Tuesday, October 31, 2006



I'm going to say one thing about this and one thing only. It was refreshing to see that Kerry did not, like Dick Durbin, walk out and cry on the Senate floor. And this concludes my commentary on the Kerry Howl.

UPDATE: Ok, one last point. The best defense of Kerry is simply that his remark is so mind-bogglingly stupid that he couldn't have possibly meant it. Thus, the sheer stupidity of the line is his best defense.

And that's the last thing I'm saying about that.

UPDATE 2: Well, hell, one more thing.

Adam in the comments makes a snarky comment about "macaca," but it got me thinking about the "stupidity-as-defense" argument. After all, if anyone could claim that a comment was too stupid to be intentional, it's George Allen. So that's the question - if the sheer stupidity of a statement is exculpatory, why not apply that same standard to Allen?

The Allen situation is different though. Personally, I've always thought the use of "macaca" itself wasn't what made Allen's comments so objectionable. The sheer political stupidity of looking at someone with a rolling camera in the face and calling them a racial slur indicates that it was a slip of the tongue. I'm not saying it was a made-up word, but rather an escape of a word that normally lingers silently in the back of one's mind out through the mouthimus biggimus fatticus.

Macaca aside, the thing that distinguished Allen's remarks was that he was clearly singling out the only non-white kid in the audience for ridicule. In this sense, the "Welcome to America" line was far more damning than macaca. Everyone there knew exactly what he was doing.

People should remember that racial slurs fall along a spectrum - they're not either 100% racist or 100% fine. Statements can fall somewhere in between George Wallace and Eleanor Roosevelt. What Allen probably meant to do was use a mangling of the kid's name (who was likely being called "macaca" backstage, I think) in a tone meant to convey "funny named non-white guy." I'm sure many of you have heard this style of slur in different contexts. For instance, maybe you've heard people slurring Latinos by saying something like, "Go ask Pedro or Rodriguez or whatever his name is." Or they might do the same thing with a parody of an African-American name. Again, these things aren't exactly calls for segregation, but they're something worse than good-natured jokes.

And that's precisely the vibe that Allen was going for, which is the reason he said "Welcome to America." In this sense, "macaca" is beside the point. The use of that term was in fact so stupid that he probably didn't intentionally mean to use it. But he intentionally meant to slur that kid. And that's the difference.



Although they should never be counted out, things obviously aren’t looking good for the Grand Old Party at the moment. And so I’ve been wondering how the Republican caucus will react if they actually lose. You could imagine a couple of different scenarios. They might, for instance, rally back with renewed focus and unity, Gingrich-style. Or, they might turn on each other. I initially thought it would be the former, but now I’m not so sure — largely because of the continuing nature of the “Iraq effect.”

Josh Marshall wrote a good post back in July that suggests Scenario #1 is what the Dems should expect. (In this post, he’s explaining why Democrats got blindsided on the Specter surveillance bill):

Democrats seem to have a highly evolved (and perhaps misplaced) sense of sportsmanship: magnanimous in victory; chastened in defeat. Whereas Dems will rise to a political fight when they deem circumstances warrant, Republicans consider politics nothing but a fight, with peace the exception, not the rule.

And so it is that many Democrats are unprepared to face an adversary who has a fallback position situated just inches behind the frontline, and a fallback position just inches behind that, and so on indefinitely.

When the Dems overrun a Republican position, they celebrate like drunken Hessians, only to sober up and realize they have gained very little ground at all and that the Republicans are still fighting.

That seems right to me. And it’s easy to apply that logic to next week’s elections and predict that the Dems will face Scenario #1. The GOP will get beat, but not by much. The public will have its catharsis. And while Democrats celebrate and fight over committee chairs, the GOP will simply fallback, plotting and preparing for the inevitable next round.

That sounds perfectly plausible, but I’m not sure I buy it this time. It’s true that the GOP isn’t going to get beat by much, but the chances of all-out fratricide followed by further defeats in 2008 is a real possibility at this point. And the reason is Iraq.

Elections are necessarily a snapshot — a view of the public at a given time. But history and events keep moving. And the reality is that Iraq is getting worse and public support is declining steadily. And there’s no reason to think that we’ve hit the floor on either one of those. With each passing month, conditions will worsen and the public will turn more sour on Mr. Bush’s war, thus exposing members of Mr. Bush’s party to political vulnerability (essentially all of whom enthusiastically embraced the war, and most of whom then disingenuously continued supporting his policies after they were discredited).

To compare this political fight to a boxing match, the GOP isn’t getting beat this round because of a surprise knockdown punch from which they can easily get up and recover. They’re getting beat because of a growing body wound — a broken rib — that becomes an increasingly dangerous liability as the fight goes on. And to stretch the metaphor to its breaking point, you can’t really knock the other guy out when you’re in pain and trying to guard your body.

But that’s exactly what Iraq has become to the GOP Congressional caucus — a growing electoral liability that shows no signs of improvement. I mean, think about the GOP caucus going into January 2007 with Iraq-as-ever-growing-liability on their minds. For one, they’re going to see fewer familiar faces, so that will scare them. Second, many House members who ultimately win will have won only by the skin of their teeth. So they’ll be a bit jarred and anxious. Third, there will be another tier of candidates who, while probably safe, will feel newly vulnerable (maybe the DCCC ran an ad in their district for the first time in years). And fourth, the Republicans have more Senate seats in play. These Senators have watched from the galleries this year, but they know their turn is coming. Add it all up, and you have a lot of fear in the caucus and a lot of incentives to neutralize the metastasizing electoral liability that Iraq has become.

It’s easy to see how all this anxiety could translate into chaos and internal bickering. Because the fear of political defeat — of political death — is the only thing that matters to most elected officials, the fear will motivate them to push for change on the record. It will force them to go public early and often with their criticisms of the current state of affairs. They’re not going to get me with that damn “Stay the Course” commercial. And the mere fact that they’re doing so will cause internal bickering and will annoy the White House, who may grow more stubborn out of spite. This back-and-forth and equivocation will also prevent the GOP from projecting the clear-and-decisive image that played so well in 2002.

But taking a step back from the day-to-day political calculations, Iraq poses a much deeper long-term threat to the GOP as well. I don’t think it’s likely at this point, just a possibility. But there is a growing possibility that Iraq could do what 9/11 did — redefine the Republican Party in the minds of the American public. But this time, not for the better.

It’s a lesson that political parties can never learn enough — History is fickle. Things that seem permanent are the products of contingency and can change with the crash of a stock market, or the collapse of a tower, or a hurricane, or a lost war. And it’s certainly within the realm of possibility that Iraq — combined with Judis/Teixeira type demographic changes — could usher in a longer-term Democratic majority.

The problem for Democrats — well, one particular Biggie (Smalls) of a problem — has always been that many voters feel a visceral connection to the GOP, and a visceral disgust for the Dems. No speech or rational conversation could change that, because the feeling was deeply-rooted in the pre- or even sub-rational part of the mind. That’s one of the reasons the Great Emerging Majority hasn’t emerged. But all that may be changing — ever-so-slowly. The change isn’t happening overnight. But with the drip-drip-drip from Iraq for two years, followed by the rise of a civil war this year, and then the Emperor-Has-No-Clothes moment that was Katrina, minds are opening. The door to considering different parties and candidates at the emotional level is ever-so-slightly ajar.

But this creates a dilemma of sorts for the Dems as well. On the one hand, they could go for blood — the final coup de grace. Assuming they win, they could — recognizing how vulnerable Iraq has made the GOP — keep pounding on the ribs again and again, starting the day after the election. It would be the electoral equivalent of Hans Gruber in Die Hard ordering his people to “Hit it again” immediately after they had fired the missile at the tank. And that’s certainly what Rove would have done if the US had found even one barrel of chemical weapons in Iraq. Hell, he did it anyway.

But then again, Democrats could (perhaps naively) reject the premise that politics is one constant, endless struggle to annihilate the other side. They could bear down and try to use the legislative process to enact policies that, you know, help make life better. They could give light to the sensible policies that have been bottled up by committee chairman and the GOP leadership, and make people affirmatively want to vote for them.

Or something in between. Personally, I’d like to see a few more body blows, not necessarily for partisan reasons, but to make rushing to war an electoral liability. Sometimes you have to fight, it’s true, but only rarely. And if Iraq ultimately relegates the Republican Party to minority status, future generations of both Republicans and Democrats will take note of the political consequences of going to war just because you feel like it.

But the truth is (as Hans Gruber learned) scorched earth tactics always blowback by leaving a trail of people craving revenge. And if the Dems pounded the broken ribs, then they would get their ribs pounded too one day. The cycle (which is a prisoner's dilemma) needs to be broken. But it's hard to take the steps necessary to do that when you know the other side will not reciprocate.

Monday, October 30, 2006



As regular readers know, I’m no fan of Joe Lieberman, but Matt Stoller seems to have gone off the deep end a bit with this post:

[T]here are a number of reasons [why Lamont is losing], but among the most prominent is the total abandonment of Lamont by the party establishment. . . . The Democratic Senate leaders will sell us out at every opportunity be it torture, Iraq, Alito, Lieberman, the Bankruptcy Bill, or stopping war with Iran. They aren't poll-driven, they aren't fear-driven, and they aren't driven by strategic differences. They are simply driven to beat us down, their voters, by any means necessary. That's why they cheered Joe. It's sad. Lamont can win this[.]

