Thursday, November 30, 2006



Here's Chuck Todd (via Andrew Sullivan) writing about the difficulties Hillary Clinton would face in a primary. The argument seems right to me, but that's not what annoyed me. This passage annoyed me:

Iraq: She's been far more critical of the war recently, but fundamentally she's still a hawk, and the Democratic primary electorate (especially in Iowa) is full of doves.

I propose that the words "hawk" and "dove" be removed from the English language and replaced with the following:

Iraq: She's been far more critical of the war recently, but fundamentally she's still a hawk someone who prefers starting wars to solve foreign policy problems, and the Democratic primary electorate (especially in Iowa) is full of doves people who are skeptical of the ability of wars to solve foreign policy problems.



The Corner’s Andrew McCarthy grows restless under the despotic yoke of the First Amendment. Praising the Gingrich theory that the First Amendment is dangerous pre-9/11 thinking, he writes:

Captain Ed says, “The remedy for bad speech is more speech.” This, effectively, is the Holmesian “marketplace of ideas” trope that is just an excuse for not thinking. If someone’s bad speech is a fatwa that sets a WMD attack in motion, my ability to speak out against the fatwa will be cold comfort to the dead. The First Amendment does not countenance commands to murder, and Speaker Gingrich is entirely correct to challenge us to think through these principles.

It’s more than a little ridiculous that I feel compelled to defend the First Amendment (tomorrow – “Why Water is Good: A Reply to Ledeen”), but there are a couple of points that need to be made.

First, apart from the merits, this type of argument annoys me to no end. It’s not even an argument — it’s more like emotional blackmail. The “logic” here is that the policy-in-question is justified if it prevents a single extreme hypothetical from taking place. These types of debate aren't really about the merits of the policy itself, but about whether you oppose the awful thing cited to support it (e.g., murder, child molesting, terrorist attack, etc.). The point though is that you can’t justify a policy just because it might stop a bad thing from happening. Hell, locking up or killing every human on earth would limit terrorism too but that’s not really a policy we should embrace. Michael Ledeen: Maybe we should.

You see this type of argument raise its irritating head in many contexts. Iraq, for instance, was not a debate about the costs and benefits of invading a volatile, ethnically-riven nation, but about whether you were for or against America getting nuclear bombed. Similarly, the debate over habeas corpus descended into a referendum on being for or against preventing a terrorist attack. It’s a maddening style of argument and it should be called out more often.

But putting that aside, McCarthy is wrong on the merits too. The Holmesian “marketplace” view — which Captain Ed captures pretty well — is actually an antidote to terrorism. The idea here is that robust speech protections allow grievances and frustrations to be expressed through more socially productive channels — i.e., the protections act as a release on the pressure cooker.

That’s why, generally speaking, open Western-style democracies have greater stability and less domestic terrorism. The types of pressures and grievances that ultimately evolve into violent resistance are expressed (and “released”) freely in the public sphere (whether by word or by protest). Maybe that’s why — despite Ashcroft’s (aka, Soaring Eagle’s) best attempts — the government has yet to find an operative terrorist “cell” among the domestic Muslim population.

When these types of freedoms are restricted, however, the opposition often turns to violence. Western European Muslims, for instance, face more civil liberty restrictions than American Muslims (e.g., the French scarf ban controversy). Of course, it’s rare that a given regime or nation restricts speech and only speech. Instead, speech restrictions are usually tied in with other types of limits on civil liberties, often in the context of occupations that are deemed illegitimate (e.g, Israel-Palestine, Russia-Chechnya). And personally, I think the types of speech restrictions you see in places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and China are ultimately going to blowback on the ruling regimes. For instance, by not letting groups like the Muslim Brotherhood express and “release” their grievances, Egypt is only turning up the “pressure cooker” that will ultimately destabilize its regime.

In short, the First Amendment is a pretty good idea. We should keep it around.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006



I just looked over the "Hadley memo." If we're seriously relying on this proposal for salvaging Iraq, then we've got bigger problems than I thought:

If it is Maliki’s assessment that he does not have the capability — politically or militarily — to take the steps outlined above, we will need to work with him to augment his capabilities. We could do so in two ways. First, we could help him form a new political base among moderate politicians from Sunni, Shia, Kurdish and other communities. Ideally, this base would constitute a new parliamentary bloc that would free Maliki from his current narrow reliance on Shia actors. (This bloc would not require a new election, but would rather involve a realignment of political actors within the Parliament). In its creation, Maliki would need to be willing to risk alienating some of his Shia political base and may need to get the approval of Ayatollah Sistani for actions that could split the Shia politically.

This strikes me as similar to attempting to undermine the Confederacy by creating a new political base for Jefferson Davis consisting of slaves and Massachusetts Republicans.



In reading over some of the conservative praise for Pelosi's rejection of Hastings, I'm beginning to wonder if Pelosi's early "defeat" was actually the best possible way to begin her reign. After all, the storyline post-Murtha was that Pelosi was incompetent, not ready for prime time, same as the old boss, etc. But in painting that picture, the pundits created very low expectations for her. And in politics, managing the expectations game is crucial.

The point is that, because giddy pundits set the bar so low for her so early, the competent things she does post-Murtha seem even more strong and competent than they otherwise would.



Ladies and gentlemen, our President:

There's a lot of sectarian violence taking place, fomented, in my opinion, because of these attacks by al Qaeda, causing people to seek reprisal. And we will work with the Maliki government to defeat these elements.

It’s fairly revealing of where we find ourselves these days when the best we can hope for is that our President is telling a bald-faced lie. But to be honest, I found the following passage in the NYT article describing Bush’s speech even more frightening:
“We’ll continue to be flexible, and we will make the changes necessary to succeed,” he said in Riga. “But there’s one thing I’m not going to do: I’m not going to pull the troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete.”

In part, Mr. Bush is laying the foundation to push back against a high-level bipartisan commission, which has been meeting in Washington behind closed doors to review Iraq strategy.

One thing that people should understand is that Bush may very well flatly ignore the recommendations of the Fabulous Baker Boys — particularly if the true purpose of the Baker Boys is not to provide political cover for Bush’s exit, but to exert pressure on him to exit. I think Cheney & Pals, correctly, see the Baker Commission as a stab in the back from rival power centers within the GOP DC establishment. (Though one man’s “stab in the back” is another man’s “remove the drunk from the driver’s seat.”).

Although it’s hard to imagine, what’s scary about the last two years of Bush/Cheney in Iraq is that they may increasingly adopt a “to hell with them all attitude.” That is, they may refuse to adopt consensus recommendations (e.g., start drawing down troops, talking to Iran) out of pure spite. (Or even worse, out of some immune-to-reality messianic perception that the Hegelian winds they unleashed will ultimately vindicate them.)

An analogy of what I’m talking about comes from college football. I suspect few of you have had the blessing of watching Kentucky football over the years. But roughly 10 years ago, Kentucky’s coach was Bill Curry (former Alabama coach, a/k/a/ run-run-pass-punt Curry). During the last year of his miserable tenure, UK announced mid-year that Curry would be fired at the end of the season (making him a lame duck for half the year).

That same year, Tim Couch was a freshman quarterback. Couch is the best quarterback in the history of the state and was very highly-touted. It was a huge deal for UK to land him. The brilliant Curry, however, didn’t play him enough and got a lot of heat for it. Curry instead played upper-classman Billy Jack Haskins, who was likeable and hard-working but should have been Couch’s back-up. Prior to being fired, Curry reluctantly played Couch because of the pressure put upon him. But the moment the university announced that he would be fired, Curry just said “to hell with it” and played Haskins instead.

The point here is that once Curry was freed from accountability, he acted out of spite regardless of how it affected the team or the program more generally.

I get a similar vibe from Bush. It’s very possible that we’re going to be doing the same damn thing in Iraq for the next two years. He certainly doesn’t appear to be considering any radical policy shifts. In fact, he seems to be bracing to resist such efforts. And it’s pretty clear he’s not all that worried about the well-being of the troops. And if he does worry about them privately, his public actions and policies (which are all that matters) don’t reflect that concern. Lincoln, by contrast, apparently started devouring books on battle strategy out of frustrations with his generals.

And that’s why Woodward’s infamous “Barney” story is so scary:

And Woodward says that no matter what has occurred in Iraq, Mr. Bush does not welcome any pessimistic assessments from his aides, because he’s sure that his war has Iraq and America on the right path.

”Late last year he had key Republicans up to the White House to talk about the war. And said, ‘I will not withdraw even if Laura and Barney are the only ones supporting me.’ Barney is his dog,” Woodward says.

