worried about busybodies like Mr. Tynan who seek to limit the rights of others under the guise of "promoting the general welfare." Unfortunately, there are also 46 busybodies on the Chicago City Council who feel the need to write laws protecting us non-smokers from the nuisance of second-hand smoke because apparently we're unable to deal with it ourselves.

Quote of the Day

"What Rice has effectively done is to accept the McCain amendment.  It appears to be a significant shift and a welcome one. I hope somebody remembers to tell [CIA director] Porter Goss to throw away his water board." - Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, responding to Secretary of State Rice's comments yesterday "clarifying" U.S. policy on detainees.

RELATED: Andrew Sullivan responds to Krauthammer article on torture here.

Free Speech For Me, But Not For Thee

Long version: Steve Chapman says the liberal argument to bar military recruiters from campus is a surprising one:

For years they [liberals] have favored using federal power to force universities to do certain things that some schools would rather not do. An institution that accepts federal funds, for example, may not discriminate on the basis of race. Title IX, beloved by feminists, compels colleges getting such aid to offer equal opportunity for female students in sports and other activities -- with the feds defining what constitutes "equal opportunity."

Suppose a school disagrees with these mandates? It will get no sympathy from liberal groups, which invariably reply: Cry me a river. When you accept public subsidies, they announce, you must defer to the public's sense of fairness and equity. If you want to do things your own way, do them with your own money.

Short version: Eric Knudsen, 19-year-old UConn sophomore journalism and social welfare major (a budding "objective reporter" for the MSM, no doubt) explaining why Ann Coulter is not welcome to speak on his campus: "We encourage diverse opinion at UConn, but this is blatant hate speech."

The Agenda Dead Zone

So Democrats are in general disarray. They're scrambling (so far unsuccessfully) to come up with a coherent position on the war and seem content to treat their total lack of a domestic agenda like a movie studio whose next feature doesn't open for nine more months: COMING FALL 2006: WHAT WE STAND FOR AS A PARTY.

Republicans, on the other hand, aren't doing much better. The White House has all it can handle trying to prop up public support for the war in Iraq, and the Republican Congress is bogged down with ethics investigations and squabbles over spending. Big ticket agenda items like Social Security reform have been tossed overboard without being replaced by anything new.  The President recently took a stab at pushing immigration reform and the House just passed another round of tax cuts yesterday, but still there is a distinct sense of a loss of momentum and lack of direction. 

Clearly, part of this is the season. We're at the end of another long, tumultous year.  But it feels like there's more to it than that. David Brooks senses it as well, and today he argues that the conservative movement has just about run out of steam for six reasons:

1) most of the issues that propelled conservatives to power have been addressed.
2) conservatism has been semi-absorbed into the Republican Party making it less creative and energetic.
3) conservative media success has led to intellectual flabbiness.
4) conservatives have lost their governing philosophy. They arrived in D.C. in 1994 with a core purpose of shrinking government and now they've become institutionalized.
5) conservative Republicans have lost touch with their base. Republicans offer almost no policies that benefit white rural and suburban working-class voters making $30,000 to $50,000 a year.
6) conservatives have not effectively addressed the second-generation issues like income inequlity, wage stagnation and social mobility. 

As usual, Brooks is right about a lot of this. For a movement and party that enjoys control over two of the three branches of government there has been a surprising lack of innovation, thought, and effort coming from Republicans recently. Who in Congress has been effectively articulating a vision or agenda to the American people in the last few months? Certainly not Bill Frist in the Senate. Not Tom DeLay or Denny Hastert in the House.

At the White House, George W. Bush's election theme of an "ownership society" was fresh and interesting, but it's been hidden away in a cryogenic freezer somewhere along with its mortally wounded cornerstone (the aforementioned Social Security reform).

Republicans in Congress can only reap the electoral rewards of Democrats' weakness on national security for so long.  At some point they'll need a reinvigorated agenda of their own or risk squandering decades worth of effort - something they already seem to be well on their way to doing.

December 07, 2005

The Dean of Hardball

Chris Matthews is the Howard Dean of cable television talk shows: he starts pontificating and there's just no telling what sort of absurdity is going to come flying out of his mouth. Lately, Matthews has tended to suffer more acute attacks of Deanitis whenever he starts talking about Vice President Cheney.  Last night's discussion of the Cheney's speech at Ft. Drum is a classic example:

MATTHEWS:  I heard—I watched the vice president and I listened attentively to his speech at Fort Drum.  I heard something different than just we are building a democracy over there. 

