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April 29, 2005

Broccoli First

Please excuse the lack of posts the last couple of days, but I've been dealing with a family medical emergency down in Georgia, and juggling various Day Job responsibilities. But my immersion in America, as opposed to Washington, in recent days predisposed me to treat George W. Bush's press conference remarks on Social Security last night with a certain sense of slack-jawed astonishment. He said what? Tell me if I'm missing something, but having failed for months to sell the country on a free-lunch vision of a privatized pension system in which private accounts would magically guarantee retirement security and pay for itself, Bush suddenly started selling broccoli instead of dessert. He's now out there peddling benefit cuts for middle and upper income retirees, as though they represent some sort of inherent virtue.Now, you can make a progressive case for what the wonks call "progressive indexing," but not in isolation from every other issue involving Social Security, tax policy, budget policy, and retirement security generally. Yet that's how Bush is trying to sell this glass of castor oil. It is very, very unlikely to attact any Democratic support, and is very, very likely to produce a big revolt among conservative Republicans, especially in the House, who are still addicted to the free lunch mirage. I don't know whether this gambit is just part of an exit strategy where Bush is laying down "responsible" markers for the future (given his chronic inability to admit defeat), or some sort of tactic designed to peel off a few Democrats who have been complaining about the administration's unwillingness to embrace any policy that would improve rather than weaken Social Security's solvency. But still, it's a strange move, and out here in America, it seems to be playing about as well as the Cookie Monster's recent emergence as an advocate for healthy food.

April 27, 2005

"Justice Sunday" and Christian Politics

The most egregious aspect of the Family Research Council's "Justice Sunday" televised conference supporting the GOP's "nuclear option" on judicial nominations was the argument that Christians as a faith community are being excluded from the judiciary. Thanks to The Kentucky Democrat, we have an interesting blow-by-blow account of how particular Christian leaders in one community dealt with this argument, in the context of a decision about carrying the FRC self-pity party on a church-backed cable station. Note the relatively passive statements by Southern Baptist spokesmen, who support the "nuclear option" cause but don't sound that excited about it.

GOPers Fight Towards the Right

This is an interesting moment in the history of the Republican Party. On the one hand, Republicans have already lost their much-vaunted unity and discipline since last election day (the unity and discipline that some Democrats think we should emulate); they are fighting internally over Social Security, the "nuclear option," and the budget, which just happen to be their main public priorities right now. But on the other hand, they are clearly being tugged in the same direction: to the Right. DeLay is succeeding in dragging the whole conservative movement into the cesspool of his ethical problems. Frist is clumsily but relentlessly trying to inoculate himself with the Christian Right in preparation for a presidential run. And George W. Bush is defending and abetting his congressional buddies at every turn. Check out today's New Dem Dispatch for a summary of where this series of development is leading Republicans, Democrats, and the whole country.

April 26, 2005

Sacrilege Towards Blessed Karl

The increasingly intense intra-GOP bickering over Social Security tactics, strategy and substance continues, and is rapidly descending into finger-pointing now that the whole campaign appears to be heading south faster than a Purdue student on spring break.I'll let Josh Marshall chronicle the rich harvest of the anti-privatization campaign he helped rev up, but I did see an interesting example of how nasty the Republican divide on this issue has become. This is from a Bob Cusack piece in today's edition of the Washington insider tabloid, The Hill, which quotes the chief architect of the House GOP's incredible free lunch proposal to dump half of all payroll taxes into private accounts with no benefit cuts and no new revenues:

Peter Ferrara, a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Innovation (IPI) who is credited as the author of the Ryan-Sununu bill, wrote an op-ed in The Washington Times two months ago that mocked the White House for trying to send the president out to sell personal accounts with a message that they don’t really solve the problem. Ferrara wrote, “Is it any wonder then that the more George W. Bush talks about personal accounts the lower they sink in the polls?” Ferrara told The Hill he is trying to help Republicans get on track on Social Security. He accused top Bush administration officials — including Rove and White House Chief of Staff Andy Card — of urging people to tell him to “shut the hell up.”Ferrara, who is scheduled to testify on Social Security before the Senate Finance Committee today, said Rove, Card and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Josh Bolten lack expertise on the entitlement system and mistakenly believe some Democrats are close to embracing the president’s plan.“Rove thinks he’s been beatified by the last election,” Ferrara added.
Even in today's GOP, is nothing sacred?