Though I’m skeptical that Harry Reid’s primary motivation in life is to beat down Democratic voters for spite, I’ll take a pass on that pressing question for now. And while I certainly share Stoller’s frustrations over many of their votes, I think the Senate Dems are acting perfectly rational here in holding their fire. If Stoller wants to blame someone for Lamont’s poll numbers, he should start with Lamont.

As I see it, Lamont made two (fatal, sadly) errors — and they both happened within 48 hours of his primary victory. First, he tried to go mushy centrist to broaden his appeal (e.g., his too-polite acceptance speech), when his goal should have been — should always have been — to win over Democrats in blue Connecticut by pounding the Iraq drum. Second, he went radio-silent after the primary. Lieberman, by contrast, was all over the talk shows the very next morning.

I had originally read that Lamont disappeared because he was exhausted, which — though understandable — seemed like a bad idea. But I recently read (link anyone?) that the Lamont team backed off because of assurances from the party establishment that people were going to get Joe to drop out. If Lamont actually fell for that, then it’s the most naïve — and dumbest, frankly — thing I’ve ever heard. There’s a term for that — an unflattering term that combines rats and sex.

But there were other factors at play too — ones that Lamont really couldn’t control. For one, there was the exceptionally weak Republican. And two, there was the post-primary perception that Lieberman had actually done better than expected by finishing close in light of the recent polls (which had set an unreasonably high baseline for Lamont).

When you add it all up, it explains why the Lamont victory didn’t snowball as I had (wrongly) predicted it would. (Ed. You can hang that one beside by your “Kerry Will Win” post.) I thought a Lamont victory would recreate the political dynamic — i.e., I thought it would reshuffle the deck and cause the newly-weak Lieberman to hemorrhage support. But Lieberman’s support didn’t collapse in the face of a humiliating defeat. In those first critical hours, days, and weeks, Lieberman was out there defining the race and attacking. And Lamont was on vacation, getting assuring emails from a double agent at the DSCC I suppose.

But regardless, things are where they are. And the reality is that it looks like Lamont is going to lose. It also looks like the Democrats have a better-than-decent chance at actually winning enough seats to take the Senate assuming Lieberman is on board. And so, with the Senate riding in the balance, why in the world would the Senate leadership devote resources and effort to beating Lieberman at this point in time? It’s not just the irrationality of taking money out of Tennessee or Virginia and spending it in a race that the Dems can’t lose. It’s that full-throated establishment support for Lamont would make Joe far more likely to caucus with the GOP. By backing off Joe and promising him seniority, the leadership maintains the leverage necessary to ensure that he’ll pull the lever for Reid over McConnell.

None of this, of course, has anything to do with party activists, voters, bloggers, etc. supporting Lamont. That support is perfectly rational, and I’m certainly sympathetic to it. And to be clear, this is not an argument that supports voting for Lieberman. My argument is focused solely on what the party establishment should do. If Lamont were up by 5-10 and looking good, then shooting at the king might make more sense. But with Lamont down by wide margins, and with the Senate in the balance, the party establishment would be idiots to do what Stoller apparently wants them to do.

Lamont had his moment and didn’t seize it. It’s unfortunate and tragic, but politics is nothing if not tragic. He foolishly listened to a party establishment that never liked him, never wanted him to run, and was never really going to help him. And with Missouri, Tennessee, and Virginia raging, it’s not rational anymore to expect them to come to his rescue.

Saturday, October 28, 2006




Corporate America is already thinking beyond Election Day, increasing its share of last-minute donations to Democratic candidates and quietly devising strategies for how to work with Democrats if they win control of Congress. . . . [T]he prospect of a power shift is leading interest groups to begin rethinking well-established relationships, with business lobbyists going as far as finding potential Democratic allies in the freshman class[.] . . . Peter Welch, the Democratic candidate for Vermont’s single House seat, has already been telephoning some members of the Washington business lobby, offering an opportunity to begin a good relationship if he wins election.

Odyssey, Book X:

When they reached Circe's house they found it built of cut stones, on a site that could be seen from far, in the middle of the forest. There were wild mountain wolves and lions prowling all round it--poor bewitched creatures whom she had tamed by her enchantments and drugged into subjection.
. . .

They called her and she came down, unfastened the door, and bade them enter. They, thinking no evil, followed her, all except Eurylochus, who suspected mischief and staid outside. When she had got them into her house, she set them upon benches and seats and mixed them a mess with cheese, honey, meal, and Pramnian wine, but she drugged it with wicked poisons to make them forget their homes, and when they had drunk she turned them into pigs by a stroke of her wand, and shut them up in her pig-styes. They were like pigs--head, hair, and all, and they grunted just as pigs do[.]



I just watched Harold Ford on Bill Maher (and have been seeing several of his interviews lately). I certainly disagree with a number of his stances, but he is the smoothest, most gifted public speaker on the circuit right now. I haven't seen anyone like that since, well, the Big Dog. But Ford is that good and that quick and that smart. And if he wins, there's literally no limit to how high this guy could go.

From the beginning, I thought he was on a fool's errand in Tennessee. But like Clinton, there's just something there. And you get the sense that Destiny may be on this guy's side. We'll find out soon enough I guess.

And one other point about Ford - he provides a pretty good model for Red State Democrats in that he's found the political sweet spot between embracing, and distancing himself from, the national party. It's true that he adopts a lot of conservative social stances, but he does so without running from the Democratic brand. In other words, he distances himself on the individual policy level rather than the party level.

I think that's a politically smart thing to do and it's something that people like Brad Carson need to understand better. Bashing your own party (as a candidate) doesn't really get you anywhere. It not only depresses your base, it makes you look weak. After all, if you hate your own party so much, why be a part of it? What does that say about you? It also tends to weaken the brand name.

The thing to do is to embrace the positions you embrace, but also find some politically acceptable way to explain why you prefer the party that you actually belong to. Ford offered a perfect example of how to do this on HBO tonight. When asked, he gave a great semi-populist speech and didn't back off the brand at all.

To be clear, I don't really care about party loyalty (and to be honest, I'm hostile to the concept). I'm just making an observation about the effectiveness of a political tactic. Self-hating party bashing is self-defeating, I think. Ford (like Clinton) seems to get it.

Friday, October 27, 2006



I hate this election. It’s making me sick and I want it to be over. Ok, had to get that out.

It’s been a weird month for me. I didn’t join the bloggysphere until the beginning of 2004 when the Iowa primary was in full swing. And so I’ve always had a bit of 2002 envy — i.e., I wish I had been online for the 2002 midterms where so very much was at stake. I have visions of myself shooting off post after impassioned post. It was just one of those times when I wish my voice had been “on record” so to speak.

But now I have my first midterm election. And to be perfectly honest, I’m having a hard time writing about it. Don’t get me wrong — I’m reading about all the races, ads, etc., obsessively. I’m even going to volunteer for the first time in my life (probably doing this, or something local in Alexandria). But I don’t have much to say. For one, I’ve been very busy. But second, the dread and nausea are crowding out anything insightful I might add. The thought of losing — again — is almost too much this time and so I just want the suspense to be over. It’s taking forever for November 7 to arrive. I feel like Bart and Milhouse in the episode where they’re at school waiting for the clock to turn to 3:00 only to see it tick backwards to 2:58.

It’s weird — this election is both meaningless and the most important thing ever depending on your perspective. It’s meaningless because the 2000-through-2004 elections were the really important ones. The consequences of those elections simply can’t be undone. I think there’s a Billmon post on this somewhere, but even if the Dems win, Iraq will still have been invaded, torture will still have been approved, and, well, I could go on. It’s the whole “you can remove the nail but not the nailhole” point.

But in another sense, I think this election is more important than any of those other ones. That’s because if the GOP wins this time, it’s an indictment not of the Dems, but of our political system. In short, a GOP victory means that our political system is broken, perhaps beyond repair.

Just to be clear, my argument is NOT “oh, the mean ol’ GOP is so bad that their victory means everyone is stupid.” In fact, my argument has nothing to do with ideological disagreement with the GOP. In 2002 and 2004, a majority of the public supported the GOP, and so they deserved to win. You may disagree with the result substantively, but you can’t say it was illegitimate. Bush got millions more votes in 2004 after all. If Kerry had won Ohio, the truth is that he would have won illegitimately with a minority vote, just as Bush did in 2000.

What I’m saying is that if the GOP wins this time, it means our political system has become incapable of reflecting majority preferences. Based on every generic poll I’ve seen since Katrina, it’s clear the country as a whole prefers Democrats to take control. If this were a parliamentary vote, the Dems would clean up. But as you channel those preferences through gerrymandered districts, malapportioned Senates, lopsided funding disparities, sophisticated voter databases (i.e., candidates-picking-voters), and a media unwilling to punish those who lie, you get Speaker Hastert and Majority Leader McConnell.