It’s a mixture of obliviousness to reality, unquestioning (or overcompensating) confidence in his correctness, and stubbornness. Of course, that mix has been with us for some time, but the problem is that there are fewer things to “check” those tendencies these days.

If you think about it, Bush isn’t really accountable to anyone. He’s not up for re-election. The last mid-term election of his tenure is over. Critically, there is no hand-picked heir to keep him in line (e.g., Clinton and Gore, Reagan and Bush). The GOP has lost Congress, and the White House is not as close with the new leadership. The only thing Bush has left is his legacy — and a radical shift in Iraq would be an admission that his signature policy is failing, and that his administration is therefore a failure.

All of this is a way of saying that Bush no longer internalizes the costs of continuing failure in Iraq. Other people do. The troops and their families (and the Iraqi public) always have. And the GOP will too, but not Bush. He and his people are gone in two years — with war crimes immunity to boot.

And so I suppose the real legacy of George Bush is that he will be known as a sort of anti-Christ. Not “The Anti-Christ,” but someone who is the opposite of Christ. After all, the lesson they taught me in Sunday School was that Jesus took the sins of the world upon himself and suffered for everyone else’s sake. Bush, by contrast, casts his own sins upon the world and makes everyone suffer for his sake.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006



Ok - I got enough vehement comments from people who generally know what they're talking about (and Dr. Biobrain) that I'm willing to consider reconsidering my view of film. The main critique was that I hadn't been watching the right movies, and that may well be true.

So, I open the floor to recommendations of how I can jump into this field in a somewhat systematic way. I know there were some scattered recommendations in the thread below, but I'm looking for books, directors, film studies syllabi, etc. - again, systematic is the key. For instance, I think focusing on directors is a better approach than scattershot movie recommendations, but I'll leave that to the collective wisdom of the Internets.



The Great Trilogy of hipster yuppie hobbies is film, music, and fiction. To be a hipster yuppie, you generally need – at minimum – to be proficient in one and conversant in another. As for me – a longtime aspiring hipster yuppie – it’s really the lack of proficiency in any of these (among other things) that keeps me from being a true hipster yuppie. I consider myself a “conversant” in music (indie, of course – Le Tigre, for instance, awesome) and a “strong conversant” in fiction, but I’m a total idiot about film.

And for years, I harbored the guilt and shame of my flaccid film apathy. Yes, I learned many of the bigshot directors’ names and dropped them as necessary, but I always felt empty inside when I did so. But after much self-flagellation, I realized one day that the problem isn’t me, the problem is film. Film, I concluded, is an overrated genre and it sucks. And that made me feel better. But just recently, I read a film review in the NY Review of Books on Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette that made me reconsider. Maybe it’s not that film itself is an inherently inferior art form, maybe it’s just rarely done well.

But first, my general gripe with film. The problem with film is that it gives the audience too little and too much at the same time. On the “too little” front, films generally aren’t capable of exploring and expressing the depths of character and inner turmoils that books do. Voice-overs and dialogue just can’t probe as deeply as the written word.

I suppose you could make the same critique of theater, but I think the “liveness” of the theater – i.e., being physically present with the actors – distinguishes it. Specifically, liveness allows actors to convey emotions that resonate more deeply with the audience. After all, a film is simply a montage of clips and takes. Three minutes of movie dialogue are the highlights of dozens of takes. Editors are of course very adept at making it all appear seamless, but I think the assembled end product isn't capable of striking you at the same emotional level as theater. (On an aside, that's why I like the really long, uninterrupted takes in films like Reservoir Dogs and Boogie Nights).

The other problem is that films give you “too much.” Think about books. Yes, it’s true that they convey more information, but they also require a lot more of the reader. All the images and characters are supplied actively by you. Films, by contrast, do much of the imaginative work for you by giving you the director’s visual images. For instance, if you read a book after seeing the movie, I suspect the mental images jumping out in your mind are the ones from the movie. That’s why I will never watch the new version of All the King’s Men (much as I love Sean Penn). I will slit my own wrists before I let Jude Law be my mental image of Jack Burden.

The same is true for paintings. Yes, they are purely visual, but they invite – indeed, demand – active thinking. Like an exorcist, great paintings summon up a strange wonderful brew of perceptions and ideas and emotions from within you.

And that brings me to Sofia Coppola. I really really liked Lost in Translation, but could never put my finger on why I liked it so much. But the following passage in the NY Review nails it:

The film [The Virgin Suicides – Coppola’s first] itself immediately established what can now be seen as [her] signature style: a preference for visual mood-setting over narrative vigor as a means of establishing character and themes, a distinctive and sometimes almost surreal use of certain effects (surprising interruptions; extreme, almost intrusive close-ups; evocative use of slow motion)[.]

This distrust of language and pre-occupation with the limits of what can be communicated in words—the film [Lost in Translation] ends, famously, with Bob whispering something into a tearful Charlotte's ear as he takes his leave of her; we never learn what it is he says, although we see her reacting to it—is compensated for by a powerfully evocative visual style already much evolved from that of The Virgin Suicides. Feelings of displacement, loneliness, and emotional disconnectedness are moodily conveyed by Coppola's camera: of particular note (not least because they reappear in Marie Antoinette) are jumbled shots of local scenery passing by in an artistic but incomprehensible blur, as if the eye of the observing subject—the frightened young woman —can't quite absorb it all.

These repeated shots of Tokyo skyscrapers whizzing frenetically, confusingly by, the garishly colored neon advertisements and traffic signs flashing their incomprehensible (to Charlotte) seductions and warnings, are beautifully balanced by moments of almost poetic stillness that are equally eloquent in their ability to tell us, even if she cannot, what the heroine is thinking. There is a remarkable scene in which Charlotte, suspecting her husband of infidelity with the vacuous film star he's photographing, flees the crush of Tokyo and silently observes a traditional wedding procession in Kyoto. The slow-motion progression of the bridal party, immaculate in its traditional makeup and dress, and the seemingly random but somehow pointed way that the camera has of lingering in close-up on a hand, a delicately rouged cheek, or an eyelid, tell you more about the tension between the life that Charlotte wants and the life that she's got right now than a long monologue could ever do.

I suppose this is obvious to film gurus, but I think Coppola illustrates that the essence of great film is the visual. Yes, I know all film aspires to portray emotions, etc., visually (like the rain after a break-up), but that’s not really what makes film art. I would enjoy film better (i.e., as art) if filmmakers more clearly recognized the nature (i.e., the opportunities and limitations) of their “canvas.” The advantage that film-as-medium provides is the ability to exploit the visual. Done poorly, the visuals simply transform the audience into passive slobberers. But done correctly, the visuals perform a function much like paintings in that they inspire active, contemplative thinking. That’s what makes Lost in Translation such a good film. You don’t just absorb it. The visuals are such that they invite you to actively think and feel.

But even more maddening than mindless or trite visuals (again, rain after a break-up) is dialogue. In fact, the reason why I hate 99.99% of the movies I see is over-reliance on dialogue to move the narrative. Trying to express deep thoughts and ideas within the linguistic confines of the dialogue alone almost never works. And for that reason, mindless dialogue is just a minefield of irritations for me – e.g., the themes are too heavy-handed, three-dimensions are imposed upon people, etc. With the exception of Quentin Tarantino movies, I think that the number of words in a movie is inversely proportional to its quality. Coppola gets it.

So I’m not sure where I stand. I still just can’t really get into film, but I will at least acknowledge that it’s capable of being a higher art form at times. But it only rarely succeeds, I think. And if I”m right, maybe that supports the view that film is an inferior art medium compared to things like music, literature, and painting. Anyway, based on blog-reader demographics, I suspect that many of you are film buffs. So feel free to explain why film is actually worthy of all the artistic cred it gets. In other words, what exactly do you like better about this medium as compared to other mediums? (“Media” is an obnoxious plural in this context, so I use “mediums.”)

Monday, November 27, 2006



In catching up on the news, I see that the blogosphere has lost the services of the Bull Moose, who signed on to be the communications guy for Lieberman. I don't know about you, but if Lieberman had explained that his victory would lead to the removal of Wittmann from the blogosphere, I would have put a Connecticut for Lieberman bumper sticker on my car.

Sunday, November 26, 2006



I should be back on a regular schedule starting tonight. I appreciate all the emails and kind comments. The bottom line is that a family member had a serious stroke, and so that's where I've been the past week. I don't plan on discussing it anymore here - I just didn't want to disappear for a week without any explanation. So thanks again to everyone.

Sunday, November 19, 2006



I generally avoid dragging my personal life on to the blog. But a family medical issue has come up that demands my full attention right now. I'll explain more later, but it may be several days before I post again. I appreciate your patience. If it's too long a period, I'll try to recruit a guest writer in my absence.