April 25, 2005

Activist Judges Indeed

There's been plenty of commentary about the Hysterithon pitched by the Family Research Council and various other Christian Right groups yesterday, dubbed "Justice Sunday" and indecently dignified by the boss of the United States Senate, Bill Frist (R-TN). I'll limit myself to one simple point, playing off a CNN quote/paraphrase from FRC chief Tony Perkins:

FRC President Tony Perkins said Democrats were using filibusters to exclude religious believers from the bench. Holding up a Bible, he told the audience, "What we are saying tonight is that as American citizens, we should not have to choose between believing what is in this book and serving the public."
Now think about that observation for a moment. Perkins surely does not actually contend that "religious believers" have been or are being excluded from the judicial branch of government, does he? I'm reasonably certain a majority of judges, like a majority of Americans, a majority of Democrats, and a majority of Democratic elected officials, are in their own view "religious believers." Is Perkins setting himself up to judge (if you will pardon the expression) what is and is not authentic religious belief? Or is he rather arguing that certain kinds of religious believers are being excluded, and if so, who are they?The "choose between this book and serving the public" bit, which is also featured in the self-pity-soaked ad campaign set up for "Justice Sunday," makes it clear the "excluded" are those who believe a literal interpretation of Holy Scripture is directly relevant to judicial rulings.At least back when I went to law school, the "public service" rendered by judges, depending on the case and his or her role in the system, was to find facts and interpret and apply laws as set out in the U.S. or state Constitutions, federal or state statutues, or decades if not centuries of common law. "Believing what is in" the Bible, and certainly believing Tony Perkins' interpretation of what is in the Bible, might have some impact on the character of the judge, but anyone elevating it above actual secular law is generally violating an oath, often sworn on that selfsame Bible. So sounds to me like ol' Tony is demanding activist judges who will ride roughshod over the law, over precedent, over constitutions and democratically elected legislatures, to do what ol' Tony believes God has instructed them to do. Just as his buddy Tom DeLay thinks ethics rules don't apply to "our team," Perkins seems to think the rule of law doesn't apply to "our judges." Amazing, ain't it?

April 24, 2005

Triple-Loaded Statistics

Over at MyDD, Chris Bowers recently posted an analysis of the extent to which Ds and Rs in the House have voted as a bloc in the early stages of this Congress. It's sort of interesting, in the way that studies of how baseball players perform in very limited circumstaces (say, with runners in scoring position with two outs, on the road) are sort of interesting, but it also shows the danger of blowing up small distinctions into big implications.Chris' basic take is that Republican House members are marginally more "loyal" to their party line than Democrats, who have more, if only a handful, of true "heretics." But even those small potatoes are fluffed up misleadingly by his selection of eight "final passage" votes as "party differentiators." As Chris knows, "final passage" votes in the House are an unreliable indicator of ideology, since (a) they ignore committee actions and amendments (on those rare occasions GOPers allow them), and (b) they reflect only those bills the Republican leadership has decided to move, generally because they are certain to pass. And they are also not exactly reliable signs of party loyalty, either, since both parties' leaderships on occasion treat votes as "free" and don't mind defections among Members in vulnerable districts.Still, the study was a good contribution to the general store of political knowledge. But now Chris has done a second post focusing on House Democrats who are "members of the DLC," and finds, well, not much of anything.First, I'd like to rise to a point of personal privilege and address this "DLC membership" business, because it's also been a source of confusion elsewhere in the blogosphere. There is one and only one way to become a "member of the DLC," and that's to plunk down 40 bucks and get all our stuff--policy papers, Blueprint Magazine, etc.--in the mail. There is something on our web page called the New Dem Directory (which is apparently what Chris was looking at) which is simply contact information on elected officials--most of them at the state and local levels--who have either joined some related New Dem-identified organization or participated in DLC events. It's basically an online phone book, and the DLC has never used its contents to market itself or take credit for anybody's career. There ain't no membership cards, oaths, whip operations, or litmus tests. Are we straight on that?Now, most of the House Members in this online phone book are there because they are members of the House New Democratic Coalition, a completely independent group that shares a general orientation with the DLC, but neither asks for nor takes orders from anybody at 600 Pennsylvania Avenue. They tend to be from competitive or even dangerously vulnerable districts more than the rest of the Caucus, and thus are given "free votes" more often than their peers.Still with me here? Okay. Having analyzed these 39 Members on those 8 House final passage votes, Chris concludes they are "not dramatically more disloyal" than other Dems, and by at least one measure, are actually less disloyal. In others words, says Chris, "the only pattern here is that there is no pattern." So, is he ready to bury the myth that the DLC, on secret instructions from Corporate America or Karl Rove or somebody, is leading its (non-)members into perfidy and Republicanism? No--he concludes we don't have any clout with our(non-) members, and thus have to reason to exist other than to criticize other Democrats!Gee, seems to me that there are a whole hell of a lot of Democratic organizations out there who have had pretty much the same impact as the DLC on the votes of House members on these eight votes, i.e., none. Are they useless, too? Should we all just go out of business, unless we can demonstrate they we either dramatically increase or dramatically decrease the bloc voting of House Democrats on these eight votes? Lord knows, no other political activity, from policy development to political strategy to fundraising to grass-roots organizing, could be worth doing, right?Okay, you see my point by now. I'm not at all hostile to Chris Bowers; he's a smart guy who is probably trying to be objective here. But he's like a baseball manager who likes one player and dislikes another, and can always find some marginal, triple-loaded statistic to put the former in the starting lineup and send the latter to the minors. This is not how you build a winning team in baseball, or in politics.