In this way, 2006 has the potential to be far more depressing than 2002 and 2004. That’s because the latter elections maintained at least the illusion of democracy. What I mean is that the silver lining in those elections was that they held out the possibility that you could effect change by changing people’s minds. I think the Dems have done that this time around (with assists from the GOP). But if they can’t take control of even one branch, it calls into question whether the whole voting thing is for show — a legitimizing facade for a system creaking and cracking and growing illegitimate. If incumbents are this safe in this environment, they are safe in all possible environments.

I’ve also been reading with dread the Alterman theory (via Yglesias) that only money matters and that, accordingly, the Dems won’t take control of anything. It makes me nauseous not so much because of ideological agreement or disagreement with the GOP. It makes me nauseous because, right now, the public prefers a certain result that won’t materialize simply because one side can throw $100 million into the races during the last three weeks and win. Or because the political system is set up so that the 500,000 people in Wyoming have one-half the number of Senators that the 50 million people of CA and NY have.

Bottom line — if the GOP wins this time (or even if they don't), I think people need to get serious about addressing the procedural structural flaws that have crept into the American electoral system. The truth is that if the opposition party can’t take control in this environment, it can never take control without underlying structural changes (such as new rounds of gerrymandering after 2010). If you can simply purchase elections by dumping cash in at the end in “swing” districts, then something is seriously wrong with the state of our democratic discourse. If elections really can be decided on the basis of the drooling, second-grade-reading-level ads we’ve seen, then we’ve got serious problems.

But I can’t stress this enough. A GOP victory would be demoralizing not because of the GOP’s stance on the issues, but because the election won’t reflect majoritarian preferences. I just want our political system to reflect voter preferences. Doesn’t seem like an unreasonable request.

UPDATE: Lean Left has more.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006



I’m a little late to this, but I want to add my two cents on Jonah Goldberg’s “Iraq was a Worthy Mistake” column. Aside from its juvenile tone, I think his column exemplifies a much deeper — and darker — problem that America faces regardless of how the election turns out. While Goldberg’s column grudgingly concedes that Iraq was a mistake, it makes it crystal clear that one of the root causes of the nation’s blind acceptance of this war remains firmly in place.

Don’t get me wrong, Goldberg is a clever writer and consistently says some of the smarter things you see over at NRO. But something really rubbed me the wrong way about this:

Second, the antiwar types aren't really pacifists. They favor military intervention when it comes to stopping genocide in Darfur or starvation in Somalia or doing whatever that was President Clinton did in Haiti. In other words, their objection isn't to war per se. It's to wars that advance U.S. interests (or, allegedly, President Bush's or Israel's or ExxonMobil's interests). I must confess that one of the things that made me reluctant to conclude that the Iraq war was a mistake was my general distaste for the shabbiness of the arguments on the antiwar side.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Good one! Civilians with drill holes in their skulls certainly disturbed me, but not as much as those silly distasteful Howard Dean arguments about how the war was, you know, a bad idea. This kind of stuff makes me want to pull my hair out. Let’s see if I have this straight — the antiwar arguments, while correct, were shabby and “distasteful.” Support for perhaps the biggest strategic foreign policy blunder in American history, while wrong, was “the right thing to do.” I mean, when you read this stuff, it almost sounds reasonable until you think about what he’s actually saying. By the way, what’s the Dean vs. Goldberg scorecard in the “Correct Predictions About Iraq” game anyway? Noonan: Yes, but Dean’s arguments lack an “element of grace.”

Snark aside, there’s a more serious point here. I honestly don’t know why the administration invaded Iraq — and maybe no one ever will. But I do know why so much of the public supported the invasion. As Goldberg’s rhetoric illustrates, the honest truth is that contempt for “distasteful” liberals was a big reason why the American Right embraced Iraq with open arms and eyes wide shut. When you look back at the rhetoric — particularly circa October 2002 — it comes through loud and clear. Yes, post-9/11 fear and other elements played important roles, but liberal-bashing and liberals-are-wussies rhetoric played a big role too. For pro-war liberals/centrists, by contrast, support for the war was motivated in a big way by their need to distance themselves from the antiwar wussies. See, I’m a hairy-chested man, unlike the distasteful Howard Dean. I support the war.

For both camps, contempt for liberals played a big role in their blind acceptance of the war. Conservatives wanted a political weapon over the hated Left, while Tom Friedman and John Kerry wanted to show how centrist and manly they were. Neither camp thought hard about the consequences of the war, nor about what it would require. But the hated, distasteful Left opposed it, so it couldn’t be that bad.

As disturbing as the history is, what’s more disturbing is how unrepentant and unreflective people like Goldberg are about it. In the face of an error the size of Iraq, you might think Goldberg would reassess first principles — both about his views and about the views of those who got the war right (e.g., Gore) however distasteful or hairy they may be. But instead, Goldberg was apparently right to be wrong, and the antiwar types were wrong to be right (phrase via Billmon).

In other words, Goldberg isn’t thinking, “You know, maybe my distaste for liberals shouldn’t really be relevant to my foreign policy preferences. Maybe I need to rethink blind support for things just because liberals oppose it.” But no, the silly distasteful antiwar crowd was wrongfully correct, so I can continue ridiculing them and affirming my own foreign policy views.

Maybe I’m being unfair to Goldberg, but I think the point applies more generally across wide swathes of the GOP base. And that’s what truly dark here. If you assume I’m right about liberal-hatred being an important root cause of public support for the war, that problem has not been addressed at all. The manifestation of it (i.e., Iraq) has been discredited, but the roots are still there — just like some weed in the yard.

And as long as sizable percentages of the American public put hating liberals above all else, they’re going to keep supporting really bad policies. The military commissions bill is a perfect example. The loathing of liberals — combined with the fear of being associated with them — resulted in the suspension of habeas corpus and the authorization of what non-lawyers call torture. Maybe next year, it will lead to a war in Iran.

In any event, liberal-hatred is the pathology of the American Right. Although the GOP powers-that-be play this card again and again, the truth is that this mindset has resulted in a lot of harm to the nation over the past few years in the form of bad policies.

One would hope things like Iraq would cause a sober reassessment of the relative harms of powerless voting blocs versus policies enacted to spite powerless voting blocs. I guess we’ll find out in a couple of weeks.

(“Ha ha ha . . .” line lifted from Somerby).

Tuesday, October 24, 2006



To take a quick break from politics (for almost one paragraph), I saw (via Volokh) this study, which found that people who read more fiction are more empathetic. Of course, correlation is not causation (maybe empathetic people read more novels, as the study concedes). But just for kicks, let’s assume it’s right – reading fiction makes you more empathetic. I’m going to take a crack at explaining why that might be. But first, I want to revisit "liberal empathy" and how it accounts for the Blue/Red divide in American political consciousness.

I’ve written on all this before, but I think empathy (though too wussified to be a political slogan) is the conceptual foundation of modern liberalism. It is the theoretical tie that binds together a lot of facially disparate political preferences.

Think about the laundry list of liberal to more-liberal positions – support for the poor, federal education/health care subsidies, civil rights (race), civil rights (gender), civil rights (sexual orientation), immigration reform, criminal rights, opposition to capital punishment, internationalism, skepticism of military force, secularism, and even animal rights (if you swing that way). All of these can be characterized as recognizing the dignity of people different than you or not of your “tribe.” It’s one of the many reasons why liberals are more in tune with the actual text of the Gospels than the modern GOP.

But like any good materialist, I need an explanation about why some people display this empathy, while others don’t – something other than one group is smarter or morally better than the other one. The structural explanation, I think, is exposure to difference. Those who are exposed to diversity (however defined) are more likely to be empathetic. That’s why, for instance, urban centers have historically been more tolerant on social and religious issues. Compare the history of London to, say, the Kandahar region of Afghanistan.

That’s also why (as I’ve explained before) going to college or living abroad tends to make people more “socially liberal.” For the first time often, students are thrown together with people from all walks. It’s not that college makes you smarter or more moral, it’s just that being away from home inevitably makes you doubt the certainty of positions that are historical accidents based on your family, your hometown social norms, etc.

When you actually start hearing intelligent arguments that you previously knew only as caricatures, when you actually make a few gay friends, your worldview shifts in response. When you’re not exposed to these differences, you’re less likely to care about those kinds of people. That’s why the Taliban wasn’t very Buddhist-friendly, and it’s also why many urban professionals don’t really care about poverty deep in their bones – neither group has seen these things up close. (Compare that to people like Clinton and Edwards who grew up poor.).

This is obviously amateur sociology, but I think it’s at least a plausible explanation for the liberal or “Blue” urban archipelago that emerged in the 2004 election. It’s not really Blue vs. Red America – it’s urban centers vs. non-urban centers.

But anyway, if you’re still with me, you can see how this theory might also explain why reading fiction makes you more empathetic. Reading fiction is as close as you can get to meeting real people without actually stepping outside your house. Unlike the medium of films or TV or the series of tubes, literature (as a medium) allows you to get inside a person’s head in a much more intimate way.

While it’s obviously not the same as actually experiencing diversity (broadly defined), it’s at least similar to what people experience when they get exposed to diverse types of people in urban areas or living abroad. Seeing – and viscerally experiencing – diversity makes you recognize the contingency of your own views. The result is that you become more empathetic and will be more likely to recognize others’ dignity or shared humanness.