Thursday, November 16, 2006



I'm busy with work, but I do want to call upon the collective wisdom of the Internets to help with a question that's been nagging me. What's the proper usage of the words "Shia" and "Shiite."

My understanding is that "Shia" is a collective noun, whereas "Shiite" is an adjective. So, it's incorrect to say things like "Shiites" or "Shias" or "the Shia militias." Is that right? And while we're at it, should I be using an apostrophe in "Shi'a," or is "Shia" good enough?

And one last thing that I do know. For the many pundits who read this blog, "Iraq" is pronounced ee-ROCK, not EYE-rack - unless there's some alternate pronunciation I don't know about.



No great insights here, but I do think it was a good outcome for the Dems. For one, and as I mentioned earlier, I'm inherently skeptical of over-centralized leadership because it often leads to bad decisions. Second, Murtha would have given us a steady stream of gaffes and stupid statements over the next two years. Finally, and oddly enough, the attacks on Murtha (particularly from right-wing pundits) have the effect of making Hoyer look better than he is. What I mean is that it now appears as though the Dems picked a cleaner, reform-minded leader, rather than a K Street guy. And, it will put pressure on Hoyer (who effectively and shrewdly portrayed Murtha as dirty) to actually become more pro-reform. And on that note, the fact that Hoyer can play this game so well is itself a reason why he should be in the leadership.

Yes, it looks like an embarrassment to Pelosi now, but it's a lot better than a two-year running embarrassment.



It’s hard for me to express just how ridiculous the Baker Commission is. The Kinsley column captures the absurdity nicely, but the mere fact that it exists is itself a reflection of cowardice and dysfunction. It’s a sign of dysfunction because fact-gathering from experts about the war is something that our executive branch should be doing — and should have done in the first place. And if the White House and/or Congress need the Fabulous Baker Boys to give them political cover, well, that’s we call cowardice.

The one redeeming characteristic of the Baker Boys Commission is that it’s like crack for those of us who enjoy DC conspiracy theories and Kabuki dances. And so I’ve been trying to figure out what’s really going on here. The central question seems to be this — is the Baker Commission intended to provide political cover for the White House, or is it a subtle (though frontal) assault on it? In other words, is Baker doing the White House's bidding, or has he been sent to put irresistible pressure upon it to change?

Under one view, the Baker Commission is an attempt by Congress and certain DC powers-that-be to get us out of this mess. According to this article, the impetus came from Rep. Wolf and allies on the Hill, and the White House only reluctantly agreed. Under this view, Baker’s secret allies are betting that the White House won’t be able to resist (politically) the Commission’s recommendations. And because Congress is too cowardly to do it, the Commission will give Congress (particularly the GOP Caucus) political cover to change the course. So that’s one type of Kabuki.

Under another view, it’s actually the White House that is seeking political cover. Under this view, the White House can’t come out and start advocating talks with Iran and phased withdrawals. So, it brings on Baker, who dutifully performs a Kabuki dance, which provides the White House with the necessary cover to change course.

Frankly, though, I’m skeptical of this latter view. For one, the White House apparently resisted its creation. Second, it’s Poppy’s people and Bush 43 doesn’t like them. But third, and most interestingly, it appears that Bush has just created his own new rival Wise Men Commission. That sounds like he’s resisting the Baker Boys (or at least keeping that option open).

But then again, maybe this too is Kabuki. After all, if the Baker Commission really is Kabuki for the White House, then the best thing for the White House to do is to appear as if they’re hostile to it.

Ugh, too much conspiracy theorizing for one day. Probably the simplest answer is the right one. Republicans were screaming behind the scenes for some political cover to seek change. And they — and Poppy — talked the reluctant boy into accepting it. Only now, however, it looks like the boy may be having second thoughts. Sweet dreams, Baghdad.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

THE BAKER INTERVIEW - A Legal Fiction Exclusive 


Boy, it’s a good day to be a Legal Fiction reader. We’ve got a great post for you tonight. First, through our extensive Washington connections, we’ve managed to get an interview with the James Baker, current Chairman of the Iraq Study Group, which is a collection of Middle East policy experts such as Ed Meese and Vernon Jordan. Second, we’re bringing you the interview [dramatic chord] from the future.

November 15, 2007 – Interview with James Baker

LF: Welcome Secretary Baker. It’s an honor to have you.

Baker: Thank you. I’m a big fan of your blog.

LF: It’s been a little under a year since the Iraq Study Group released its recommendations. Shortly after it did, a wave of peace and stability swept across Iraq. Iraq became a stable, secular democracy within months. Fountains of ponies began flowing from the oil wells. And Israel gave back the West Bank as a Christmas present, ushering in a newfound era of Israeli-Palestinian harmony.

Baker: Yes, it worked out much better than we could have possibly expected.

LF: And that’s what I want to talk you about. What was your secret?

Baker: You mean other than the depths of Middle East policy expertise on the panel?

: Besides that.

Baker: Well, it’s simple really. Bill Kristol.

: Interesting. I wasn’t aware you interviewed him.

Baker: We didn’t.

LF: Did he submit a report to the panel?

Baker: No, not at all.

LF: Well then, how did Bill Kristol lead to what Glenn Reynolds dubbed the “Pony Spring”?

Baker: Well, we gathered up all his articles, op-ed pieces, and TV transcripts over the past 5 years and read them.

LF: What insights did Kristol’s work provide?

Baker: None.

LF: I’m sorry, I thought you said his writings and transcripts were instrumental to the Pony Spring.

Baker: They were.

LF: Could you elaborate for our viewers?

Baker: As you know, we interviewed just about every knowledgeable person on the Middle East that we could find. After a few of these interviews, we began noticing that Bill Kristol’s policy recommendations seemed to contradict some of the experts’ recommendations.

LF: In what way?

Baker: Our mathematicians concluded that there was a constant variance – sort of like Einstein’s cosmological constant – between Kristol’s recommendations and the experts’ recommendations. Generally, the more expertise a given expert had, the more that Kristol’s recommendations contradicted that expert.

LF: In essence, you’re saying that Kristol’s contradiction of the expert was inversely proportional to the expert’s level of expertise.

Baker: Precisely. You’re a smart guy.

LF: Well, I am a TimesSelect subscriber.

Baker: I can tell. Anyway, what we finally concluded was that the best course for Iraq was simply to do the opposite of whatever Bill Kristol recommended. Strangely enough, Jordan had the idea – he had been watching a Seinfeld episode during our meeting.

LF: Newman!

Baker: So that’s what we did. And it led to the Pony Spring.

LF: Could you give our readers some specific examples of how you used Kristol’s writings?

Baker: I’ll give you four. First, Kristol said we should send in 50,000 more troops. So, we recommended withdrawing 50,000 troops. Second, Kristol said we should invade Iran, so we recommended full diplomatic recognition. Third, Kristol said we should invade Syria, so we recommended bilateral talks with them. Finally, Kristol said we should ignore the peace process and the Palestinians more generally. So, we re-tripled our efforts for a meaningful two-state solution.

LF: And then what happened?

Baker: Almost immediately, ponies appeared. And it just sort of snowballed from there.

LF: Who knew. The fate of the stability of the Middle East depended on Bill Kristol’s writings.

Baker: It’s very similar to the way that future peace depended on the musical harmony of Bill & Ted’s Wyld Stallions.

LF: Be excellent to each other.

Baker: Words to live by.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006




Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will be the Senate Minority Leader, and a prime target when he runs for reelection in 2008.

Um, no he won't. I grew up in Kentucky and keep an eye on things. For one, the Democratic Party is in absolute shambles and there's no one on the bench who can run a viable state-wide campaign. Second, even if there were, Kentucky Democrats are scared to death of McConnell because he's ruined the careers of everyone who has run against him.

Ex-Governor Patton was the only viable candidate but he developed a bad case of the "open zippers" if you catch my drift.

[UPDATE: From the email bag:

[G]iven your famed nose for the predicting the political winds, I've put $100 on McConnell losing in 2008[.]

Ah, cold reality - she cuts like a knife.

EARMARKS - Huh! Good God Y'all! - What Are They Good For? 


I’ve never gotten all that worked up about earmarks, or the great Obama-Coburn bill. My view has always been that it’s much ado about nothing given that earmarks are a drop in the bucket of the federal budget. More precisely, I had thought that staking out anti-earmark positions deludes the public into thinking legislators actually oppose “big government.” To me, opposing earmarks was roughly similar to ordering a Diet Coke at the same time you scarf down a triple Quarter Pounder and a side of fried jelly. Also, as someone who grew up in a rural area, I have a perhaps irrational sympathy toward projects that funnel money and jobs into areas where capital dare not go.