I heard we are fighting for American influence.  It was a much more traditional position about geopolitics.  We are over there.  And he went through all the cases that they, the terrorists, tried to knock us out of being over there. 

Lebanon in ‘83, Somalia later on, he went through each case and said, what they are trying to do, the Arabs over there, are throw us out of Arabia.  He says we have a right to be there in force; we‘re going to stay there. 

I thought he was staking a claim to the oil fields of Arabia, saying, we‘re staying there, we belong there like we belong in Texas and Wyoming. [emphasis added]

This is wackiness. Matthews was going along fine (I may not agree with his opinion but at least it's within reason) before suddenly succumbing to a Tourette's-like attack of fever-swamp moonbattery.

Matthews went on to talk about Cheney's low poll numbers, saying to Howard Fineman, "I wouldn‘t like to have my job approval of 32 percent." Hey Chris, I'm sure if Cheney was a talk show host he wouldn't want your ratings, either.

Hillary's Sister Souljah Moment

There will be multiple Sister Souljah opportunities for Senator Clinton over the next two years as we head into the next Presidential cycle. But I wonder whether there will be an opportunity as powerful as the one Howard Dean provided this week with his comment that "the idea that we're going to win the war in Iraq is an idea which is just plain wrong." 

In June of 1992 Bill Clinton repudiated black rapper Sister Souljah, comparing her to the white racist David Duke sparking criticism from Jesse Jackson and other leaders of the Democratic party's African-American base. A decade and a half ago the dissolution of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War had removed foreign policy and national security as a major issue in presidential politics leaving crime, welfare, and race as a potential area of vulnerability for Democrats running nationwide. 

Clinton's Sister Souljah moment played perfectly into his campaign strategy to run as a moderate, southern governor from Arkansas and was a calculated message that he would not be beholden to the more extreme wings of the Democratic base.

In 2005 national Democrats' biggest obstacle to winning the Presidency is the left wing of their own party that has an ingrained hostility to the U.S. military, U.S. power and to U.S. interests in the world. And unlike 1992, in today's post-9/11 world national security and defense issues are front and center with the voters when it comes to the Presidency.

Dean's statement that the United States is not going to win in Iraq is a kick in the gut to our men and women overseas fighting in our name. Senator Lieberman continues to be the one of the very few national Democrats who continually steps up to contest this defeatism, but unfortunately for Democrats the reality is Joe Lieberman no longer has any standing in the Democratic Party.

Senator Clinton, to her credit, has been solid in her support to see the U.S. through to victory, though that tightrope is becoming increasingly harder to walk as the anti-war Democrats gain in strength and confidence. Hillary would significantly increase her odds of winning the 2008 general election if she used this opportunity to repudiate Howard Dean and his defeatism and call for his removal as Chairman.

Obviously, a move like this would create a civil war in the Democratic Party and would concurrently downgrade her lock on the Democratic nomination, but it would be a demonstration of leadership that would go a long way to chipping away at the public's mistrust of Democrats when it comes to the nation's defense.

It's good politics for her and it would be the exact right message to send to our troops, the world, and most importantly the enemy.

December 06, 2005

Coming Out of The Antiwar Closet

You'd think it would be news when the chairman of one of the national parties comes out and says publicly that we can't win the war in Iraq. Apparently not. I can't find any mention of Dean's remark on the web sites of The New York Times or The Washington Post - though both give predictable front page treatment to the story that yesterday that a judge declared Ronnie Earle's original indictment of Tom DeLay totally bogus and without merit (Texas Judge Lets Stand 2 of 3 Charges Against DeLay and DeLay's Felony Charge Upheld).

Anyway, it's clear that a growing number of Democrats in the House now feel confident enough to voice the antiwar sentiment that they've done a poor but diligent job of keeping stuffed in the closet over the last two years. War hero and patriot Jack Murtha was the key that opened the closet door.

The first key tried by the Democrats, the haughty, French-looking Massachusetts Senator, who by the way served in Vietnam and who was for the war before being against it, did not work. Nor did the second: the month-long media-inspired spectacle of a mother exploiting the memory of her dead war hero son. But Murtha, despite the utter incoherence he's demonstrated defending his position of late, has given Democrats two things they've never had before: the cover and credibility of a true, living war hero and a shiny new militaryesque sound bite: "strategic redeployment."