Still, reading is admittedly a poor substitute for actually going out and experiencing these things – Robin Williams’ “Sistine Chapel” speech and all that. But still, it’s better than nothing.

Pre-election shrillness will now resume.

Monday, October 23, 2006



Dick Morris, NY Post ("Best GOP Hope: Scare 'Em Silly"):

[T]he GOP base is the best informed group of voters in the nation[.]



Sorry to be AWOL lately. I'm almost over the hump with a bunch of deadlines, so I should be back to normal tomorrow. Err..., today.

Thursday, October 19, 2006



So you may have read John Yoo’s “op-ed” celebrating the new military commission law. I use quotes because it’s more of a rant than a op-ed - and one that's heavy on visceral, emotional contempt for judges.

Anyway, there’s lots to say about it, but for now I just want to point out that the central argument of his op-ed is just completely wrong. Yoo writes:

Hamdan was an unprecedented attempt by the court to rewrite the law of war and intrude into war policy. The court must have thought its stunning power grab would go unchallenged.

But it wasn’t a power grab at all. Hamdan was, at essence, about procedure. The Court (at least for now) avoided the constitutional issues and instead reallocated decision-making power to Congress. Of course, Congress didn’t use that power wisely, but that’s not the point. The point is that the Court wrestled unfettered power away from the President, but handed it over to the legislature rather than keeping it for itself. Maybe that’s good, maybe it’s bad. But it’s not a “power grab” to force Congress to do its job.



Yglesias beat me to this (again), but it's an important point I think:

It seems to me that the odds are good that faced with aggressive investigative efforts [the administration will] respond with a strategy of total noncompliance -- simply refusing to hand over documents or make officials available for testimony -- pleading the need for wartime secrecy and seeking to provoke a constitutional crisis.

I've been thinking about this for some time, and it actually ties in nicely with this Daryl Levinson/Richard Pildes Harvard Law Review article regarding political parties and the separation of powers. Unfortunately, I'm swamped at work right now, but I'll explain what I mean later this week.

In the meantime, a question. What will happen if the administration just ignores subpoenas from a Democratic committee? Will people care? Will Republican Congressmen/women care?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006



Wash. Post editorial, "Mr. Brownback's Litmus Test":

If you thought that fights over judicial nominations couldn't get any worse, consider the case of Janet T. Neff, whom President Bush has nominated to a federal district judgeship in Michigan. Judge Neff[.] . . . For Judge Neff, it turns out, once attended a commitment ceremony for a lesbian couple -- and that has Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback (R) reaching for the smelling salts and blocking the nomination. . . . He has written to Judge Neff asking for an explanation, his spokesman says, and will hold up her nomination until he learns the nature of the ceremony and its legality. "It seems to speak about her view of judicial activism," the senator told the Associated Press.

Judge Neff's Questionnaire (leaked to Legal Fiction last night):


Office of Senator Sam Brownback
Questionnaire — Nominee for the District Court of the United States


1. Name: Full name (include any former names used).

2. Position: State the position for which you have been nominated.
3. Birthplace: State date and place of birth.

4. Education: List in reverse chronological order any college, law school, and other institutions of higher education attended. Please include dates of attendance, whether a degree was received, and the date each degree was received.

5. Income. List sources and amounts of all income received during the calendar year preceding your nomination and for the current calendar year, including all salaries, fees, dividends, interest, gifts, rents, royalties, patents, honoraria, and other items exceeding $500 or more. (Copies of the financial disclosure report, required by the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, may be substituted here.)


1. Are you now, or have you ever been, a friend of any gay or lesbian individuals or couples? If you answer yes, please complete the following questions:

1(a). Indicate whether you have ever attended an illegal ceremony involving said individuals.

1(b). If you answered yes to Question #1(a), indicate whether you had a good time.

1(c): Indicate whether you informed the individuals in the ceremony about the moral appropriateness of their actions.

1(d): Provide a copy of the music list played at said ceremony along with an authenticating affidavit. Identify specifically any Pet Shop Boys songs, particularly any from their new album which is in many respects their finest work.

1(e). If you spoke at said ceremony, provide a copy of the text of your speech and list all individuals involved in its drafting.

1(f). Provide a list of every individual you talked to at the illegal ceremony in reverse alphabetical order, along with a list of the type of food served.

2. Judicial Activism (cont’d). Are you now, or have you ever been, a fan of the television show Will and Grace? If yes, do you find Jack’s character to be amusing, or do you view him as a caricature of the modern gay urban male?

2(a). Please share your impressions of David Bowie’s Moonage Daydream. Elaborate on the appropriateness of its lyrics, particularly this passage: “The church of man, love . . . Is such a holy place to be.”

2(b). Do you now, or have you ever, owned an Elton John record? An Elton John hat? If yes (particularly on the latter question), please describe the circumstances of the purchase and identify all individuals with personal knowledge.

2(c). Please select one of the following words to complete the sentence: “Oscar Wilde books should be________.” (a) kept from children; (b) removed from public libraries; (c) burned.

2(d). In no more than 250 words, write a persuasive essay for or against the following passage. Feel free to adopt the flowery French-adjective-heavy prose of indie-rock journalists:

Although Brokeback Mountain will be remembered for its cultural significance, the storyline is lacking in many important respects. In particular, the chemistry between the star-crossed cowboys simply did not justify the escalation of their romance at that point in the film.

3. Pro Bono Work. An ethical consideration under Canon 2 of the American Bar Association’s Code of Professional Responsibility calls for “every lawyer, regardless of professional prominence or professional workload, to find some time to participate in serving the disadvantaged.” Describe what you have done to fulfill these responsibilities, listing specific instances and the amount of time devoted to each.

3(a). Indicate whether any of this work has been in support of a client advocating gay or lesbian legal rights.

4. Personal Essays. Please answer the following in 500 words or less:

4(a): Discuss a situation that posed a significant challenge for you, how you handled the situation and what you learned. Indicate whether you sought the assistance of any gay or lesbian individual to overcome these challenges.

4(b): If you had the opportunity to have a conversation with a significant contemporary or historical figure, whom would you choose? Is that person gay?

4(c): If someone new came to your town, what three things would you show him/her that would make you proud about your town? If that town were DC, would one of the places be Dupont Circle?

5. Riddle Skills:

As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives.
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits.
Kits, cats, sacks and wives,
How many were going to St. Ives?

6. Word Puzzles:

How many words can you make from the following word:


7. Artistic Aptitude:

Tuesday, October 17, 2006



Brendan Nyhan, "Kerry calls N.K. nuke 'the Bush bomb'":

On Friday, John Kerry [said]: . . . When George W. Bush turned his back on diplomacy, Kim Jong Il turned back to making bombs, and the world is less safe today because a madman has the Bush bomb.

Chris Wallace was right to challenge the formulation "Bush bomb" in an interview this morning with Kerry on "Fox News Sunday." Regardless of the failures of Bush's policies, President Bush did not give North Korea its nuclear capability. (A more accurate formulation might be "the A.Q. Khan bomb.")

Glad he straightened that one out.



Although there’s tough competition for first prize, one of the most annoying aspects of the Cheney/neocon foreign policy worldview is what I call the “wussification” of international law and diplomacy. Maybe ‘twas ever thus, but respecting internationalism has been successfully caricatured as weakness within the American political arena (particularly among America’s chattering classes who should know better). Whether in the context of Iraq, the ICC, or the Geneva Convention, internationalism is seen as hindering the great Colossus from striding — hairy-chested and non-French — across the globe, spreading its power and goodness.

For those who don’t subscribe to the Hairy-Chested School of International Relations though, the problem is how to convince people politically — both pundits and the public — why internationalism actually helps makes America “stronger.” More precisely, how do you make a concrete case that respecting international law, diplomacy, and institutions actually make America more hairy-chested, not less. Slogans just aren’t enough. After all, the simplicity of the neocon message is emotionally appealing and easy to understand — we’re tough, we’re good, we’ll go alone, we won’t negotiate with evil, etc. But like so much else that comes from that crew, its connection with reality leaves something to be desired.

I won’t pretend to have an answer about how to help internationalism gain political traction, but I do think the recent problems with Iran and North Korea illustrate how America would benefit from a stronger respect for international law and diplomacy.

I thought about this while listening to a speech recently on the future of nuclear energy — particularly its emerging alliance with the environmental movement. The discussion inevitably strayed to Iran, and the speaker explained that one of the (many) sticking points is that Iran is skeptical of international guarantees of nuclear energy from other countries. International guarantees are, after all, only as good as the guarantors, and he explained that Iran was somewhat justified to be skeptical of the promise (particularly from the US — if you’ll recall, we didn’t exactly keep our 1994 promise to North Korea on this front).

That said, Iran is probably full of it. They do, after all, have a healthy amount of energy resources. But the larger point is an important one. There are consequences to undermining the legitimacy and the authority of international agreements. When your nation’s entire foreign policy is premised on the notion that international law doesn’t apply to it, you can understand why other countries might be reluctant to enter into agreements with us — especially if the agreement involves them accepting risk based on our word. Mortgage Officer: It says here you don’t believe in contracts. You write, “they are tools of the moneyed classes and are inherently illegitimate.” Karl: Ha, ha, yes, that’s a little joke I like to tell. So can I have the loan?