But, I was watching mild-mannered Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ) on Bill Maher last Friday and he convinced me that I was wrong. You can see the YouTube excerpt here (watch the first minute though because it's funny). Flake's response was that, even assuming that earmarks don’t add up to much, they give rise to corruption and bad legislation in other contexts. In other words, it’s leverage-creating bribery. For instance, if you want the median legislator to support a bad bill, you stick an earmark in and he or she will defend it to the death. It’s also another chip that the leadership can hold over the rank-and-file.

That’s a strong argument to me – a persuasive one even. By reining in the pork, it’s not so much that you save money and usher in the fantasy world of Grover Norquist – fields of naked Grover Norquists frolicking in sunflower beds with dollar bills beaded with morning dew while the face of Reagan shines down from above and bloated corpses float down the Lower Ninth Ward. It’s that you make better legislation by removing incentives to support bad legislation.

And assuming transparency will work to rein this stuff in (a key assumption of Coburn-Obama), why not apply it more broadly to Congress? Specifically, I’m wondering whether it makes sense to apply more rigorous administrative-law-style ex parte rules to meetings with Congress or Congressional staff. The idea would be to force all parties who meet with legislators and staffers to file a public “ex parte” notice. For example, in FCC practice, administrative regulations require you to file a formal notice within 24 hours every time you meet with Commission staff. The notice must include information about when you met, who was there, and what you talked about. In the communications world, each FCC matter is generally given a docket number and so anyone can simply look up the docket number and see who met with whom and about what.

Obviously, this is still in the “big idea” stage and there would be a number of kinks to work out. Doug Feith: Mm-mm, that’s just how I like it. For instance, congressional matters don’t fit neatly into “dockets.” So, the recorded visits would probably need to be organized by office or by committee rather than by subject matter. Also, phone calls and emails would need to be excluded because congressional offices get about, oh, two million calls a day (generally from elderly people who watch C-Span all day and get pissed off about something that 23-year-old, hungover, recent-college grads are forced to listen to). For that reason, public disclosure might transform lobbying into an over-the-phone effort, which I suppose would be good because phone calls are less effective than face-to-face meetings.

But regardless, the point would be to add some transparency to who is meeting with our esteemed public servants and about what. I’m not big on bloggy triumphalism, but one important value that blogs add is that they empower public watchdogs. And the more transparent the legislative process is, the more value they could add.

But again, just an idea out of left field. Thoughts?

Monday, November 13, 2006



I don't have much to add here. My preference for Majority Leader is "None of the Above." And though I'm certainly no fan of Hoyer, Murtha would be worse. To me, Iraq is his only redeeming characteristic. But anyway, my opposition has little to do with issues. First, Murtha says a lot of stupid things on TV and would be a loose cannon more generally. Second, I like Pelosi a lot, but I think competing bases of power is not the worse thing in the world. The Speaker has a lot of power as it is - further consolidation may lead to bad decisions (you need some "no men" around). Finally, Murtha's ethics smell.

The truth is that no one cares and I'd say 99.9999% of the public has no idea who Steny Hoyer is. So this really is a matter of how much power Pelosi will have. And to me, concentration of power correlates highly with stupid decisions.



After receiving much hate mail on the subject, I've updated (finally) my blogroll. All the links should be right now. Note that I now (about a year late) have the proper name for American Footprints. I've also removed some dormant blogs (Julie Saltman), but do hope they come back one day. I've also added Glenn Greenwald.



I’ve been reading several posts lately from people like Kaus and Drum and Yglesias on whether the Dems should push for “comprehensive” immigration reform. This is an extraordinarily difficult question politically speaking, and it raises a dizzying range of game theory calculations. But if forced to pick, I’ll say “yes,” but only if Bush and McCain take the lead. From a purely political perspective, this is not an issue the Dems want full ownership of.

Politics aside, the primary reason why I support going forward is that it’s the right policy — morally and economically. The moral side is obvious — and it’s interesting that Senator Brownback voted for McCain-Kennedy on that basis. But I also think that reform would actually help more people economically than it would hurt (including white middle/working classes). For one, bringing these people out of the shadows and into federal minimum wage/employment protections would eliminate a good deal of illegal immigrants’ competitive advantage. For another, more people spending wages means a bigger economic pie and new markets. After all, these people are going to be buying cars, buying shoes, eating in restaurants, buying houses, etc.

The political question is trickier. I’ve mentioned this before, but I think people tend to vastly underestimate the levels of anti-illegal immigrant sentiment in America, particularly among the white middle and working classes. Some of it is race-based, some is economic-based, and some is a mix. One reason people underestimate this hostility is that anti-immigrant voices have traditionally been grossly underrepresented in both the media and the conservative chattering classes. Things are starting to change with the emergence of people like Lou Dobbs, but it’s still an underrepresented position among the chattering classes.

The danger for the Democrats is that a comprehensive immigration plan (which would be called “amnesty,” and not necessarily inaccurately) has the potential to enrage the white working and middle classes at the very time they may be reconsidering the Democratic Party. It would also cause deep, emotional splits in the caucus.

Of course, the long-term political benefits are also important, particularly in the Southwest, which is shaping up to be the Democrats’ best hope for a national governing coalition. But, the key to a governing coalition in the short-term is greater white working/middle-class support. And if Democrats are perceived as “owning” immigration reform, it will (unfortunately) hurt them badly. It’s no accident, for instance, that so many of the incoming Democrats (and Harold Ford) took a more nativist (or “enforcement”) stance on immigration.

The best-case scenario for Democrats is to figure out a way to support it without “owning” it in the eyes of the public. In other words, the trick is to find a way (1) to generally support it; (2) to reap the maximum political benefits; and (3) to incur minimum political costs. (ed. Profound. Your land-breaking 3-part theory may even be applicable in other contexts.).

The only way to thread this needle and get both the short-term and long-term benefits from immigration reform is to support it, but let people like Bush and McCain and McConnell take the lead on it. The objection to this approach is that Bush and McCain (and the Republicans) would get long-term credit among the Latino population for a policy that is vehemently opposed by most Republicans. And yes, that is the risk. But I don’t think it would shake out that way, for a number of reasons.

First, passing immigration reform will create a major, major backlash in 2008. That anger is going to be directed somewhere, it’s just a matter of where. If Bush and McCain are out in front, then the backlash gets channeled to the GOP primary. McCain in particular will get skewered for it — in fact, it’s already his biggest vulnerability going into the primary I think. At the very least, the backlash won’t be focused 100% on the Democratic Party. It will be more scattered and diffuse.

And that leads to the second point. If passing immigration reform will split the Dem caucus, it will cause all-out fratricide in the GOP. Someone like Tom Tancredo will surely jump in the primary, having roughly the same effect that George Wallace had in the 1972 Democratic primary before he was shot. The amount of anti-immigrant vitriolic all around would reach new levels. And 95% of the really nasty stuff will come from GOP candidates. And so I would predict that whatever benefits McCain and Bush won for the GOP would soon be squandered by the anti-illegal immigrant rhetoric that would erupt in response.

Also, you have to remember that the Republicans have already shot themselves in the foot on the Latino vote. Even exit poll skeptic Kevin Drum admits that the swing of Latino votes to the Dems (+14) is a big deal, and likely a permanent one. It’s pretty clear that the recent anti-immigrant rhetoric soured many Latinos on the GOP for a while to come. And so, these voters have already distinguished “the GOP” from Bush and McCain (otherwise, why the swing?). They see them as exceptions. And so if Bush, McCain, and a handful of more centrist Republicans pass immigration reform with a strong majority of Democrats, Latino voters probably won’t give the GOP all that much credit.

And that, I think, is the sweet spot — i.e., that’s how the Dems would gain the maximum political benefits while avoiding the costs. Under this scenario, Latinos (already sour on the GOP) would continue supporting Dems while the GOP nativist wing would turn their fire upon Bush and McCain, further alienating Latinos in the process.

Obviously, there is a 2-ball-into-the-9-ball-into-the-corner-pocket element to all this. And frankly, I don’t think McCain and McConnell would be dumb enough to take the lead on this bill in the months to come. But I’ve been wrong before.

One last note — even if high-profile Republican Congressmen run from immigration reform like the bubonic plague, there’s still the question of whether Bush’s support would be enough to diffuse “ownership.” I’m not sure it would. But putting politics aside, immigration reform is one of those things that can only be accomplished by a Republican President. And it would be a shame if this once-in-a-generation window closed after 2008. It is, after all, eleven million people. And if it results in the GOP getting some long-term support, so be it.