Needless to say, the antiwar coming out party of Howard Dean and the House Democratic caucus is causing signficant problems for some Democratic members of the Senate. Poor Hillary is now being "bird dogged" by antiwar activists.  Even hard core progressives with ambitions of leading the country can't bring themselves to get on board. Here's Barack Obama in today's Chicago Tribune:

Sen. Barack Obama said Monday that the Democratic Party was unlikely to reconcile its differences and reach a unified strategy for Iraq, conceding: "The politics and the policy of this may not match perfectly."

As Democrats work to win control of Congress in the 2006 elections, Obama (D-Ill.) said a cacophony of views over the Iraq war threatens to divide the party once again.

"It is arguable that the best politics going into '06 would be a clear succinct message: `Let's bring our troops home,' " Obama said. "It's certainly easier to communicate and I think would probably have some pretty strong resonance with the American people right now, but whether that's the best policy right now, I don't feel comfortable saying it is."

In an interview with the Tribune's editorial board, Obama renewed his opposition to immediately pulling troops from Iraq.

Obama and Clinton are smart enough to at least wait until after the December 15 election in Iraq before deciding whether or not to join the call for "strategic redeployment." At that point the difference between "drawing down forces" and "immediate withdrawal" will be less pronounced and it will be much easier for them to walk through the closet door.

Racism or Common Sense?

Illinois Congressman Mark Kirk recently set off a firestorm with these remarks:

"I'm OK with discrimination against young Arab males from terrorist-producing states. I'm OK with that. I think that when we look at the threat that's out there, young men, between, say, the ages of 18 and 25 from a couple of countries, I believe a certain amount of intense scrutiny should be placed on them."

I can't for the life of me understand what people find racist or illogical about this.  We are not talking about internment camps, we are talking about paying more attention to a segment of the population that currently has the highest statistical probability of being involved in terrorist activity. Forcing young, male Arab-American travelers to submit to the small indignity of a bag search at a slightly higher rate than the rest of us is hardly shredding the Bill of Rights.

But such a concept is too much for people like Chicago Tribune columnist Dawn Turner Trice whose recent argument that profiling won't make us any safer goes beyond sloppy to downright silly:

While we wait for the Al Qaeda hammer to fall, homegrown radical right-wing extremism continues to be dismissed. The fact is, extremists are already on our soil, hunkered down amid their mini-arsenals.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the mantra has been that we need to stop "them" over there so we don't have to fight "them" over here. Well, guess what? "They" are already here, and they are us.

All racial profiling does is gives us a false sense of security. It makes as much sense as taking a closer look at men who happen to be white and have some connection to Oklahoma City.

I'm with Dennis Byrne, who takes up the subject of Congressman Kirk's remarks today in a great column punctuated with this:

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said she was "deeply offended" by Kirk's remarks, and I'm deeply offended that she's deeply offended, so she should apologize to me. She was deeply offended in front of a cheering immigrants' rights group, saying that Kirk's kind of thinking led to the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans. No, this kind of thinking might have spared nearly 3,000 people from gruesome deaths from hijacked airplanes.

RELATED: "To Profile or Not To Profile?

December 05, 2005

Does Howard Dean Speak For His Party?

DNC Chairman Howard Dean says we can't win in Iraq:

(SAN ANTONIO) -- Saying the "idea that we're going to win the war in Iraq is an idea which is just plain wrong," Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean predicted today that the Democratic Party will come together on a proposal to withdraw National Guard and Reserve troops immediately, and all US forces within two years.

Dean made his comments in an interview on WOAI Radio in San Antonio.

"I've seen this before in my life. This is the same situation we had in Vietnam. Everybody then kept saying, 'just another year, just stay the course, we'll have a victory.' Well, we didn't have a victory, and this policy cost the lives of an additional 25,000 troops because we were too stubborn to recognize what was happening."

Dean says the Democratic position on the war is 'coalescing,' and is likely to include several proposals.