Same deal with North Korea, or any other situation whose resolution requires some sort of pledge or guarantee from us. The neocon foreign policy — on everything from environmental to security agreements — has increased the transaction costs of resolving these kinds of international negotiations. That’s because our existing agreements (looking back) and our pledges (looking forward) have less value to the parties across the table. As a result, we have to do more and give more to get what we want.

What’s maddening though is that the actions that have led us to this sorry state of affairs have been justified (and even internalized) as “strong.” Being a strong hairy-chested hawk means adopting a militaristic, go-it-alone, no-appeasing-nor-negotiating worldview. Opposing that approach is French dovish-ness.

When you look beyond the linguistic labels and narratives though, the reality is very different. The application of the hairy-chested ideology to the world is not “strong” at all. It’s profoundly weak — and it masks laziness and cowardliness.

Think about it. Coming up with a diplomatic solution with respect to Iran and North Korea is hard. It requires digging into the issue, assessing your leverage, understanding the other culture, understanding their subjective fears and concerns, engaging in some game theory analysis, and doing the inevitable give-and-take that diplomacy requires in a world that’s not black-or-white. Alternatively, you can say “they’re evil” and take your ball and bat and go home. That’s not “strength” though, it’s stupidity. Actually, stupidity is too kind a word. What it really is, is laziness — a simple unwillingness to do the hard work and to invest the capital required to get the best solution you can. This administration prefers to stick its head in the sand and call it moral clarity.

Same deal with Iraq. I was thinking about this after reading Lindsay’s most excellent phrase “innumerate cowards.” It’s so very true. The administration and its sympathetic pundits like to paint their Iraq policy as one of steely resolve and of hawkish, hairy-chested strength. But in fact, it’s just the opposite. It’s abject cowardice.

In the face of a civil war spiraling out of control, and of escalating American casualties, the hairy-chested “hawks” lack the courage to face the reality that things must change. Rather than coming to terms with the mistakes they unleashed on the world, they prefer to shut their eyes and let more empty chairs stack up around kitchen tables across the country. Rather than accept the reality that over half a million innocent Iraqis may have been killed, they clasp their ears and scream bias.

Leaving Iraq will be hard — and it obviously needs to be done in a measured way. And yes, it’s going to be damn tough to leave after so many people have died. It’s going to be hard to deal with the national cognitive dissonance that so many heroes have fought and died so bravely for so little. It’s heart-wrenching. And I hate it — I hate that families have to think it — and live it. I hate that we have to do it. But courage is about doing things that are hard. That’s what “strength” means. Being strong means doing things that are hard to do. It shows precisely zero strength, however, to just blindly say “let’s finish the mission” without any sort of end strategy in sight. In fact, that’s the policy of cowards.

Let me say it clearly — it is cowardly to let others keep dying because you’re too afraid to face up to your mistakes. It is the opposite of being strong. And typing essays in air-conditioned offices against those wussified cut-and-run Defeatocrats for daring to suggest that we do something to stop the bleeding is the most appalling cowardice of all.

Conservative pundits are right about one thing though. One side of the Iraq debate is acting like a bunch of cowards. They’re damn well right about that.

Monday, October 16, 2006

SENATE - Game On 


I have no idea if AdNags’ information in this article is accurate, or whether he’s being played, but if it's accurate, then man oh man, it’s huge:

Senior Republican leaders have concluded that Senator Mike DeWine of Ohio, a pivotal state in this year’s fierce midterm election battles, is likely to be heading for defeat and are moving to reduce financial support for his race and divert party money to other embattled Republican senators, party officials said.

I’m not counting the Republicans out of anything until I see it happen — they’ve closed strong too many times. But if AdNags is right, then the Senate is now legitimately in play. As you know, six is the magic number for Dems. According to AdNags' article (and others I’ve seen), the GOP at this point clearly expects to lose three — Rhode Island, Montana, and Pennsylvania:

Even before this development, Republicans had been bracing for the defeat of three sitting Republican senators: Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Conrad Burns of Montana and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, based on polling.

At the start of the fall campaign, national Republican leaders developed a strategy to pour most of the national money into three states — Ohio, Tennessee and Missouri — to create a firewall against a Democratic takeover. One Republican Party official said Mr. DeWine’s continued problems in Ohio had persuaded them to in effect rebuild a firewall that has now partly collapsed, and to find a state to replace it.

If they’re really scaling back Ohio, that means the Democrats now have four. That means they have to (1) win just two of the three races in Virginia, Tennessee, and Missouri; (2) hold New Jersey; and (3) hold Lieberman.

Maybe I’m being naïve, but I’m not as worried about #3 as others are. I assume Schumer, Clinton, et al. got some sort of assurance from Joe that he would caucus with the Dems. Otherwise, I doubt they would have supported him in the primary, and I suspect they would be throwing more party resources into Connecticut. In other words, I assume the deal was that the Senate Dems said they would nominally support Lamont because they had to, but that they would remain on the sidelines and welcome him back after he won the general. As for Lieberman’s wishy-washy answer on control of the House, I think that was just political calculation. He has to get GOP support to win, so there’s a limit on what he can say.

As for #2, we’ll know soon enough if the GOP’s internal numbers show that Kean has a real shot. If so, they’ll have to take on an expensive ad buy in NYC and Philly:

The next important decision for Republicans is whether to compete in New Jersey; they plan to spend about $500,000 on advertising this week, followed by polling to see how vulnerable Mr. Menendez is to his Republican challenger, Thomas H. Kean Jr. Going into New Jersey is a costly gamble, because it requires advertising in both the New York City and Philadelphia markets, which party strategists said could easily eat up $2.5 million a week.

And as for #1, it’s a tough but not impossible task to win two of these races. After all, they all seem to be tied right now (though McCaskill has some better numbers lately). Frankly, I’m most skeptical of Virginia. I’m on the ground here in Northern Virginia, and it just sort of feels that Allen stopped the bleeding (thanks to Foley). The Post reported this morning that the race was tied, which is pretty unbelievable on one level, but moral victories don’t count. And Allen still has a lot of money to spend. And I’m guessing we’re about to see the full weight of the GOP’s financial and political attack machine come down on Ford and McCaskill (the latter faces a bigger financial gap).

All in all, it’s still very tough to get to six. But losing Ohio makes it a lot easier because it allows the Dems to lose one of these three races and still take control. And so if you’re in Virginia, Tennessee, or Missouri, you’re at Ground Zero — and if you've had an itching to get involved in campaigns, no time like the present.

Sunday, October 15, 2006



Damon Linker and Ross Douthat had an interesting debate at TNR last week about the proper role of religion in American politics. I was (as usual) impressed by Douthat who illustrated that it’s much trickier than you might think to argue that religion is harming American society. Like Douthat, I’m skeptical of the claim that religion is antithetical to secular, liberal government. But that said, I think Douthat ignores the extent to which one politically powerful subset of religion is harming the public good and, in particular, is constricting individual freedom.

Without getting bogged down in the specifics of their debate, I think there are two strong responses to the argument that religion is threatening our liberal order: (1) history shows just the opposite; and (2) the threat of religion is being exaggerated.

The former is a particularly difficult one to overcome, largely because it’s correct. As Douthat points out, religion has played a prominent role in American politics since the Founding. Indeed, religion was the primary motivating force (both ideologically and infrastructurally) of the anti-slavery, civil rights, and women’s suffrage movements — which collectively represent some of America’s finest moments. And so that’s the dilemma for those who view religion as an inherent threat to American politics. Why is religion ok for the abolitionists, but not for the Dobsonites?

The second argument — that secular progressives are over-hyping the threat of religion — also has merit. After all, people say that religious extremists have seized political control of the country at the very same time they say that the GOP ignores social conservatives and plays them for fools. So which is it — does Dobson rule the world, or is he getting played?

Douthat says:

The theocons, you inform us, want to return abortion law to the states, allowing the procedure “to be banned outright in states dominated by populist religiosity.” (That is, they want the abortion regime that prevailed throughout 95 percent of America's existence.) They want a return to more traditional family structures, and they want to keep gay marriage and assisted suicide illegal. Oh, and they want people to be more religious, so that all the events of daily life would be "permeated by Christian piety and conviction." I understand that you disagree with all these positions, but is it really shocking news--let alone a looming threat to the republic--that socially conservative Christians want America to be more, well, socially conservative and Christian?

In other words, people are over-hyping the threat. Linker addresses these points, but I didn’t find him terribly persuasive. He argues, for instance, that MLK and the abolitionists’ policies are “perfectly defensible in secular-civic terms.” But as he immediately (and correctly) points out, a lot of theocon policies can be justified in this way too — it just depends on your baselines and assumptions.

But all that said, I do think there is a coherent way to separate the suffrage and anti-slavery movements from modern-day theocon policies. And so here is where I'll part ways with Douthat.