April 22, 2005

Happy Earth Day

On this, the 35th Earth Day, the environmental movement is undergoing a period of introspection and even self-criticism, as the hard-won progress of the last three decades seem to have stopped. Indeed, thanks to the Bush administration and a precipitous decline of support for environmental goals in the GOP generally, some of those gains are being reversed.Today's New Dem Dispatch from the DLC offers some good cheer in examples of environmental achievements being made outside Washington, and under the national media radar screen. But the defection of GOPers (at least politicians, if not necessarily rank-and-file voters) from even a pale green version of the cause remains a big political problem, and perhaps, for Democrats, an opportunity as well.This is a fairly recent development. I'm definitely and precisely dating myself here, but on the first Earth Day, in 1970, I was in high school in Cobb County, Georgia, a very conservative suburb of Atlanta, and we devoted much of the day to environmental programming, including a speech by (for some reason) actor Hal Holbrook. Somehow or other, nobody in that community seemed to think we were buying into eco-socialism, opposing the idea of economic growth, or slipping towards paganism, even though the early aims of the environmental movement, which quickly culminated in the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, were in many respects the most ambitious steps of all.Even then, there were wingnuts who tried to make a big deal of the fact that the original Earth Day coincided with Lenin's Birthday (trust all those ex-communist right-wingers to know that one!). Indeed, I graphically remember a comment in National Review at that time: "Here's how to celebrate Earth Day (formerly Lenin's Birthday). Pick up a beer can. Throw it at a pollutocrat."Some things really haven't changed.

April 21, 2005

Ah Canada

I'm one of those Americans who just love Canada. I don't have any big desire to go live in Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal, and don't think our country is inferior, but do like to go up there when I can, and in particular, enjoy political discourse with Canadians, who, until recently at least, seemed to combine the best traditions of Europe and America, along with their legendary civility and openness to debate. Two Northern Exposures especially impressed me. One was a Q&A session with Deputy Cabinet Ministers (the people who actually run Canada's national government) in 2000, when I had to explain and defend Al Gore's policy agenda and how it would affect my country and theirs, in incredible detail. And the second, a year or two earlier, was a Future of the Left conference at Carlton University where an initially hostile audience constructively engaged, and partially accepted, my arguments for the progressive credentials of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.During all my visits to Canada in the late 1990s, I was told that Finance Minister Paul Martin was the real brains of the governing Liberal Party, and would prove that as Prime Minister when Jean Chretien decided to retire. And that is why the current agony of Martin and the Liberals is so sadly ironic.Chretien finally stepped down in 2003, and bequeathed to Martin not only leadership of the Liberals, but an endlessly unfolding series of ethics scandals, the most recent being AdScam, a sleazy tale of insider government contracts to provide illusory p.r. services in connection with efforts to tamp down Quebec separatism.Nobody has implicated Martin in this mess, but he's the Prime Minister and Liberal leader, and like Gerald Ford after Watergate, he's fighting an uphill battle to free his party and his leadership from a huge wave of public revulsion. Like Ford, he's currently being mocked in the media as being a bit of a deer in the headlights. Martin is currently trying to forestall an immediate election. Despite general media assumptions that Liberals are doomed to disaster, maybe he, again like Gerald Ford, will be able to raise serious doubts about the opposition, which is in this case a Conservative Party that has moved well to the right in order to absorb the western-based Reform Party that kicked up a lot of ideological dust in the 90s. If Martin can't pull a revival off, then Canada, like the United States, may experience the governing philosophy of a true, latter-day conservative movement, and ultimately decide that punishing themselves for Jean Chretien's failings is an act of national masochism that should not stand,

Nats and Brats

I followed the crowds to RFK Stadium last night to see Washington's new obsession, the Nationals, play my Atlanta Braves. It was a good game (and I didn't really mind the Nats winning), if you like old-fashioned, pre-1990s baseball where a couple of key double plays, rather than six or seven home runs, decide the thing. And RFK, for all its decrepitude, felt right, with a bit less of the constant artificial noise and commercialism that spoiled my last trip to Camden Yards.The seats were great, except for the fact that they landed me in a nest of Young Republican Hill Staffers, who spent most of the evening networking and showing off their new spring wardrobes instead of watching the game. But in the top of the ninth, when the Nats choked off a Braves rally, even the Brats around me joined in the chant of "D.C.! D.C! D.C.!" that shook the old stadium, and for a few minutes, even the old anti-Washington populist in me was seduced.