"I think we need a strategic redeployment over a period of two years," Dean said. "Bring the 80,000 National Guard and Reserve troops home immediately. They don't belong in a conflict like this anyway..." [snip]

"What we see today is very much like what was going in Watergate," Dean said. "It turns out there is a lot of good evidence that President Bush did not tell the truth when he was asking Congress for the power to go to war. The President said last week that Congress saw the same intelligence that he did in making the decision to go to war, and that is flat out wrong. The President withheld some intelligence from the Senate Intelligence Committee. He withheld the report from the CIA that in fact there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction (in Iraq), that they did not have a nuclear program. They (the White House) selectively gave intelligence to the United States Senate and the United States Congress and got them to give the go ahead to attack these people."

Dean hit all the highlights:  Comparison to Vietnam. Check. Call for immediate withdrawal. Check. Bush lied. Check. Comparison to Watergate. Check. 

In all seriousness, Howard Dean is not some yahoo, he's the national voice of the Democratic party and his comments - saying Iraq is unwinnable and calling for the immediate withdrawal of 80,000 troops less than two weeks before Iraq goes to the polls -  unquestionably furthers the perception that Democrats are the party of cut and run.  This is a horrendous political mistake and it puts even more pressure on Democrats like Clinton, Biden, et al to respond to the question: Does Howard Dean speak for your party?

Quote of the Day II

"It is what it is. I've spent my own money, I had a big message to get out and we did get the message out." - Michael Bloomberg, rationalizing the $77 million he spent to win reelection in New York City.

Quote of the Day

"If he beats this rap in Austin, he will be back as majority leader, because nobody's going to tell him no." - Republican House aide speaking about Tom DeLay.

RELATED: Judge Pat Priest is expected to rule tomorrow on the motion to dismiss the indictment against DeLay. If the case goes to trial DeLay is history as majority leader.

***UPDATE****: Ruling came today. One indictment thrown out, one upheld. Doesn't look good, but very little info to go on at this point. More later.....

Condi's Statement

Here's the text of Secretary of State Rice's remarks this morning responding to questions about reports of secret CIA prison sites in Eastern Europe and the use of European airports to transport terror suspects. It strikes me as remarkably strong and unequivocal:

In conducting such renditions, it is the policy of the United States, and I presume of any other democracies who use this procedure, to comply with its laws and comply with its treaty obligations, including those under the Convention Against Torture. Torture is a term that is defined by law. We rely on our law to govern our operations. The United States does not permit, tolerate, or condone torture under any circumstances. Moreover, in accordance with the policy of this administration:

-- The United States has respected -- and will continue to respect -- the sovereignty of other countries.

-- The United States does not transport, and has not transported, detainees from one country to another for the purpose of interrogation using torture.

-- The United States does not use the airspace or the airports of any country for the purpose of transporting a detainee to a country where he or she will be tortured.

-- The United States has not transported anyone, and will not transport anyone, to a country when we believe he will be tortured. Where appropriate, the United States seeks assurances that transferred persons will not be tortured.

 RELATED: Video of Rice's remarks here. Background on "The Man Behind Rice's Rock Star Image" in the New York Times.

Rumsfeld Spanks Media

I was under the impression Rumsfeld's speech at the SAIS today was about Iraq - and it was. But sandwiched between a recitation of Bush's "stay the course" rhetoric from the other day was a classic Rumsfeldian rebuke of the media's coverage of the war:

The media serves a valuable -- indeed an indispensable -- role in informing our society and holding government to account. But I would submit it is also important for the media to hold itself to account.

We have arrived at a strange time in this country where the worst about America and our military seems to be so quickly taken as truth by the press and reported and spread around the world -- with little or no context or scrutiny -- let alone correction or accountability -- even after the fact. Speed it appears is often the first goal, not accuracy, not context.

Recently there were claims by two Iraqis on a speaking tour that U.S. soldiers threw them in a cage with lions. Their charges were widely reported -- still without substantiation. Not too long ago, there was a false and damaging story about a Koran supposedly flushed down a toilet, and in the riots that followed people were killed. And a recent New York Times editorial implied America’s armed forces -- your armed forces -- use tactics reminiscent of Saddam Hussein.

I understand that there may be great pressure on them to tell a dramatic story. And while it is easy to use a bombing or a terrorist attack to support a belief that Iraq is a failure, that is not the accurate picture. And further, it is not good journalism.

Consider this: You couldn’t tell the full story of Iwo Jima simply by listing the nearly 26,000 American casualties over about 40 days; or explain the importance of Grant’s push to Virginia just by noting the savagery of the battles. So too, in Iraq, it is appropriate to note not only how many Americans have been killed -- and may God bless them and their families -- but what they died for -- or more accurately, what they lived for.