Sunday, November 12, 2006



Of all the things annoying George Bush this week, I think this one (via HuffPost) probably takes the cake:

One thing that comes through pretty clear in the recent Suskind and Woodward books is that Junior is not very close with Pappy. And he doesn't much care for Bush 41's policies or his "Arab buddies." So I suspect it's silently infuriating him that he's having to call Daddy's people to save him, once again.

Suskind and Woodward also got me thinking about the role that Bush 41 supposedly played in convincing Bush 43 to go to Iraq. The common story is that the younger Bush was motivated on some level to avenge his father and to take out the man who tried to kill him. To the extent this Freudian stuff played any role at all (an important "if"), I think it played just the opposite role. I think it was to spite his father. By marching boldly into Iraq, he would do what the father was too cowardly to do. Bush 43 - for once - wanted to outdo his father.

And that's why it must be mortifying for him to call in all of his father's old hands to save him from the war he was likely told not to start.

Friday, November 10, 2006



A lot of bloggers I really like have been attacking the “victory for conservatives” argument that people like Kudlow and Limbaugh and Krauthammer have been floating since Tuesday. Limbaugh, for instance, says:
[I]t wasn't conservatism that lost. Conservatism won when it ran as a Democrat. It won in a number of places.

And of course the press has completely swallowed the narrative that the new band of centrist Dems will cause all sorts of problems in the caucus.

But my question to the people attacking these narratives is this — why try to stop them? Why not let the Limbaughs and Krauthammers of the world make this argument? I think it ultimately helps solidify a center-left governing coalition more than it hurts.

As far as the accuracy of “conservatism won” goes, I think Yglesias pretty much disposes of that argument. The truth is that Dems won in a lot of liberal northeast holdouts. And even in the more conservative areas, the less conservative person won every time. Any way you cut it, it’s hard to distill a “victory for conservatism” out of the 2006 election.

What I think is going on here is primarily psychological — a defense mechanism. Conservative pundits — like all human beings — are trying to rationalize events in a self-serving way. Democrats did it in 2004, and people who get dumped do the same thing.

But that said, there is a kernel of truth in what people like Kudlow are saying. Broad sections of the middle class (particularly the white middle class) are not so much conservative as they are anti-Left on social issues. There is, after all, a difference between being "conservative" and being "not Left on a subset of social issues."

This distinction is important because if you spend time in socially conservative areas, the complaint you hear about Dems isn’t so much economic, but social. And let’s face it — large sections of the white middle class have a visceral dislike for perceived liberal social positions. Many of these — like the “war on Christmas” and the Ten Commandments — are manufactured by the GOP and its willing mass communicators. But there’s a reason why O’Reilly talks about Christmas every year — the Republican Party has been very successful in generating visceral dislike for Democrats by exploiting contempt of socially liberal positions, most of which are straw men (e.g., Christmas), some of which aren’t (abortion). In fact, I would argue that the only remaining coherence in the conservative coalition is liberal hatred — it’s the glue, and you gotta nurse the glue.

At the same time, a lot of the white middle class is aligned with the Democratic Party’s positions on almost everything else — education, health care, Social Security, etc. This gets back to the Stan Greenberg argument — Americans support Democratic positions but are only willing to consider them if the candidate or party passes a credibility threshold on national security and cultural issues. And that in turn explains Bush’s line about “the terrorists win and America loses.” Like the war on Christmas crap, it’s a purely emotion-based argument designed to stoke the fires of liberal hatred.

And so the key to the ascendance of a broad, powerful center-left coalition is not so much for Democrats to become conservative, but for the white middle class to stop viscerally disliking Democrats. In other words, Democrats don’t need to start embracing Medicare cuts, they need to be perceived as being "not Left” on certain social issues in certain geographic areas.

The funny thing, though, is that Democrats aren’t very “Left” at all on social issues — that perception is a product of relentless “framing” by talk radio, Fox News, conservative pundits, etc. But, when these same pundits start arguing just the opposite — i.e., that “Dems went centrist”, etc. — they undermine the very argument that’s kept the GOP in power. They’re melting the glue that holds the coalition together.

I mean, just listen to this passage from Krauthammer and tell me how it hurts Dems:

The Republicans have shed the last vestiges of their centrist past, the Rockefeller Republicans. And the Democrats have widened their tent to bring in a new crop of blue-dog conservatives.

The point is that conservative pundits are making the case for the center-left coalition to the audience that most needs to hear it. The more they say “Democrats are more centrist,” “Democrats are transforming,” etc., the more that they are creating the conditions that will give rise to that coalition. They are defusing the hate that they have so carefully cultivated over the years — the hate that has been responsible for preventing a center-left coalition from forming. So let them argue it, I say. Brer Rabbit and briar patches and all that.

And the fact that some of these new candidates are more socially conservative on a subset of social issues doesn’t really matter in terms of the actual legislative agenda. The party leadership isn’t going to push a socially conservative agenda, and people like Heath Shuler won’t demand that they do. And when the Democrats hold the leadership, people like Shuler aren’t going to be forced to vote on uncomfortable but stupid things like the flag-burning amendment. The real fight in recent years has been defensive resistence to social conservative efforts to impose their agenda, not offensive efforts to impose some straw-man version of social liberalism. Shuler helps that cause.

The counter-argument to all this is that it smells of Clinton triangulation that, while temporarily successful, discredits progressivism. In other words, this narrative may attract the center at the cost of the base, or at the cost of discrediting the “brand.”

A few responses. First, I think the base is going to be just fine for many years to come. One benefit of Rove and his 51% strategy is that he has permanently earned the wrath of about 40-45% of the population. Call it the vindication of Ralph Nader. Karl Rove — as Nader predicted — has done more than anyone in America to create a revitalized, politically-active progressive movement.

But second, I think that allowing conservatives to push the “big tent” narrative isn’t necessarily discrediting the brand. I think liberals and Dems need to start thinking about “coalition” in the literal sense of the word. In fact, it’s a requirement if people are serious about the “50-state strategy.” You can be a proud, strong progressive with people like Shuler on issues of trade or federal programs, while disagreeing about social issues. The motto is Venn Diagrams for Change. Remember too that, regardless of what people think about Shuler’s social views, the candidate he beat would be far worse.

But there’s also a lesson here for the Shulers of the world. The key is to do what Harold Ford did — disagree on the policy level rather than the party level. Don’t do what Weaver did in the KY-02 district and gratuitously bash the party or Pelosi or whatever. Dissing the brand is ultimately self-defeating because it makes you look stupid and discredits the “movement” more generally. You can stand by the brand while simultaneously disagreeing with this or that policy. (This the point that people don’t understand about criticism of Lieberman — he vainly and self-consciously bashed the party to win the praise of the David Broders and Sebastian Wankerbys of the world.

Third, I’m not saying people should shy away from being proudly liberal or progressive or whatever your term is. In the long-term, full and proud embrace of these labels is needed to “re-credit” them to the American public. But to get there, you have to defuse the hate that the Right has so carefully constructed. You have to get a foot in the door. And if conservative pundits want to welcome that foot inside, by all means, let them do so. Brer Rabbit and briar patches and all that.

WHAT IT MEANS - Part Two, McCain 


There’s been a lot of back and forth on what the election means for McCain’s presidential prospects. The conventional wisdom has been that McCain would benefit from GOP losses. The idea is that Republicans’ fear of losing the White House would overcome their general distaste for him. The emerging anti-conventional wisdom, however, is that the public’s repudiation of the war makes McCain (and his unflinching support for it) far less appealing. It’s not clear yet who’s right. My view on this is that the election may well hurt McCain, but not because his support of Iraq will damage his perceived electability.

Before we get to that, I think that the conventional wisdom has the better argument. As a general matter, I think the election does help McCain. As the Post explains in more detail, the election put a serious dent into the Super Genius’s “there is no middle” theory (which I admittedly subscribed to as well). Republicans got killed with Independents, and lost a lot of ground with critical swing groups like Catholics and rural voters. I think there will be a widely shared consensus that McCain would do well with all these groups (and would pick off a decent chunk of Dems in the process). And so because McCain’s primary marketing point is electability, the election helps.

The question, though, is how Iraq alters things. The answer, I think, is not very much. And that’s why I think the anti-conventional wisdom is wrong.

You have to remember that, for now, everything is about the primary. For that reason, the perceptions of primary voters are the only thing that matters for John McCain right now. It’s true that McCain’s Achilles Heel is going to be Iraq, but that’s not a problem for the primary. It’s a problem for the general. Republican primary voters still support the war, and McCain’s unflinching support for it will certainly not hurt him with the base. Just the opposite, actually.