Let's Compromise: Do It My Way

David Brooks offers up another fine bit of sophistry in today's New York Times. And yes, it's another example of what I call the Dover Beach column, wherein the lofty-minded pundit sadly surveys the madness of partisan conflict from a spot high above the fray, and then proceeds to offer a lofty-minded solution that happens to coincide with one party's agenda.In this case, the subject is abortion, and here is the gist of the Brooksian argument: (1) Roe v. Wade whisked abortion policy from the legislative to the judicial arena, making compromise impossible and empowering extremists on both sides of the issue; (2) legitimately frustrated Republicans who can't pursue legislative remedies on abortion are now poised to Do the Bad Thing and assault both the judiciary and the essentially conservative traditions of Senate debate; and thus (3) the solution is to give Republicans what they want by overturning Roe. Neat, eh?As is generally the case with Brooks these days, his transition from bipartisan-sounding analysis to endorsement of a partisan position is greased by a big fat planted axiom of extremely dubious quality: the idea that making abortion a legislative issue will facilitate "democratic debate," compromise, sweet reasonableness, and in general, a de-emphasis of the issue in our political system.Give me a break. Without Roe, abortion politics would be a 24-7 preoccupation of both Congress and many state legislatures, with those determined to eventually outlaw abortion altogether offering an infinite variety of incremental, poll-tested restrictions. How do I know this? Because that's precisely what's happened in the limited sphere of legislation allowable under Roe. Look at the last "reasonable compromise" offered by Democrats in Congress, the Daschle Amendment of the late 1990s, which would have banned third-trimester abortions with an exception for the health of the mother. It was not only opposed by some abortion rights advocates, but by right-to-lifers and Republicans generally, who weren't interested in any "solution" other than their own contrived "partial-birth" ban, which recognized no exceptions.Moroever, look at what's happening in the U.K., one of those wise jurisdictions where abortion policy is set through "democratic debate." The Tories have made abortion a big issue in the current parliamentary campaign by proposing an incremental restriction of the period where abortion is allowable, in an overt attempt to peel off Labour-leaning Catholic voters.The truth is that abortion politics are toxic not because the courts have intervened, but because the issue involves very fundamental differences of opinion on matters that are more important to some people than politics itself. It's possible to make the argument that letting "democratic debate" decide abortion policy is the right thing to do, but Brooks' idea that it will reduce the passions involved in this issue, or keep right-to-lifers from demonizing judges or seeking to override Senate traditions, is absolutely wrong.We just learned in the Schiavo saga that conservatives are willing to demonize judges if they don't interpret federal and state statutues to suit them. Accepting, as Brooks does, the thread-bare argument that they are only interested in reasserting the right to "democratic debate" is tantamount to total surrender to the GOP position, which is, of course, where Brooks would have us go.

April 19, 2005

Sullivan on Ratzinger

Popes aren't elected every day, so those of my dear readers who have expressed annoyance at my frequent posts on religion lately will just have to put up with one or two more.Those of you who are interested in the greater meaning, religious and political, of Pope Benedict XVI may have run across Andrew Sullivan's agonized posts today. Here's a pertinent excerpt aimed at his readers who are tired of all the Pope-Talk:

I was trying to explain last night to a non-Catholic just how dumb-struck many reformist Catholics are by the elevation of Ratzinger. And then I found a way to explain. This is the religious equivalent of having had four terms of George W. Bush only to find that his successor as president is Karl Rove. Get it now?
Yeah, that's a pretty scary vision. But you also have to understand that Sullivan has some real history with the new pope, having written a very perceptive analysis of his theology in The New Republic back in 1988.To use a shorthand that some of you will find illuminating and others inscrutable, Sullivan's take on Ratzinger back then was that he represented the marriage of the German Augustinian tradition (the same tradition that produced great Protestant theologians from Martin Luther to Karl Barth) with papal power, along with an unhealthy attitude about sex and gender. It's a very toxic combination, producing a very political agenda in the guise of the non-political sovereignty of the Church. That's why Andrew ultimately compared Cardinal Ratzinger then, and compares Benedict XVI now, to Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor: a man driven by the logic of theology to, and perhaps beyond, the limits of Christianity itself.I hope Sullivan is wrong about the new pope, but there are unsettling analogies in his Catholic analysis of Ratzinger to the strangely un-Christian tendencies recently apparent in so many conspicuously Christian U.S. religious and political leaders.