So I suggest to editors and reporters -- whose good intentions I take for granted -- to do some soul searching. To ask: how will history judge -- if it does -- the reporting decades from now when Iraq’s path is settled?

I would urge us all to make every effort to ensure we are telling the whole story. To take a moment for self-reflection and reassessment.

About a year and a half ago I discussed the issue of media coverage in Iraq with Karl Zinsmeister, editor of The American Enterprise Magazine and author of two books on the Iraq war. Zinsmeister recounted a number of factors contributing to the negative coverage coming out of Iraq, but one of the most interesting (and least often recognized) was this:

Part of this impression is a reflection of the fact that so few reporters have any contact with military people or military life anymore. It didn’t used to be the case. It used to be that there was a lot of back-and-forth between the elite colleges that produce our reporters today our top rank reporters and the military. For example, seven hundred Harvard graduates died in World War II. There was not a Chinese wall that separated the world reporters came out of from the world soldiers came out of.

Today, unfortunately, that’s no longer the case. Most of the reporters I met in Iraq don’t have any friends at all who were in the military. They don’t have any Uncle Louie who served. They have no contact with the military whatever. They have very little knowledge of who military people are or what military responsibilities are, and that often leads them to unreasonable expectations and bad reporting.

Read the whole thing

Bush's Curious Numbers

A few interesting highlights from Time's new poll:

> Though President Bush scores his lowest approval rating ever (41%) in the Time poll and gets at or near his worst rankings on nearly every issue, when respondents were asked who they would vote for in a do-over of the 2004 election, Bush loses to Kerry by only a single point (48-47). This probably says more about what a miserable a candidate Kerry was than about the problems of the Democratic party as a whole. Nevertheless it should disturb Democrats that with Bush's numbers so far in the tank there isn't a greater sense of "buyer's remorse" among the public.

> Three out of four (76%) say they are unlikely to change their mind about Bush's job approval in the future, but in a later question 46% say it is likely that Bush can regain higher job approval ratings over the last three years of his presidency.

> On the issue of trustworthiness, 65% say the Bush administration is the same or better than previous administrations, 34% say it is less honest and trustworthy.

> People were asked to rank their impressions of the negative impact of 10 issues on Bush's overall job performance. Response choices included "very negative," "somewhat negative," "negative, but not very or somewhat," "no negative impact," or "no answer/don't know." Here is how the issues rank when viewed by the difference between the percentage of those who feel an issue has had a "very negative" impact (the worst possible rating) and the percentage of those who feel an issue has had "no negative" impact (the best possible rating):

Issue
Very
Negative
No
Negative
Difference
(No-Very)
Iraq
45
33
-12
Gas Prices
45
34
-11
Cronyism
39
32
-7
Deficit
39
33
-6
Economy
35
39
+4
Katrina
37
42
+5
Social Security
32
40
+8
Immigration
24
36
+12
Plamegate
26
41
+15

This reconfirms a lot what we already know: high gas prices and the continued struggle in Iraq are the two issues most negatively affecting Bush's overall job rating. The two other issues with a net-negative impact (cronyism and the deficit) are also issues where the Republican base has recently expressed deep dissatisfaction with the president over Harriet Miers and runaway federal spending. Finally, while the Libby indictment has taken its toll on Cheney (his approval rating in the Time poll has fallen 19 points to 32% since October of last year), it hasn't had much of an impact on Bush's overall job approval numbers.

December 02, 2005

Krauthammer vs. VDH on Torture

Krauthammer argues (quite convincingly, as always) that if we accept there are certain scenarios in which it would be morally permissible to employ cruel and inhumane treatment against terrorists to save innocent lives then the intellectually honest thing to do is to set up a strictly defined regimen to accommodate such potentialities subject to control and review:

However rare the cases, there are circumstances in which, by any rational moral calculus, torture not only would be permissible but would be required (to acquire life-saving information). And once you've established the principle, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, all that's left to haggle about is the price. In the case of torture, that means that the argument is not whether torture is ever permissible, but when--i.e., under what obviously stringent circumstances: how big, how imminent, how preventable the ticking time bomb.

Krauthammer points out that McCain, author of the amendment banning torture under any circumstance, told Newsweek that he'd "do what he had to do" if ever presented with a "ticking time-bomb" scenario. In other words, McCain would break a law written by his own hand and authorize torture to save innocent lives.