Stepping back, my main critique of Douthat (and intelligent social conservatives more generally) is that they underestimate and downplay the public harms that modern political Christianity (a subset of Christianity) is causing. Specifically, the problem with Dobson-style political Christianity is that it threatens — and is restricting — the scope of individual liberty. In other words, it is intruding upon the individual’s “sphere of private freedom,” which is the bedrock assumption upon which Western liberal thought and government were built. And while Christianity itself is not a threat to the liberal order, Dobson-style Christianism is.

From this perspective, it’s a lot easier to address the two objections I listed above. Regarding the first one, just look at the role religion played in the suffrage and civil rights’ movements. In these contexts, religion expanded the individual's sphere of freedom. It expanded individual autonomy. And so, while it’s true that religion played a key role in these movements, the movements themselves should be understood as vindicating and expanding individual dignity and freedoms.

It’s very difficult to justify modern theocon policies on these grounds, despite the fact they also invoke religion. Opposition to gay marriage, for instance, is as diametrically opposed as something can be to the old faith-based movements discussed above. The anti-marriage movement is not about recognizing dignity (i.e., respecting individual autonomy) and fighting for it, it’s about overruling autonomy in the name of the collective and their God.

Same deal with assisted suicide, which is another example Douthat cited above. Same deal with opposition to contraception — which is perhaps the most egregious and inexplicable invasion of individual autonomy of all the current theocon efforts. Same deal with efforts to make divorce harder, or to shame working women into going back home. Same deal with banning Internet gambling. Same deal with efforts to impose God and school prayer and Ten Commandments statues in public places like schools and courthouses. Rather than respecting each individual’s autonomy in unique and coercive public settings like schools, the collective imposes its religious will upon the individual.

Abortion is trickier because it’s a matter of baselines. On the one hand, it clearly fits the pattern above because it’s a particularly intrusive invasion of individual autonomy — an effort to criminalize intimately private decisions by women and their families. Of course, the counter-argument is that the pro-life movement expands the rights of the fetus, which is a “person” with autonomy. Regardless of where you come down on these questions, the approach more respectful of individual autonomy would be to persuade privately rather than through criminal sanctions. One can preach the virtues of the pro-life position without inscribing those views in a penal code. That approach would certainly show more respect for individual dignity.

But even putting abortion aside, the general point stands. Modern theocon policies are “different” than the old faith-based movements that have rightly become part of our national identity and consciousness. And so, the true ideological ancestors to the modern theocons are not the abolitionists, but the Prohibition movement. (And that turned out well, if I recall.)

Ok — but what about the second question? Is Dobson Christianity taking over the country, or is it being played for fools? The answer is both. On the one hand, it’s true that the national GOP powers-that-be aren’t interested in fighting for the theocon platform. They like the theocons’ votes, but business comes first for them.

But that said, just because the current leadership ignores the movement, that doesn’t mean there’s not a movement. I think it’s clear that Dobson "political Christianity" is growing — and that it threatens the liberal order because it targets the scope of individual freedoms for the sake of the collective. (That also might be why the Dobson branch is more comfortable with torture and habeas-stripping.) And so, if a leadership truly committed to theocon policies ever emerged, it could really do some damage. Indeed, you see this more clearly in the states (e.g., South Dakota) where the GOP leadership is far more willing to enact policies that cut deep into the heart of individual freedoms.

And that’s why this debate is necessary — we need to understand exactly what is or isn’t threatening about the mix of religion and politics. As I said, Christianity itself is a healthy part of society and one perfectly compatible with the liberal order (and often a defender of it). But the modern form of political Christianity (which traces back to Prohibition and temperance) should be understood as the threat to individual autonomy that it is. And it's not one that should be lightly dismissed.

Friday, October 13, 2006



Don't know if any of you watch Bill Maher, but it's worth TiVo-ing just to see the meltdown of AEI's Danielle Pletka (roughly 20 minutes in). And the exchange below is great. They're discussing the Lancet study by those dumbass epidemiologists from the rinky-dink Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health:

MAHER: A report came back this week that said we've killed 655,000 . . .

PLETKA: That story is not accurate. . . . From left to right, people who understand about doing these sorts of studies agree that this thing is horse manure if I can say that on cable TV. It is absolute rubbish.

Ah, AEI.



Gotta say that I’m pretty bummed about Warner’s exit. Barring a Gore entry, he was my guy. And I don’t really like any of the major players in the field. But the real question among junkies is who benefits most from Warner’s exit. The early consensus seems to be coalescing around Bayh, though I agree with others that it actually helps Edwards the most. (I think it's a mixed bag for Clinton, though probably a net positive.)

But first, Warner. The reason I like him (other than Electoral College math) is that he passes the critical threshold issue for any presidential candidate — “known, but not yet viscerally disliked.” Personally, I think you know the winner of a presidential election the second the candidates are nominated. The public has an initial gut-level impression that places a ceiling on those candidates' potential level of support. For instance, even if John Kerry ran a perfect campaign, he simply would never be seriously considered by majorities in a majority of states. Same deal with Hillary. Regardless of how well she campaigned, she would not win a single Southern state. You can just write off every one of them. (Maybe that’s fine with you — but that’s a different debate.)

With Warner (like Clinton the Bubba), capturing new states is at least a possibility. For whatever reason, a much higher percentage of people would at least consider him. You could, for instance, imagine walking into a pool hall in rural Tennessee in August 2008 and saying you support Warner without getting ridiculed. That’s just not true with Hillary — and hawkish Armed Services Committee hearings aren’t going to change that.

It’s similar to going on a date. For some people, it doesn’t matter if they nail every joke, listen intently, and otherwise run the “perfect date.” They’re just not going to get lucky at the end of the night because of the first impression. (That’s also why Bill Frist will never be president, but John McCain very well might.)

But putting that aside, let’s move on to the handicapping. At this point, there are so many candidates and variables and assumptions that it’s impossible to know what the real effect of Warner’s exit will be. After all, it’s not 100% clear that Hillary is even running. But if she is, and in light of her money and institutional advantages, I agree that the primary will become a battle between Hillary and everyone else. And so with Hillary in, there are actually two primaries — (1) the fight with Hillary for the nomination; and (2) the fight to fight Hillary for the nomination.

With respect to Primary #2, Warner’s exit actually helps all the anti-Hillarys. The fewer anti-Hillarys there are, the greater each candidate’s respective chances of success become. But within Primary #2, I think it helps Edwards the most rather than Bayh because it’s one less major contender in the race. Let’s face it, Bayh isn’t well-known enough to be considered a major contender at this point. Neither is Warner, but he’s infinitely better-known than Bayh and has been generating buzz for some time. For Bayh, Warner’s exit simply lets him in the door. For the much-more established Edwards, it knocks out what I think is his toughest challenger in Primary #2.

The effect of Warner’s exit on Primary #1 is more complicated. From one perspective, Warner’s exit hurts Hillary because she benefits from having a high number of viable anti-Hillarys in the race for as long as possible chewing each other up. If Primary #2 doesn’t end quickly though, it will become irrelevant as Clinton takes plurality after plurality while the others fight for second.

But from a different perspective, Warner’s exit helps her. Among the current crop of candidates, Hillary wants to go toe-to-toe with Warner the least — and for a couple of reasons. Hillary’s biggest liability is not so much Iraq (she’ll start saying the right things by June 2007), but perceived electability. Perceived electability, in turn, is Warner’s biggest strength. Edwards is building a good ground game, and Feingold sets bloggy hearts a’flutter, but everyone has serious doubts about their electability. If it comes down to Hillary and Edwards, I’m not sure whether Edwards has any electability advantage (2004 taint), and certainly not enough to make people pass on Hillary’s well-oiled, well-funded machine that won’t make stupid mistakes. (Bayh may also be electable, but he’s just too unknown right now to be relevant. Perhaps that will change.)

The other reason Hillary may be cheering instead of groaning right now is money. Among the current crop of candidates, she’s the only one capable of doing the old-time institutional fat-cat fundraising now that Warner is out. Unlike the others, Warner had the potential of bringing in lots of corporate cash. [Am I underestimating Bayh? Could he keep the fundraising up?]

Edwards may be rich, but he’s not that rich — and no former trial lawyer will be able to compete for corporate donations. Netsroot funding is always a wild card, but I think it will be viable only if it manages to focus on one candidate who commands a passionate following (see, e.g., Dean). If Gore enters, then all bets are off, and the Internet fundraising will come into its own as Gore sets every fundraising record known to man. Feingold and Edwards, by contrast, can’t pull this off even though they are well-liked. Online contributors have become more savvy, and want to back perceived winners like everyone else.

In short, the battle between Hillary and the anti-Hillarys is not just about ideology, it’s also a battle between rival fundraising models and infrastructure. With Warner out, Hillary has that field to herself (unless Bayh proves me wrong).

But I think the real winner today is someone we don’t know yet. Among all the candidates, Warner struck me as qualitatively different — as someone with immense potential energy. He was the only one that really excited me — both on the electability and ideological front. He was, as Bai's NYT Magazine declared, the anti-Hillary. But now, the current field is bland. There’s no obvious anti-Hillary and no one I’m all that excited about. (I like Edwards a lot, but I don’t think people like him as much as they once did.) And so Warner’s exit creates a vacuum for someone like Gore or Clark to fill.