A Nasty Surprise for Bolton

Today pretty much everybody in Washington thought John Bolton's confirmation as ambassador to the U.N. would slip out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on a party-line vote, with clear skies ahead on the Senate floor. But at the last minute, it appears, Ohio Republican Senator George Voinovich threw a big sack of sand into the gears, saying he had missed a lot of the hearings and needed to hear more before he was comfortable voting for the fiery Bolton. The objects of the whole Democratic strategy for derailing this confirmation, Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel and Linc Chafee, also looked kinda wobbly.I've been publicly and privately unhappy with the Mean Mister Mustard approach of Foreign Relations Democrats to Bolton, who has a rich record of questionable attitudes on nuclear proliferation, humanitarian interventions, and the value of alliances and multilateral organizations in general. They obviously knew something I didn't know.But with a three-week delay (at a minimum) in the committee vote, and more hearings a certainty, I do hope the case against making this guy our spokesman in the most visible international forum gets broadened into his philosophy and record, giving Democrats not only a chance at a "win," but also the opportunity to score some serious points about the right way to protect our national security in a world far more complicated than George W. Bush will ever acknowledge.

Benedict XVI

I'm not Roman Catholic, so my views on the election of Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI don't much matter, but I do want to make one simple point about the likely American reaction based on Ratzinger's reputation as a "conservative."Like much of the non-American hierarchy these days, the new pope's orthdox views on cultural and theological controversies appear to be completely integrated with an anti-capitalist and not-so-secret anti-American attitude on global economic issues. Here's how The New York Times' Laurie Goodstein and Ian Fisher put it in Sunday's profile of the German cardinal:

Based on Cardinal Ratzinger's record and pronouncements, his agenda seems clear. Inside the church, he would like to impose more doctrinal discipline, reining in priests who experiment with liturgy or seminaries that permit a broad interpretation of doctrine. Outside, he would like the church to assert itself more forcefully against the trend he sees as most threatening: globalization leading eventually to global secularization.
Ratzinger, by all accounts a brilliant theologian, is a systematic thinker, so I don't think we are going to hear just one side of the equation he draws between economic globaliation and "the dictatorship of relativism." Assuming he doesn't intend to just be a caretaker pope (a very safe assumption), all those American conservatives, Catholic or not, who are high-fiving each other right now over the election of a "conservative pope" may be eating their words before long. Over at National Review's The Corner, Kathryn Lopez says: "CHAMPAGNE IS FLOWING." You'd best keep the bubbly on ice for a while, KLo.

April 18, 2005

The Tribulations of "Revelations"

There's been a lot of buzz about NBC's mini-series "Revelations," a sort of mainstreamed version of the Left Behind novels. The Washington Post's TV critic Tom Shales pretty much buried the series as television drama. And in a more ideological corner of the media, The New Republic's TV critic Lee Siegel tauntingly suggested that this saga represented the secular cooptation, and potential taming, of the fundamentalism so rampant in U.S. politics in recent years.I'm prejudiced on this subject, being sympathetic to Martin Luther's view that the Revelation of St. John should be expelled from the canon of Holy Scripture as "fundamentally un-Christian." And I've also been influenced by the New Testament scholars who tell us that Revelations was not a prophecy, but a classic apocalyptic text motivated by the incredible trauma of the Romans' destruction of the Second Temple, at a time when Christians had not definitively separated themselves from Judaism.Still, the obvious fascination of American Christians with what can only be described as a predictive interpretation of Revelations is impossible to ignore.I'm not sure at what point the premillenial theology of The End Times, with its antinomian interpretation of Western Christendom as actively Satanic, escaped its pentecostal and adventist ghetto and began to conquer ostensibly postmillenial Calvinist turf in the major fundamentalist denominations, such as the Southern Baptists. Maybe it coincided with the decline of the confident, triumphalist Moral Majority and the rise of the pessimist, counter-revolutionary Christian Coalition, and more recenctly, its openly seditious cousin in the radio ministry of James Dobson.Lee Siegel views "Revelations" as the potential beginning of a secularly-induced cooptation and corruption of militant Christian Fundamentalism. I personally view much of contemporary militant Christian Fundamentalism as secularly motivated in itself, a misuse of Holy Scripture, including Revelations, to support a secular cultural conservatism that has little to do with the Bible or with Christianity. And the premillenial trend among historically postmillenial denominations may simply represent this same process of secularization, without any help from popular culture.Watch Revelations if you wish, but if you want to see a truly interesting presentation of premillenial theology set against the worst features of secular culture, rent a copy of The Rapture, Michael Tolkin's bizarre and fascinating 1991 film, featuring Mimi Rogers and David Duchovny, which alternates between graphic couple-swapping sex and a very literal depiction of the The Tribulations, with a morally and theologically challenging twist at the very end.

Traffic Report

I have promised several correspondants not to "blog about blogs" very often, but there is a basic reporting function I think I need to offer to readers: how many of them are there?This question was prompted by a MyDD post, based on an inscrutable primary source, that ranks political blogs by weekly page-views. There are all sorts of disqualifying factors for the rankings, and being institutionally sponsored (like this blog and The Moose) seems to be one of them. But I'm happy to report that our traffic appears to put both of us comfortably into the top 35 or so--New Donkey is regularly getting about 90,000 page views a week, while The Moose usually tops 100k--establishing both these blogs as Mid-Majors. Not bad for centrist blogs that have only been up for about seven months, and that don't boost page views with comments or diaries. Thanks to all of you who visit this site for putting it in shouting distance of the Big Berthas, and I'll try to earn your continued interest.