Fine, you say, but haven’t I just made the case for the anti-conventional wisdom? After all, the logic of that position is that Iraq makes McCain less electable and, therefore, it should make him less appealing in the primary.

Perhaps, but I think that’s too clever by half. It’s looking too many moves ahead on the chess board. I’m just not sure the average voter is going to go through the following type of deductive process: (1) I want to vote for McCain because he’s more electable; (2) but he’s a strong supporter of Iraq; (3) Iraq is growing really unpopular; (4) McCain’s support will therefore make him less appealable looking ahead to the general; and therefore (5) I shouldn’t vote for him. This sort of thinking is an example of “over-information bias.” Sometimes being too politically informed warps your political judgment. Primary voters just aren’t going to be doing these mental gymnastics. They’ll keep it simple — McCain’s more electable. I fear losing. I’ll support McCain.

I’m not saying primary voters are dumb. But understand that 99.9% of the public isn’t reading blogs obsessively and thinking through all these chess moves. Besides, it’s not like he’s going to be running against a bunch of hippies in the primary. His competitors will be just as war-happy as he is, but without the benefits of having strong centrist street cred and a Saturday Night Live appearance.

So I don’t see Iraq as a problem for McCain in the primary. The bigger problem that McCain faces is the “scapegoat factor.” In the wake of the loss, a lot of Republicans are looking for someone to blame. There are some rumblings on the Right (see, e.g., Feddie, Hewitt) that the scapegoats are the people who sold out “real” conservatism — people like McCain and Rudy and Lindsey Graham.

These people don’t like McCain anyway. But if he emerges as the “Other” on which to pin the blame for the loss, then things could get dicey for him. One thing he has going for him is his success in lining up the Republican establishment around the country. But in an intra-party (as opposed to inter-party) battle, there’s no guarantee that the social conservatives — and particularly the nationalist Hannity/Limbaugh wing — will follow along with whatever the establishment wants. Particularly if the White House doesn’t jump in and declare McCain to be the heir apparent.

The big point is that there’s a real possibility that certain wings of the GOP base could turn on him because of the election — particularly if the McCain-Kennedy bill goes forward and gets passed. That — and not his support for Iraq — is the biggest obstacle that McCain faces to winning the primary nomination.

If he gets that far, he’ll be very difficult to beat in the general. I used to think it would be impossible for the lose the general, but Iraq will be a festering sore for him by the time 2008 rolls around. But the general is not even a blip on his radar right now — nor should it be.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

WHAT IT MEANS - Part One, Iraq 


It’s been difficult to organize my thoughts on the election coherently, so I’ll probably just rattle off a series of posts over the coming days examining what it means, subject by subject. And so let’s start with the biggie – Iraq.

This election was about Iraq. Period. The exit polls may have listed corruption pretty high. Mike Pence may think that Republicans lost because they didn’t cut Medicaid enough. But they lost because of Iraq. And it was a stunning, two-by-four-to-the-face rebuke to what is generously known as Bush’s Iraq policy. Yes, it could have been worse for the GOP. But the mere fact that so many of these “safe” districts were close was itself a rebuke of the current Iraq policy.

And so in thinking about all the positive consequences of the election (and there are many), the one that really stands out is the effect the election will have on our Iraq policy. Because Iraq is, by orders of magnitude, the most important issue our nation is facing, anything that causes better Iraq policy will be the most important consequence of the election. For the record, I’m not saying that the election – or Rumsfeld’s resignation – will salvage Iraq. It’s too late for that. But the election will affect things for the better and for a very specific reason – the election has finally aligned politics and policy. In other words, the election has created political incentives for legislators to demand and implement change. Better policy is now politically rational, and sticking to bad policy is politically irrational.

To take a step back, I’ve developed a very cynical view of the motivations of our elected officials. I see them as purely rational actors. Everything that they do (as opposed to what they say) is motivated solely by the hopes of political benefit or the fear of political harm. Morals, patriotism, and other abstract concepts have no explanatory power in my world. If you want politicians to fix something, then you make them fear not fixing it. If you want to them to stop doing something, you make them fear not stopping it. Political pressure – not ideals or appeals to reason – makes the legislative world go ‘round.

This “rational actor” theory explains why the so-called “fraud caucus” deserves its name (i.e., GOP moderates that talk big on Sunday morning talk shows, but always fold). Basically, they have never been forced to pay any consequences for their unwillingness to demand policy changes, even though they've surely recognized the magnitude of the policy failures – particularly in Iraq.

The problem with the fraud caucus, though, is less the legislators themselves than it is the voters. When voters are apathetic and tuned-out, they create rational incentives for hackery and bad policy. For instance, let’s say that Susan Collins disagrees strongly about some aspect of our Iraq policy and is considering holding oversight hearings. If voters don’t care one way or the other, there’s no rational reason for her to act. Holding controversial and politically-embarrassing hearings would only alienate the party leadership without providing any offsetting political benefit (even if that “benefit” is simply avoiding political punishment). And so she bites her tongue.

And that’s the larger problem with Republicans and Bush’s Iraq policy (particularly “centrist” Republicans). In the past few elections, the voters have given them no rational incentive to demand change in Iraq. Let’s put aside 2002 when a lot of smart people all across the spectrum supported the war in good faith. By 2004, it was abundantly clear to sentient (adj., the quality of not being Hugh Hewitt) beings that Iraq was a disaster. It was also clear that the people making the big decisions about Iraq were at best hopelessly incompetent, if not criminally negligent. But Republicans bit their tongue and ran on the war in 2004 and won. And then they did nothing – and demanded nothing – after the election. They voted for Gonzales. They held no hearings. They conducted no oversight. They just went along – because they could. And going along – particularly in the House – meant you got to keep enjoying the fruits of Tom DeLay’s RICO enterprise. [In this sense, the corruption and Iraq failures were connected. DeLay’s corruption generated money for those who kept their mouth shut, etc.]

As Josh Marshall astutely pointed out a while back, they were initially going to do the same damn thing all over again this year. Early in the summer of 2006, the magnitude of the failures in Iraq was even clearer than in 2004. Ignoring these “failures” isn’t like ignoring a few potholes on 22nd Street. People are getting killed because of these failures. But rather than do anything to try to force the administration to change, they all adopted the Super Genius’s strategy to run on “stay the course” in Iraq. That is, until the Democrats – in the move that won them the election – flipped it back on them. The cynicism of this initial strategy was breathtaking, and borders on black comedy. But it wasn’t irrational. At that moment, their inaction had only been rewarded. It had never been punished.

That’s why it’s a bit rich to hear poor Susan Collins moaning that the mean ol’ Democrats attacked “Linc” too hard. Susan Collins – sitting atop an important oversight committee – hasn’t lifted a finger in four years to demand accountability. Susan Collins has done precisely nothing to stop a policy that she surely knows is an absolute and complete failure. And neither have the rest of them. But again, you can’t really put all the blame on them. The voters didn’t make this sort of outrageousness a political liability.

Until yesterday.

And that’s what so great about it. In the grand scheme of things, what’s really important is not so much that the Democrats won, but how they won. By frontally attacking the GOP on “stay the course,” they made staying the course a political liability. And so every one of those Republican candidates who narrowly won is going to be falling all over themselves to demand change, accountability, etc. In fact, I predict that people like Chris Shays and Jim Gerlach will actually be the most vocal about demanding change in the next Congress. That’s because blindly following Bush’s Iraq policy has gained political traction – it has become a political liability.

The bottom line is that, because of yesterday’s elections, legislators now have political incentives to change the course. It is rational for them to demand change. We no longer have to rely on their morals, or their reason, or their regard for the troops. We can rely on their desire to save their own ass, which is the best guarantee we can possibly have.

And you’re going to see this dynamic in the Senate too. Don’t think that this bloc of Southern Senators facing re-election in 2008 didn’t get a chill up their spine when the press declared Webb the winner. If a political nobody can beat a popular former governor and presidential candidate over Iraq in a Southern state, then they can get beat too. And they know it – and so they too will demand change.

But taking a step back, the election was also important for reasons that go beyond Iraq. Coming into the election, and certainly in the heady days of Mission Accomplished, there were fears that we’d soon be at war again with a different country. The reason those fears were justified was because the 2002 and 2004 elections made supporting war politically rational (to say the least). But that too changed yesterday. In 2006, a lot of people got beat because of Iraq. And for that reason, politicians are going to think long and hard before rushing off to war in a mad frenzy. I mean, you would hope politicians would do that anyway, but they don’t. To prevent war, you have to make war politically irrational just like anything else.