Thursday, October 12, 2006



(Via Feddie) MSNBC: "Book Says Bush Just Using Christians":

“Tempting Faith’s” author is David Kuo, who served as special assistant to the president from 2001 to 2003. A self-described conservative Christian, Kuo’s previous experience includes work for prominent conservatives including former Education Secretary and federal drug czar Bill Bennett and former Attorney General John Ashcroft.

. . .

He says some of the nation’s most prominent evangelical leaders were known in the office of presidential political strategist Karl Rove as “the nuts.”

“National Christian leaders received hugs and smiles in person and then were dismissed behind their backs and described as ‘ridiculous,’ ‘out of control,’ and just plain ‘goofy,’” Kuo writes.

Legal Fiction Exclusive: "Neighborhood Dog Bites Area Man"
A dog bit a man yesterday. The man said, "it hurt." In other news, the earth turned on its axis. The sun rose in the East, while reportedly setting in the West. Waves crashed on an area beach. Crickets hummed in a local field. A neighborhood villain twisted his mustache. An area mother made scrambled eggs for her child. And local poets they studied rules of verse, while area ladies, they rolled their eyes.

Monday, October 09, 2006



I just got back from vacation and so I'm catching up on news, work, etc. I expect to resume posting tomorrow.

Friday, October 06, 2006



Via Digby, I see that one of the new GOP Foley strategies is to, yes, accuse the Democrats of being complicit. Republican House members, for instance, wrote a letter to the Democratic leadership stating:

[I]t must also be determined whether any Democrat Members or political operatives were aware of, and attempted to conceal these same activities.

Although it’s absurd, this counter-offensive is probably a politically smart move — assuming that the press doesn’t punish them for trying it (which they won’t). And taking a step back, the counter-offensive is also interesting from a psychological perspective for what it reveals about the nature of political partisanship.

I’ve discussed this before, but I think that American political loyalties are more gut-based than fact-based. People remain loyal to parties not so much because of the parties’ positions, but because people feel an emotional attachment to them. More precisely, I think people remain loyal to a party because they feel visceral, gut-level contempt for the opposite party.

Contrary to what you read on the Washington Post op-ed page, the key to modern political success is making voters viscerally dislike the other party. That’s the glue that holds partisan loyalties in place. And it’s something both parties do — though the Republicans are much better at it. (On an aside, Eric Alterman on bloggingheads suggested to Kaus that the GOP attack machine has gotten so efficient that no presidential candidate’s reputation can survive if he or she has a record.).

Anyway, my theory is that the reason conservatives remain loyal to the GOP is not because they’re happy with the party, and not because they’re idiots, but because they dislike liberals on an emotional level. And as long as contempt for liberals is a higher priority than everything else, they will remain loyal regardless of what the GOP does.

If you accept this theory, then the Foley counter-offensive makes perfect sense. Blaming the Democrats distracts people from the facts of the story because it re-stokes the “liberal hating” fires. Conservatives are predisposed to support the GOP, but they have to have something to hang their hat on. So, if you have nothing else to run with, blame the Dems. The point is not so much to come up with an explanation that’s factually plausible, the point is to give people something (anything) that will reaffirm their pre-existing emotional loyalties. In other words, it gives people who want to root for you something to say, something to think, and something to ease cognitive dissonance.

Blaming the Dems has another benefit too — it kicks up dirt and prevents the uninformed from learning the true facts. This is really where the press has failed the public over the past few years. By blaming the Dems, the standard news story will be a “he says/she says.” The point of blaming them isn’t so much to win the argument but to fight to a draw — to make people think, “ehh, both parties are equally bad.” What’s maddening though is that, so long as the press dutifully reports in the “he said/she said” template, this sort of disingenuousness is rational. In other words, the press creates incentives for people to act like this.

As I noted in a post below, the GOP needs to find some way to release the building pressure on this story. If blaming the Dems rallies conservatives, maybe that will do the trick. I still think, though, that Hastert won’t survive. It’s going to create too many wedges in too many districts. But we’ll see I guess.



Hindrocket, today:

If the Democrats have known for some time about Foley's transgressions but failed to act until now, they endangered more boys--and why? Solely to advance their partisan political interests. . . . Is it possible that the Democrats deliberately delayed disclosure of Foley's transgressions, thereby endangering the security of current Congressional pages and other teenage boys, solely to advance their own political interests? One would certainly hope not. But it is obviously a question that needs to be investigated and answered.

Hindrocket, 10/1:

Truthfully, this is the kind of story I don't take much interest in. . . . As far as I can tell from the news stories I've read, there is no claim that Foley did anything with any House page. The claim is that he sent inappropriate emails to one or more pages. These emails were described to Hastert, apparently, as "over friendly," but he was also told that the family of the page in question "didn't want the matter pursued." I've never been Speaker of the House, but I can imagine that such a conversation would not be among the most significant Hastert has had in the last year, and would not necessarily make a deep impression. . . . But, in view of the history of far more egregious cases in the House, the idea of pursuing the House leadership on a "when did they find out that Foley sent a creepy email" basis seems ludicrous, and is understandable only in the context of two facts: Foley is a Republican, and there is an election in five weeks.

Thursday, October 05, 2006



It looks like Hastert thinks he’ll get to remain Speaker. I’m not sure how much longer he can hold out, but he’s clearly not giving up yet. Unfortunately for him — and the reason he’s a goner I think — is that his continued existence as Speaker is now officially inflaming the story. What we’re seeing is a perfect example of what I call the white blood cells theory of political controversies. It’s not exactly the opposite of Kaus’s Feiler Faster Theory, but it’s somewhat in tension with it.

Anyway, the theory goes something like this. Most controversies pop up and fizzle out within 24 or 48 hours. It might be because the controversy doesn’t have much substance to it, or it might be that the story has stopped generating “new” news. This is a key part, I think, of Feiler Faster. Because news cycles start over each day, there has to be something keeping the story alive or it will drift out of public consciousness and be replaced by the next day’s cycle. Mmmmm. Shiny things.

Sometimes, though, it doesn’t happen like that. Sometimes controversies expand and metastasize. When they do, it’s often because some key aspect of the story isn’t resolving (for whatever reason). To me, it’s very much like the immune system. Generally, you get a splinter and your body forces it out quickly and easily. But if the splinter (or plank) is large enough, the injury doesn’t “resolve” naturally, it actually gets worse and worse until you physically remove the plank from your eye side. Until you take that step, the immune system and its white blood cells flood the site of the unresolved injury. And the longer it’s stuck in there, the more immune cells pile on — causing inflammation, aggravation, etc. until the damn thing is finally ejected and everything starts receding.

The analogy should be obvious by now. In many political controversies, refusals to act in a certain way (e.g., a refusal to apologize; a refusal to resign; etc.) often play the role of the “stick in the side.” And until the person finally caves, the story keeps expanding and takes on a life of its own. We’ve seen this play out in many contexts lately. For example, the Durbin Nazi brewhaha didn’t calm down until Durbin agreed to apologize. That resolved the building story. George Allen’s refusal to apologize to “macaca” kept generating story after story. George Allen: Thank God for Mark Foley. The administration’s refusal to retract “the sixteen words” fed the fire of that controversy until Hadley finally spoke up. And it was the same deal with Secretary Rice’s initial refusal to testify before the 9/11 Commission. In all these instances, there was a pressure — an inflammation if you will — building up that demanded a release.

And that’s where Hastert has found himself. Tragically for him, his continued role as Speaker has crossed the line and he is therefore inflaming the body politic’s immune system by refusing to step down. And following Fordham’s revelations, I really don’t see this thing resolving on its own. Every day is going to bring a new poll, a new story about some candidate being forced to say whether Hastert should resign. Stepping down would be a huge huge thing, but it would also be a release of sorts for the current frenzy. That’s why Hastert should probably resign — and why Democrats should hope he doesn’t. His resignation won't mean that people will suddenly be less likely to vote for Dems, but it will release a lot of the steadily-building pressure (after a day of wall-to-wall coverage of course about his resignation).

But as long as he stays, the media (the white blood cells) are going to keep flooding the site of the injury — i.e., the big fat Hastert stick stuck in the GOP’s side — and will generate story after story.

On an aside, one thing that Rove understands far better than the Democrats is that very few controversies actually mutate into this sort of escalating, frenzied immune system attack. Generally, hostile NYT stories are forgotten in a couple of days (see, e.g., Feiler Faster). That's why you don't see him apologizing for things he says. Democrats, however, often overreact and think that everything is going to trigger the white blood cells. For instance, I think Durbin should have held out because the critiques were ridiculous, but who knows.

Finally, as I mentioned above, the Feiler Faster theory is actually compatible with the white blood cell theory over the long-term. I have no doubt that few Americans will be thinking about this 3 or 4 months from now. But to the extent Feiler Faster says that things generally disappear in a couple of days, that’s just not going to happen. We’re entering our second week with no signs of abatement.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006



Andrew Sullivan writes eloquently:

What I do know is that the closet corrupts. The lies it requires and the compartmentalization it demands can lead people to places they never truly wanted to go, and for which they have to take ultimate responsibility. From what I've read, Foley is another example of this destructive and self-destructive pattern for which the only cure is courage and honesty.