April 17, 2005

Why American Catholics Matter

Today's papers are full of campaign-style coverage of the conclave now solemnly assembled to elect the next Pope. But aside from quotes from a handful of American Cardinals who are in this faction or that (or more importantly, who will speak to American reporters), you'd think the United States and its 60 million or so Roman Catholics are pretty much irrelevant to the whole thing. Apostate Europe is important; so too are those inhabiting the endangered Catholic turf of Latin America and the promising battleground of Africa. But not America.This treatment of the papal election is, to put it mildly, in sharp contrast to the U.S. coverage of John Paul II's legacy in earlier weeks, which insistently focused on the Vatican's relative indifference to the clerical abuse scandal that has roiled the American Church. And it leads one to think that U.S.-based media are finally tumbling to the truth that We Just Don't Matter in terms of the immediate future direction of the Catholic Church.That's why I recommend that those of you interested in that future direction read an impressive piece by Notre Dame church historian John T. McGreevy, just up on The New Republic's site. His argument, basically, is that to the extent the Vatican pursues or even intensifies John Paul II's battle against worldwide trends inescapably identified with the U.S.--secularist individualism, capitalist globalization, and a hedonistic popular culture--it must come to grips with what Catholics in the belly of this particular beast should do.I've already published my own view that the Catholic Church has decisively cast its lot with the global South (a view that's beginning to creep into coverage of the papal election), but McGreevy advances the argument to another level. If the universal Church is becoming fundamentally anti-American (despite its tactical alliance with U.S. conservatives on abortion, gay marriage, and Terri Schiavo), are American Catholics doomed to a choice between their own country and culture and Rome? Will U.S. Catholics be pushed into a reverse kulturkampf? And if so, will the flash points be those teachings which discomfit the Left or the Right?This is probably a more fruitful issue to discuss than all the pre-election handicapping about which man will get to wear the Shoes of the Fisherman.

April 15, 2005

Does Phil A. Buster Hate Christians?

For years, as a conscientious Christian, I have tried to understand the point of view of those fundamentalists, supposedly guided by nothing but Scripture, who seem to believe the Bible clearly instructs us that Human Life begins at conception; that homosexuality is a major threat to godliness, and that equal rights for women represents a rebellion against the divine order. Sure, you can nitpick your way through law, prophets, Gospels, and Epistles, like one of those "activist judges," and justify this point of view, but it hardly seems obvious, much less obligatory for Bible Believers. Still, there is some support for their position in the letter of The Word, even if I personally think it violates its spirit. But the current effort by Christian Right activists and the Grand Old Party to suggest that conservative evangelical Protestant Christians have a religious obligation to oppose the use of Senate filibusters against judicial nominations goes so far beyond any conceivable scripture-based approach to public life as to be actively hilarious. (Catholics, of course, are a different matter, since their tradition makes church teachings, the Early Fathers, and Natural Law important sources of moral guidance alongside scripture, and indeed, keys to interpreting scripture. But American Catholic leaders, much as many of them may desire a judicial revolution that could lead to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, are not likely to join this particular partisan campaign). The patent absurdity of pretending that evangelicals have to go so far in the tank for the GOP as to support their parliamentary tactics probably explains why the proponents of this campaign have adopted so paranoid a message. This is not just a matter of obedience to scripture or to God's Will, they say: it's an act of self-defense against a judiciary that hates Christians and is determined to stamp out religious freedom. Never mind that a majority of federal judges were appointed by Republican presidents; this is a life-or-death matter for faith itself. I think these fanatics are egregiously over-reaching on this subject, and are also offering Democrats a big opening for outreach to people they normally don't talk to. It's a great opportunity for Democrats to simply say to conservative evangelical Christians: we don't hate you, we don't support judicial actions that abridge your rights, and by the way, you might want to take a long look at the leaders who would subordinate your faith to partisan politics. Let the GOP try to explain to people of faith why the filibuster is the worst threat to Christian religious freedom since Julian the Apostate. And don't give them the illegitimate ammunition of buying into the idea that Phil A. Buster's fate is a struggle between religious and non-religious points of view.