And that may be the biggest benefit of all from yesterday’s election. Maybe this is a stretch, but it’s entirely possible that we prevented a future war yesterday. When considering whether to go to war, elected politicians for many years hence are going to look at the 2006 election and get cold feet. And that’s good – you’re supposed to have cold feet before you go to war. You’re supposed to think long and hard, and you’re supposed to get punished if you botch it.

There’s a lot more to say of course about the 2006 election, but the real prize is that sanity has become rational. For now.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006



The Hotline offered this helpful overview of the major Senate committee chairs:

Ag Cmte: Tom Harkin (IA). Outgoing Chair: Saxby Chambliss (GA).

Approps Cmte: Robert Byrd (WV). Outgoing Chair: Thad Cochran (MS).

Armed Services Cmte: Carl Levin (MI). Outgoing Chair: John Warner (VA).

Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Cmte: Chris Dodd (CT). Outgoing Chair: Richard Shelby (AL).

Budget Cmte: Kent Conrad (D). Outgoing Chair: Judd Gregg (NH).

Commerce, Science, and Transpo Cmte: Co-Chair Daniel Inouye (HI). Outgoing Co-Chair: Ted Stevens (AK).

Energy and Natural Resources Cmte: Jeff Bingaman (NM). Outgoing Chair: Pete Domenici (NM).

Enviro and Public Works Cmte: Barbara Boxer (CA). Outgoing Chair: James Inhofe (OK).

Finance Cmte: Max Baucus. Outgoing Chair: Charles Grassley (IA).

Foreign Relations Cmte: Joe Biden (D). Outgoing Chair: Richard Lugar (IN).

Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Cmte: Ted Kennedy. Outgoing Chair: Mike Enzi (WY).

Homeland Security and Govt'l Affairs Cmte: Joe Lieberman (CT). Outgoing Chair: Susan Collins (ME).

Jud Cmte: Patrick Leahy (VT). Outgoing Chair: Arlen Specter (PA).

Rules and Admin Cmte: Chris Dodd (CT). Outgoing Chair: Trent Lott (MS).

Small Business Cmte: John Kerry (MA). Outgoing Chair: Olympia Snowe (ME).

Veterans Affairs Cmte: Daniel Akaka (D). Outgoing Chair: Larry Craig (ID).

Inhofe to Boxer has to be the biggest net improvement given the negative value that should be assigned to Inhofe on environmental affairs.



I have about a million different thoughts on the election, but I have a few deadlines this morning, so I won’t have time to write much until later today. But one thing that I did want to point out is that winning changes not just reality, but perceptions. One of the biggest hurdles Democrats had to being taken seriously by the public, the chattering classes, and the world was their inability to win over the past 6 years. But after you win, you are perceived differently.

For instance, look at this praise for Schumer and Emanuel from none other than Robert Novak:

Last, but not least [among the reasons for success], comes the brilliant candidate recruiting and fundraising on the part of two men – Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) Chairman Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

These guys were never really jokes, but they are now respected and feared by the GOP.

I also thought this email that Jonah Goldberg received was very telling. The reader is basically berating him for making jokes about the GOP’s loss:

If you gave a s**t, you wouldn't be joking. The Democrats don't when they lose. Oh, for a few Republican leaders with the intensity of the old Newt Gingrich or of Daily Kos.

Again, what comes through there is a sense of grudging respect — a respect for the “intensity.” I suspect this perception is a world apart from how this reader viewed Daily Kos in, say, 2004. Winning breeds respect, which breeds further winning.

Anyway, more to come later.



Well, I wanted to do some more general commentary, but things were too close and I couldn't stop watching TV. And so I'm done for the night. Be back with a lot more tomorrow.

One quick point though: The happiest man in America tonight - John McCain.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006



This Virginia race is torture. Right now, it's a 5K gap with Webb closing. The remaining areas are either washes or Webb areas, so this thing may be a literal tie. Dems obviously have no shot at the Senate without Virginia.

[UPDATE: Webb just pulled ahead according to CNN. Ugh, I've got a long night ahead of me.]

[UPDATE 2: I'm too wrapped up in the Virginia race to list all my thoughts. But as I watch the GOP get beat up in the Northeast, and thinking back to the Southern GOP consolidation in 1994, I think back to the Civil War. Here we are, nearly 150 years after the Civil War, and the Northeast and South are still clearly divided. Interesting for a number of reasons, and I'll say more about it later. But for now, back to Virginia.]

[UPDATE 3: One other thing the Dems did well tonight was to plan their media strategy. I've seen Obama, Reid, Rahm, etc., and they've struck conciliatory tones stressing new beginnings, etc. I think it's the right approach both substantively and politically.

On other notes, I've been increasingly annoyed at the caricatures of Pelosi because of her district and, frankly, her gender. She's very impressive, and deserves a lot of props for keeping together a caucus in tough times, particularly on Social Security. It will be interesting to see if the media resists the narrative of her that's being thrust upon it by Drudge et al.]

[UPDATE 4: I'm having some dark visions about this Virginia race. If McCaskill and Tester win, then control of the Senate is going to turn on a ruthless, bitter recount full of controversy, legal challenges, etc. It won't be pretty.

But, I just heard on MSNBC that Fairfax still has 33,000 uncounted votes. If that's right, then Allen is serious trouble.]



I guess K-Lo's sources on the ground were off.



Well, it looks like Yarmuth is going to knock off Anne Northup in Kentucky. If that holds (and it looks like it's going to), then the GOP is going to have a very long night. This is the Louisville district, and it's Democratic. But Northup is well-liked. She's not polarizing, and she's done a good job reaching out to the Louisville black community.

And for that reason, she's been notoriously hard to beat. But it looks like something has changed this time, which has national implications I think. And so my feeling is that KY-03 is a pretty ominous bellwether for the GOP. We'll see.

UPDATE: It's over. Huge. And very bad news for the GOP.



Well, the damn things are supposed to be released at 5:00. So any minute now. I'm not going to get too worked up either way in light of the 2004 debacle, but feel free to comment on, or point out, anything you're seeing.

Much more to come tonight obviously.

[UPDATE: Hmm, what to make of the "high turnout" reports in the big Senate states. Although this is pure speculation, I would think that high turnout is a good sign for Dems. High turnout was very good for the GOP in 2004 obviously, but I have hard time believing that masses of energized GOP voters stormed the polls this morning. The big Democratic fear going into the election, I think, was that the Democratic rank-and-file was more apathetic than the average nutsroots blogger/blog-reader.

So, if I had to guess, I think high turnout is a bad sign for the GOP. But who knows.]

[UPDATE 2: Ryan Lizza is seeing some very good numbers at The Plank, but offers them with a big grain of salt.]



I'll spare you K-Lo-style hearsay-based extrapolations from single precincts that illustrate massive Santorum enthusiasm. But in Alexandria (in the deep blue communist part where I live near the river), the concerns about Webb's name being cut off are overblown. On my machine, his full name was listed when you actually select the candidate. It's only on the summary page that it's cut off, so I can't imagine it will matter.



At the risk of premature chicken-counting, one thing I’m most looking forward to tomorrow night is the post-mortems from the political geniuses on the cable networks on where Republicans went wrong. Of the many things that annoyed me in the aftermath of 2004, the one that stands out is listening to pundits on TV explain how extreme and out-of-touch Democrats had become (despite winning the popular vote in the last three presidential elections and 48% of it in 2004).

And so, tomorrow, people on CNN are going to dust off the post-2004 script and switch the names around. Post-election reporting is, after all, essentially a Mad Lib. The [name of party] lost the election in [geographic area] because the party veered too far from the political mainstream. The [name of party] will probably need to reexamine itself and become more moderate on social issues. And to my Republican friends out there, that’s actually the most annoying thing you’re going to see tomorrow night. Trust me — I’ve lived it.

So I’ll spare conservative readers the recommendations about how the GOP should act more like the opposite party. But it is worth asking what caused the GOP train to go off track so badly over the last two years. While Iraq is the obvious — and correct — answer, people shouldn’t overlook the very beginning of 2005 when Bush was riding high and purple-fingered Iraq was turning the corner. Specifically, people shouldn’t overlook the effect of the one-two punch of Social Security and Schiavo.

I think the Foley controversy — remember that guy? — provides a good insight into why exactly these two issues caused the GOP so much harm. It’s tempting to think that Feiler Faster has kicked in on Foleygate and made it essentially irrelevant. While I concede that Foleygate faded more quickly than I predicted, Foley still did his share of harm by stopping the GOP’s momentum. Coming on the heels of the military commissions “compromise” and the uptick following the White House’s anti-terror PR campaign, Foley knocked the wind out of those sails completely. Foley should therefore be understood in terms of opportunity costs. He didn’t necessarily cause the GOP’s level of support to fall, he just prevented them from continuing to increase their level of support (particularly by consolidating the base).