Today the estimable Victor Davis Hanson weighs in on the subject. Despite ceding substantial chunks of intellectual ground on why the McCain amendment is a bad idea, VDH argues we should embrace it anyway:

So we might as well admit that by foreswearing the use of torture, we will probably be at a disadvantage in obtaining key information and perhaps endanger American lives here at home. (And, ironically, those who now allege that we are too rough will no doubt decry "faulty intelligence" and "incompetence" should there be another terrorist attack on an American city.) Our restraint will not ensure any better treatment for our own captured soldiers. Nor will our allies or the United Nations appreciate American forbearance. The terrorists themselves will probably treat our magnanimity with disdain, as if we were weak rather than good.

But all that is precisely the risk we must take in supporting the McCain amendment — because it is a public reaffirmation of our country's ideals.

The United States can win this global war without employing torture. That we will not resort to what comes so naturally to Islamic terrorists also defines the nobility of our cause, reminding us that we need not and will not become anything like our enemies.

The statement that we can win the war without resorting to torture is great in the abstract but, I fear, could prove lousy in practice. Like McCain, VDH would probably acknowledge the moral duty to "do what we had to do" to try and save thousands of innocent lives if ever faced with a ticking time-bomb scenario. 

Let's be clear: despite the intellectually ankle-deep platitudes offered by some on the left, no one is arguing that torture should be used widely or even considered except under rare circumstances where we have reasonable certainty to believe the information extracted could help save innocent lives.

The question is whether it would be better to pass a ban now that might improve our public image in the short term but could prove problematic to military and civilian leaders in the future if hundreds or thousands of innocent lives are at stake, or whether we should suffer the consequences of being honest and acknowledging that there are certain scenarios under which we are willing to "do what we have to do" to protect innocent American citizens. It is by no means an easy question.

The Problem With Identity Politics

Blogger Glenn Greenwald is furious at CNN.com for running a story that focuses on the racial identity of Nia Gill, one of the people rumored to be on Jon Corzine's shortlist to replace him in the United States Senate.  Greenwald writes:

Isn't it unavoidably apparent how this obsession with seeing individuals like Gill as nothing more than an embodiment of her race does more to undermine their achievements, and does more to bolster odious racial stereotypes, than almost anything else? If Gill is appointed by Corzine, she will now arrive in the U.S. Senate with the albatross around her neck -- placed there by articles like this one from CNN -- that she was only appointed because she's black, not because she's smart, accomplished or talented. This reductionist, supposedly well-intentioned focus on a person's race to explain away virtually everything they achieve is somehow acceptable and, in some circles, even obligatory, despite its obviously destructive impact on the individual whose accomplishments are condescendingly dismissed in this way. [snip]

This sort of unseemly race-obsession is seen as constituting progress in many quarters, but it's exceedingly difficult to see how it can be reasonably viewed that way.

What Greenwald alludes to, but doesn't address directly, is that race-obsessed identity politics is the province of the modern "progressive" movement. It's a political Frankenstein created by liberal thought, the disfigured result of good intentions taken to extremes: equal opportunity to strict race-based quotas, common sense courtesy and sensitivity to speech codes and political correctness, pride of heritage to hyphenated, hypersensitive multiculti.

How ironic is it, for example, that the story Greenwald lambastes CNN for is actually an AP story authored by Donna De La Cruz? Or that earlier this week USA Today columnist DeWayne Wickham wrote that Corzine needed to pick Gill to signal a commitment to African-American Democrats? Or that the vicious attacks on Michael Steele by Democrats have nothing to do with his policy positions or qualifications?

Unfortunately, identity politics has permeated every aspect of our society. You can find subtle forms of it in the most unlikely places. A couple of weeks ago I tuned into the Wisconsin Badgers football game. Barry Alvarez, the coach who rescued the Wisconsin footbal program and turned it into a national powerhouse, is retiring this year after leading the team for sixteen seasons. My wife graduated from UW-Madison so I've been watching the Badgers for years, but until the announcer said Alvarez had been named to a list of the "most influential Hispanics in America" his ethnicity had never once occurred to me.