Sympathy for the Devil

I guess I've made it clear by now that I don't think John Bolton should become Ambassador to the United Nations, on compelling national security grounds. But I have to admit I had a moment of sympathy for the guy while reading a Style Section piece in The Washington Post today, that lectured him about his haircut and fashion sense.The word "lecture" should be emphasized. At first, I thought the piece was just going to be a snarky little shot at Bolton's rather noticeably eccentric personal touches, like his walrus mustache; this kind of stuff goes with the territory of being a public official. But no, Robin Ghivan was angry at Bolton about his appearance; furious at the "lack of respect" it showed for the Senate (that well known repository of sartorial splender and good grooming, right?); triumphant in the discovery of a class photo from 1970 in which Bolton had a nice, short haircut. I half expect a sequel in which Ghivan agonizes over the poor impression Bolton would make at the U.N., humiliating Americans in the eyes of the natty French and the expensively-tailored Italians.Maybe this Fashion Fascism just hit too close to home, since I generally get the same treatment on those rare occasions when I foolishly go on television. Let me tell you, people get livid about out-of-date hairstyles (ah, but no more, now that I regularly visit Jose of Capitol Hill for an au courant clip).But I hope Democrats don't get on board this particular bandwagon. There's an important swing demographic of Disheveled Male Voters who are watching this closely on television, sloppy hair spilling over untrimmed ears as they slosh beer on their cheap shirts.Let's stick to Bolton's record, which exemplifies the worst diplomatic impulses and national security lapses of the Bush administration. Forget his hair; the man's got a sloppy and disrespectful point of view,

April 14, 2005

How To Question Bolton

Today we learned the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has postponed a final vote on John Bolton's confirmation as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations because committee Democrats want to hold more hearings.That's good, because the previous hearings did not even begin to get into the two best reasons for being worried about Bolton: his record as nuclear proliferation chief at the State Department, and his contempt for the kind of humanitarian relief missions we ought to be undertaking in Darfur.This is a matter of both substance and politics. This blog, the DLC, two respected analysts from the Center for American Progess, and political consultant Kenny Baer have all laid out the national security case against Bolton. The way I would put it is that this guy perfectly represents the incredibly dangerous blind spots in the Bush administration's approach to fighting the war on terrorism, and the thinly veiled hostility to "those people" in the Third World as worthy of our interest that lies just beneath the surface of all the democracy rhetoric we've heard lately.So far, Senate Democrats have heavily focused on the argument that Bolton doesn't much like the U.N. and is, perhaps, a jerk and a bully--a "kiss-up, kick-down" kind of guy. Now, I'm not a Washington lifer; try to get out of town every weekend; and don't drink the water when I'm here; but I do know that "kiss-up, kick-down" could easily compete with "Taxation Without Representation" as the official District motto. This is not the right approach to questioning Bolton, and it doesn't seem to be working a lot of magic, either.There is a strong, important, compelling case to be made on this nomination on national security grounds, and Senate Democrats, on and off the Foreign Relations Committee, need to start making it right away.

Free Birds in the House

Unbelievable.Fresh from a vote to abolish inheritance taxes, and thus increase the federal budget deficit by, oh, about a trillion smackers over ten years, the House GOP Caucus seems poised to do something even more irresponsible, if that's possible: push through a Social Security privatization bill with no new revenues and no benefit cuts. That's the word from conservative warhorse Ralph Z. Hallow of the Washington Times, and he should know what he's talking about. Get a load of this:

Conservative House Republicans, beset with growing distrust of the Senate, are urging the House leadership to jump ahead of the Senate on Social Security reform and pass a bill based on large personal retirement accounts and no tax increases or cuts in benefits.They also want House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and House Majority Tom DeLay to say publicly that any bill sent over from the Senate that doesn't meet all these requirements will not be taken up in the House.
And it looks like they are going to get what they want, in the form of a bill that's even more outrageous than the various Bush trial balloons:
Mr. DeLay yesterday that he agrees with his fellow conservatives.Mr. Hastert has publicly endorsed a Republican bill by New Hampshire Sen. John E. Sununu and Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan that would allow about half of the 12.4 percent Social Security payroll tax to go into a worker's personal account. Workers could pick from a list of approved investment funds managed by firms regulated by the government.
I can barely begin to imagine how much you'd have to borrow--or cut from guaranteed benefits--to pay for this woofer, but we are probably talking about many trillions. I'm sure Josh or Max or somebody will soon enlighten us. Now, as Hallow explains, the House GOPers don't actually think their proposal will become law; it's all about shifting blame for failure to serve up this massive free lunch to the Senate and of course, those free-spending Democrats. But somehow, I don't think overt cynicism is much of an excuse for complete irresponsibility. If these guys actually go forward with this stunt, it will remove any lingering doubt about the House GOP's fundamental values: screw future taxpayers, to hell with paying for the war on terrorism, we don't care if debt ruins our economy, don't confuse us with arithmetic or facts: we will ride our agenda of cutting taxes for the wealthy, starving the beast, and demolishing the safety net to the gates of delerium and beyond. And in Tom (the-rules-don't-apply-to-our-team) DeLay, they have the perfect leader. You know what their campaign song ought to be for '06? That great anthem of white-male irresponsibility, Lynard Skynard's Free Bird. Having proudly liberated themselves from any sense of restraint on any policy front, they might as well try to make a virtue of it. All together now, boys:I'm as free as a bird nowAnd this bird you cannot change.Lord knows I can't change.