I don't know how much stock people put in Freud anymore, but from a Freudian perspective, I wonder if Foley subconsciously wanted to be caught.

I'm no psychological expert, but every human has in one context or another hidden things from friends and loved ones (sexual orientation, political orientation, blog authorship, love of [early] Adam Sandler movies, etc.). And I think there is usually a deep longing (conscious or no) to be honest and open about it - to stop hiding.

In Foley's case, here was a guy with very strong incentives to stay in the closet. His life, in many ways, was a lie. And I'm sure there were seismic psychic rumblings underneath - and strong desires to be honest to the world. And so maybe if he couldn't consciously come clean, he was subconsciously trying to. In other words, his subconscious desires drove him to engage inexcusable, inappropriate, and highly dangerous conduct.

Obviously, I have no empirical basis for any of this. And it excuses nothing. But it's just weird - why would a powerful Congressman be this stupid and reckless. The whole thing strikes me more as a cry of help. To act this recklessly is practically inviting trouble. And maybe that's what he was doing.

But again, I'm no expert, so maybe these theories have long since fallen out of use. But I've always found Freud plausible, and often persuasive. And his theories work pretty well in this context.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

MORE IMs - A Legal Fiction Exclusive 


I know the Woodward book is getting lost in the shuffle lately, but I wanted to make sure everyone saw this passage from the David Sanger article on Woodward’s Cheney revelations:

Vice President Cheney is described as a man so determined to find proof that his claim about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was accurate that, in the summer of 2003, his aides were calling the chief weapons inspector, David Kay, with specific satellite coordinates as the sites of possible caches. None resulted in any finds.
. . .

Mr. Cheney was involved in the details of the hunt for illicit weapons, the book says. One night, Mr. Woodward wrote, Mr. Kay was awakened at 3 a.m. by an aide who told him Mr. Cheney’s office was on the phone. It says Mr. Kay was told that Mr. Cheney wanted to make sure he had read a highly classified communications intercept picked up from Syria indicating a possible location for chemical weapons.

My sources have uncovered some additional communications from Cheney to Kay that are, frankly, disturbing. These IMs provide further evidence that the Vice President was pressuring Mr. Kay to do things he just wasn't comfortable doing.

BigTime1: yo

SpecialKay: busy right now

BigTime1: i want to see u

SpecialKay: we’re in the middle of our investigation, can’t

BigTime1: i have something i want to show you. it’s big.

SpecialKay: like i said, busy, but next week ... then we’ll go 2 dinner

BigTime1: and then what happens

SpecialKay: we eat…we drink…who knows…hang out… late into the night

BigTime1: and

SpecialKay: and i dunno

BigTime1: then we’ll look at satellite coordinates?

SpecialKay: we’ll see

BigTime1: we’ve got the bastards this time dave, i’d really like to show you what i have. feith has some good stuff this time.

SpecialKay: the last ones were cow ditches, sir. we lost a lot of credibility with our sources

BigTime1: would love to slip those illusions off of your mind, dave.

SpecialKay: lol

BigTime1: i know your friends are telling you that what we’re doing is wrong. but don’t listen dave. it just feels right. feith has the coordinates right this time. this will be a big cache.

SpecialKay: brb – got another ping

SpecialKay: yo

SlamDunk has signed on.

SlamDunk: it’s 3 AM in the fucking morning dave

SpecialKay: read this — it is sick sick sick sick sick sick

SlamDunk: tell him the cow ditches were the last straw

SpecialKay: u tell him. That bunch is crazy — and mean.

SlamDunk: ok — just play along and then ignore him

SpecialKay: k

SlamDunk has signed off.

SpecialKay: sorry about that. tell me again about your big cache of weapons

BigTime1: it’s big. i want to show it to you

SpecialKay: have you measured it — have you gotten a ruler and measured it for me?

BigTime1: it’s big dave. feith said it’s really big. it’s a slam dunk.

SpecialKay: is feith sure?

BigTime1: when has he ever been wrong

SpecialKay: we’ll send the coordinates out to our men in the field. thanks for the tip.

BigTime1: peace in the middle east

SpecialKay: p

BigTime1 has signed off.

Monday, October 02, 2006

FOLEY - Roosting Chickens Come Home 


Having looked over the articles and commentary, I think the Foley story can be understood on three different levels. First, there are the actual facts of the story. Second, there is the public perception of the facts. And third, there is the broader metaphor that the story illustrates. As I explain below, I think #2 will prove the most harmful, although #3 should be.

First, the facts. Based on what we know so far (a critical assumption), the actual evidence against Hastert and Boehner establishes only sins of omission — i.e., willful ignorance (at best). There appears to be a big difference in the first round of emails versus those disclosed this week. And so the talking points apparently are: “The early emails were ambiguous and weren’t necessarily a cause for concern, and we never knew about these far more graphic ones.” To be clear, though, I think Hastert and Boehner are full of it (more on that in a second), but for now, I’m focusing just on what the publicly known facts establish.

The two really damning facts though are (1) Rep. Alexander’s decision to alert Reynolds, the head of the NRCC (the electoral campaign wing of the House); and (2) Rep. Shimkus’s (chairman of the House Page Board) failure to disclose the Foley interview to the Democratic member of the Board. These facts suggest that the players involved knew that the allegations were bad and that they could be a political embarrassment — thus the Reynolds alert and thus the concealment from the pesky Democrat.

And that leads back to Hastert and Boehner. The idea that these politically-explosive allegations were completely off the top leadership’s radar illustrates that they’re either liars or idiots. According to TPM’s handy timeline, these allegations made their way to Hastert’s office through different channels at different times (including Boehner — and I’m also curious how he found out). Anyway, I’d be shocked if they were completely unaware of the fact that the Democratic member of the panel had been kept out in the cold. The whole thing is similar to high-level securities fraud cases where the plaintiffs or the government argue that it’s implausible for the top executives to be as ignorant as they claim to be.

But in the post-Rove world, facts are less important than appearances and perceptions. And it’s the perception that’s really going to sink in with the public. As I mentioned in the earlier post, the truly dangerous thing about this story is that it’s a sex story — and a very simple one at that. The sex angle — gay Internet Congressional child porn — will have the public and the media in a voyeuristic frenzy. I mean, it’s a real-life version of Law & Order Special Victims Unit involving a member of Congress. And even worse for the GOP, it’s simple — the House leadership covered up accusations of improper sexual advances by a member for political reasons.

Many moons ago, I wrote a post on a concept I called “plausible demagoguery”:

The problem with the TV world is that it makes it impossible for politicians to take positions that require more than 30 seconds of explaining. Accordingly, the best thing that can happen to a candidate is for his or her opponent to adopt a position (or do something) that can be demagogued. Candidates can’t just make stuff up, but as long as their demagoguery is plausible (not accurate, just plausible), it works.

The Foley demagoguery is, at the very least, plausible. More likely, it’s completely justified. But whether it is or isn’t doesn’t matter. It’s plausible and the Democrats are going to fire away accordingly.

But putting all that aside, what’s most damning about the Foley controversy is that it perfectly captures in one quick and easy metaphor everything that’s wrong with the modern GOP. Foley symbolizes what happens when you cast aside any concern for policy or public well-being for political power. In this sense, the Foley controversy shouldn’t be seen in isolation, but should be understood as a manifestation of the same forces that brought us Iraq, Katrina, torture, and the Medicare bill debacle.

Obviously, all people have political leanings. And all things being equal, you want your side to do better. But there are — there must be — limits to one’s willingness to elevate politics over policy. There has to be some point — not unlike the “low” point that alcoholics hit before they seek rehab — where you look at yourself and realize that you’ve crossed the line and that things have to change.

In a nutshell, that’s the ultimate sin of the current GOP leadership — there are no such limits. Hindrocket: Just drink it off guys. Among the House leadership in particular, there isn’t even a pretense of acting on behalf of sound policy or the public good. It’s all pure politics — rule-breaking, earmarks, wedge votes, etc.

Eventually, though, ignoring policy leads to bad results. In Iraq, it’s taken a couple of years, but the criminal negligence of the war’s planning — and the current dishonesty about its prospects — reflects simply that the administration cares far more about politics than policy. Same thing with Katrina. The administration didn’t really care about emergency response planning. They viewed FEMA as an avenue for handing out political spoils. And it showed. Same deal with the Medicare bill. The leadership didn’t care about getting it right — they cared about peeling off elderly voters and rewarding their campaign contributors. And now the bill is coming due.

And that’s what we see with Foley. There’s no indication at all that anyone cared one thing about the actual pages involved (or the implicit coercion they faced). It was viewed first and foremost as a political problem — and one to be shielded from the Democrats. And just like in the other contexts, when you don’t care about the public good, when everything (everything) you do is focused entirely on political jockeying, bad results will inevitably happen. And now the bill is coming due.

That’s not to say of course that Dennis Hastert prefers bad things to happen. I’m sure in his own mind he wants good things to happen and cares about people. The key though is that these preferences aren’t reflected by any actions. Words count for nothing these days — only actions matter with this bunch. And the GOP leadership’s actions — on everything from Iraq to Foley — illustrate nothing but an obsessive concern with political power.

And that stuff works for a while. But eventually, the chickens come home to roost.

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