There's nothing wrong with recognizing that Barry Alvarez happens to be Hispanic in addition to being a great football coach - though we'll certainly never achieve a colorblind society (if such a thing exists) if we're constantly being reminded what color everyone is. The harm comes when you recognize ethnicity and race above the individual and their accomplishments, which was the point of Greenwald's beef with the Gill story to begin with.

December 01, 2005

After Castro in Cuba

There's a fascinating debate in the letters pages of the Miami Herald set off by this November 15 article reporting the CIA has concluded 79-year old Fidel Castro suffers from Parkinson's disease. The agency is warning U.S. policymakers about potential political trouble in Cuba caused by Castro's deteriorating health.

Tim Ashby, former senior Commerce Department official in the Reagan & Bush 41 administrations and now research associate at the UM's Institute for Cuban Studies, responded to the article with this:

The Cuban government is actively planning for the transition to a regime nominally headed by Raul Castro. He and other key officials are keenly aware that Fidel Castro's departure will immediately raise the Cuban people's expectations for better economic conditions, which could lead to a popular uprising if left unfulfilled for long.

To avoid political chaos and preserve its privileges, the successor regime is expected to quickly liberalize the Cuban economy, adopting an authoritarian market approach similar to the Chinese and Vietnamese models. Realizing the need for large-scale foreign direct investment to provide jobs and rebuild Cuba's decrepit infrastructure, the new government will probably make an early overture to the United States for normalization of relations.

Today Nicholas Shumaker, a television and news documentary producer who worked in Cuba between 2002 and 2005, says different:

Raul Castro might be the successor, possibly only in name but potentially for more. The past 10 years, though, have propped up a number of qualified successors who might usurp what at one time was seen as a no-brainer.

Ashby's presumption that the future of Cuba under Raul Castro will see an immediate economic liberalization is laughable. Of the two brothers, history has shown Raul Castro to be more Marxist and authoritarian than his eldest brother. Additionally, recent measures in Havana seem to contradict Ashby's claims: The hefty tax levied on U.S. dollars, the increase of workers' wages, the crackdown on black market trade and on the ''new'' rich, and the spooning between Fidel Castro and Venezulean President Hugo Chavez forecasts something other than a tsunami of liberalization and free capitalism.

I'm certainly not an expert but I'd tend to side with Shumaker on this one. As much as everyone in America would love to see a free market liberalization in Cuba after Castro is gone, it seems to me an overly optimistic expectation - especially now with Chavez in the picture using Venezuela's oil wealth to establish an anti-American sphere of influence in Latin America, the pressure on Cuba to make economic reforms is now less than it would be otherwise.

The Willie Pete Debate

Yesterday the Los Angeles Times carried an op-ed by John Pike, Director of Globalsecurity.org, deconstructing the overblown claims about the U.S.'s use of white phosphorus in Fallujah. Also, Kenneth Anderson, Professor of international law at American University and author of the Law of War and Just War Theory Blog, emailed to point out a similar debunking by Anthony Dworkin, editor of the human rights web site CrimesofWar.org. Bottom line: WP is not a chemical weapon, it has been used by various militaries over a long period of time, and U.S. forces employed WP in  Fallujah legally.  None of this, however, has stopped it from becoming a public relations disaster for the U.S. military.

As if to underscore that point, today the Los Angeles Times runs a rebuttal to Pike by Jonathan Tucker, senior fellow at the Monterey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies, who blows by the facts to claim that the U.S. military's use of a legal, effective weapon for killing bad guys and protecting coalition troops represents "the loss of a moral compass by this administration, which has turned the United States into a rogue state in the eyes of the world."

Where Can I Get Myself One Of These?

The perfect Christmas gift for heavy coffee drinkers:
 
 
Ronald Kotulak of the Chicago Tribune explains why caffeine works.

MoDo's New Low

Maureen Dowd lowered the bar for intellectual seriousness again yesterday with her rant on Vice President Cheney:

Things had been going so smoothly. The global torture franchise was up and running. Halliburton contracts were flowing. Tax cuts were sailing through. Oil companies were raking it in. Alaska drilling was thrillingly close. The courts were defending his executive privilege on energy policy, and people were still buying all that smoke about Saddam's being responsible for 9/11, and that drivel about how we're fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here. Everything was groovy.

Is it coincidence that Dowd's name hasn't appeared among the top ten searches on Technorati either yesterday or today - something that has become a standard occurrence when one of the fire-walled columnists at the Times writes a fresh piece?