Schiavo and Bush’s failed Social Security reform should be understood in that way as well. You’ve got to step back and remember the halcyon days of early January 2005. Bush’s approval rating was ticking up. The GOP had gained a strong Senate majority. And Iraqi elections were coming. Basically, the GOP had an enormous amount of momentum and — how did Bush word it? — political capital to spend. And momentum is very important in politics.

But the White House took that momentum and drove it straight into the mud. It really was a political miscalculation of staggering proportions, particularly given the political genius of Wile E. Rove, Super-Genius. For one, the Social Security program is extremely popular. Second, it’s the most efficient and successful government program in history (the sheer efficiency and competence of the program is probably what drew Rove — moth-like — to it). Doug Feith: Something about that program has always bothered me too. Third, it’s one of the very few issues that not only unites Dems, but that Red State Dems can be aggressively partisan about. I mean, if you ask someone like Ben Nelson why he’s a Democrat, he’ll probably say Social Security. Finally, it gave a battered and bruised Democratic Party something to unify behind at precisely the time they most needed it.

And while this slow-motion quagmire was quagmiring, along comes Schiavo, which just freaked a lot of people out. Taken together, these issues knocked the train off the tracks. Like Foley, it’s not so much that these actions reduced the GOP’s support, it’s that they robbed the GOP of its post-election momentum. And the GOP, frankly, needed all the momentum it could get. After all, the public wasn’t exactly thrilled about the direction of the country going into the election.

And so with momentum stalled, the GOP lost its initial focus and seemed to be adrift for a while. Social Security reform, you'll remember, died a slow, agonizing death. And before they got their act back together, it was too late. The steady drumbeat of Iraq coupled with Katrina and Miers had pretty much sealed the deal.

Of course, I think Iraq and Katrina and Miers would have cost the GOP political support anyway. But it was those earlier errors that really opened them up to failure. Even assuming people have forgotten them (for instance, I’ve seen no Schiavo ads), those two failed policies tempered the GOP’s momentum following the election and made people more receptive to the accusations and criticisms that followed. They also reunited the Dems at a critical time — a time when I thought (frankly) this election would be about whether the GOP would gain the magic number of 60.

But enough of all that, let's do this thing.

Monday, November 06, 2006



The thing — well, one thing — maddening about these robocalls is that it’s one of those practices that lacks even a plausible defense. Even things like illegal wiretapping or torture at least have a plausible defense — one that people might conceivably believe in some alternate universe.

But this is just straight-up fraud and vote suppression, systematically targeted at NRCC races. There is literally nothing to say in defense of it. So behold conservatives, this is your party. The party of ideas. Take a good close look.

Of course, the only way this nonsense will ever stop is if the public or the press punish the people who do it. The punishment could come in many forms. It could be blowback at the polls. It could be hefty FCC fines (with “continuing violations” defined as each individual call). Or it could be a criminal prosecution for messing with state and federal voting rights. But if the press doesn’t hammer on this, and if the actors aren’t forced to pay a penalty of some kind, we’ll see it again and again. Sleazy political tactics are Darwinian in that respect — if they succeed, they spawn a new generation that, locust-like, matures in time for the next cycle.




There will be a full accounting after the election. Whether [Lieberman] wins or loses is irrelevant. Democrats made a choice between the grassroots/netroots and Joe Lieberman. That choice will haunt them for a long, long time.

I'm prepared to let this thing die. Bigger fish and all that.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

CHICKENS: Stop Counting 


Well the new USA Today/Gallup poll is finally out, and and it answers Kaus's question. At least three major polling outfits are showing last-minute movement toward the GOP in the generic congressional poll (ABC/WP, Pew, and now Gallup). What this shows, I think, is base consolidation rather than persuasion of the public at large. I doubt it's enough to hold on to the House, but it certainly seems consistent with the trends we've seen in Montana and Tennessee. And it makes winning the Senate almost impossible.

A base collapse is the difference between a loss and a wave. And if the base is indeed firming up, then the GOP may well dodge a bullet on Tuesday. What exactly this says about the judgment of the base . . . well, that's another matter.

[UPDATE: That said, the GOP still has cause for concern in the Senate. If Tennessee is over, it means the Dems have to win RI, MT, MO, and VA. Like Kos, I'm skeptical that Rhode Island is in play, but let's assume that RI and MT are both showing GOP movement and that VA and MO are tied. Look at the level of support the incumbents are getting. It's all mid-to-upper-mid 40s. With the exception of Corker, these candidates aren't cracking 50, and many are a long way from 50. Like Kaus, I don't know if the "incumbent rule" still holds true, but these numbers aren't good for an incumbent two days from an election.]

[UPDATE 2: Regardless of what happens in the Senate, I think this is an interesting point (and hat tip to commenter Incertus):

A quick glimpse at the state of the thirty-three elections is that the absolute best-case scenario for Republicans is to lose the Senate races 20-13. The absolutely best case for Democrats would appear to be to win the Senate races 24-9. That is a real throttling, a true thrashing, no matter what way you look at it.

My final senate forecast will probably project Democrats picking up four seats, which will mean a victory of 22-11 across the thirty-three campaigns. That will actually be one better than Republicans managed in 1994, when they won the same thirty-three campaigns 21-12.

The great unsung story in this election is all the races we're not talking about in states like North Dakota, Nebraska, West Virginia, and Florida. Maybe the Dems should thank Liddy Dole, maybe Bush, maybe Iraq. Regardless, it's fairly amazing that these aren't real races. With these seats in the "safe Heavy D" category, Schumer got to spend his money offensively rather than defensively. In 2004, by contrast, the Dems were fighting to defend all those southern seats.

Looking forward to 2008, I think the picture is more mixed than I've been hearing. Yes, it's true that the Republicans are defending far more seats, but take a look at the Dem seats on the map. Montana. South Dakota. Louisiana. Arkansas. West Virginia. And a massive bloc of the GOP seats are in the South and Great Plains. But I guess we can hold those thoughts until after Tuesday.

Let's get it on.



Well, I certainly have no objections to Saddam being hung hanged. But this sentence, coming two days before the election, is a pretty apt metaphor for the entire war. Actually, the true metaphor would be if the sentence (timed for the U.S. elections) caused widespread riots that ultimately caused more political harm than benefit.

I hope it doesn't happen that way, of course. But if it does, it would be an almost perfect metaphor for the Iraq War. And a fitting coda to the GOP Congressional control that has depended so heavily on exploiting Iraq for political benefit.

[UPDATE: There's one other point here that I thought about after reading Juan Cole's comments. Regardless of how happy we (and the Iraqi Shia) may be about Saddam's sentence, it is important to make the sentence appear as legitimate as possible to prevent exacerbating sectarian tension.

Obviously, things aren't good right now on that front, and the Saddam sentence would have upset Sunnis regardless of when it happened. But by so conspicuously and ostentatiously timing the sentence to coincide with the American elections, it gives Sunnis (both inside and outside of Iraq) an easy excuse to dismiss the whole thing as illegitimate.

Again, I'm not saying the sentence was illegitimate or that the result was bad. But from the perspective of one of the key ethnic blocs in Iraq and the Middle East more generally, the cynical timing of this thing doesn't really put our mission first - which, again, makes the Saddam sentence a further metaphor for our efforts in Iraq.

Thursday, November 02, 2006



Too much going right now to post, but feel free to make your election predictions below. For the House, I'm going +24 and Speaker Pelosi. For the Senate, I'm going +5, so no change of control.

I'm guessing Ford loses, Webb wins, and McCaskill goes down after a bitter recount dispute.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006



George Will:

But Allen, who makes no secret of finding life as a senator tedious, is fighting ferociously for another term, a fate from which his Democratic opponent, Jim Webb, is close to rescuing him. As a result, Allen is dabbling in literary criticism. He has read, or someone has read for him, at least some of Webb's six fine novels, finding therein sexual passages that have caused Allen -- he of the football metaphors, cowboy regalia and Copenhagen smokeless tobacco -- to blush like a fictional Victorian maiden and fulminate like an actual Victorian man, Anthony Comstock, the 19th-century scourge of sin who successfully agitated for New York and federal anti-obscenity statutes and is credited with the destruction of 160 tons of naughty printed matter and pictures.

Webb, a highly decorated Marine veteran of Vietnam combat, includes sexual scenes in his fictional depictions of young men far from home and close to combat, something about which he knows a lot and Allen does not.


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