April 13, 2005

Needed: A Lady Astor Moment on Darfur

I'm with The Moose: it seems just bizarre that the world community, including most particularly my own country, is dumping billions of dollars on the Khartoum government without any explicit guarantees of an end to the genocide in Darfur. I know, I know, it was part of a deal to end a seemingly endless civil war that took many lives as well, and yes, I know the "reconstruction aid" is theoretically conditioned on action by Khartoum to stop the carnage in Darfur. But still.... couldn't we have a slightly stronger appropriations rider on this money?Since our current president is a man of such legendary moral clarity, who is allegedly so willing to speak the truth no matter what those furriners think of us, perhaps he will emulate Lady Astor, who during a 1931 reception in Moscow, reportedly greeted Josef Stalin with the question: "When are you going to stop killing people?" The question needs to be asked of the Sudanese government every day, and if we're not willing to militarily intervene to stop the killing, the Bush administration should at least go to the trouble of making sure we aren't subsidizing it.

April 12, 2005

Parents, Kids, Corporations and Democrats

While I've been off relitigating the nature of the Confederacy and obsessing about Tom DeLay, James Dobson, and inheritance taxes, the center-left blogosphere has exploded in a dispute over a subject I've written about at some length: marketing of junk culture to kids; its role in the cultural concerns of middle-class parents; and its possible relevance to the weakness of the Democratic Party among this same category of voters.First up, Dan Gerstein, with his usual light touch, went after Democrats on this subject, unhelpfully choosing the op-ed pages of The Wall Street Journal as a venue. When I first read the piece, I thought Dan buried some legitimate observations in a landslide of marginally relevant abuse. After all, Frank Rich is not a spokesman for the Democratic Party, and most of the culturally concerned parents Dan's worried about read The New York Times about as often as they play Grand Theft Auto with their church groups. And I also think it's a confusing digression to get into the issue of Democratic politicians letting Hollywood personalities say inane things at campaign rallies (simple solution: let them smile and strut and wave, but keep the mikes off). But when you cut through the static, Gerstein's praise of Hillary Clinton's approach is quite measured:

She does not demonize cultural producers, overstate the extent of the problem, or let parents off the hook. She frames the culture's influence as a public-health issue as much as a moral one, and cites research showing the potentially harmful effects of screen sex and violence. And she is honest about the limits of that research, which is why she has joined with Sen. Joe Lieberman in introducing a bill to fund more studies of the electronic media's impact on children.
In the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog, Amy Sullivan mildly echoed Gerstein's argument, and responded to some of the more specious arguments she's heard about the perils of Democrats treating entertainment corporations like other corporations. And since then, she and Matt Yglesias have been talking past each other in a discussion of this issue.I respect both these folks enormously. And while I'm basically on Amy's side on this issue, I do think Matt raises the right questions about it: (1) What's the real problem here? (2) What, specifically, is the public policy lever you propose to use to address it? and (3) If you can't answer (1) and (2), aren't you just engaging in demagoguery?Since Matt includes me in the circle of demagogues on this subject (which I don't take entirely as an insult), I'll answer these questions for myself. In passing, I will refer to Barbara Defoe Whitehead's recent paper on the subject, published by the DLC's Progressive Policy Institute.(1) The problem is that a combination of new, personalized technologies and highly sophisticated marketing methods has created what can only be described as a corporate campaign to bypass parents and sell a variety of products, trends, and attitudes to kids, of questionable moral quality. It's not just about sex and violence; it's also about consumerism, fashion-and brand-consciousness, and a generally superficial approach to life. You know, those cultural products that have so endeared America to the rest of the world.I stress this point because Matt is simply wrong to assume this is all about some "New Prudishness." As a parent of a teenager, I am not that worried that the ever-present marketers will turn him into a sex-addict or a sociopath; I'm more worried that he will turn into a total greedhead whose idea of the good life is stuff, and whose idea of citizenship is to demand a better personal cost-benefit ratio on his tax dollars. To put it another way, I'm worried he'll turn into a Grover Norquist Republican.In terms of macro, as opposed to micro, factors, Matt repeatedly says the social indicators show the kids are all right, except they are getting mighty fat. We could have a debate over those indicators, if he'd specify them; and I'm sure they would be great comfort to the parents whose children's cohorts haven't quite yet entered the data base. But more generally, there are, as Gerstein mentions, and Whitehead cites, a variety of reputable studies indicating the kids may not be all right, at least when they are exposed redundantly to violent, sexual, misogyinist, and hyper-commercial images.The bottom line is that there's enough smoke out there for Democrats to at least call in the smoke detecters, and beef up the firefighters. And for all the alarm about censorship and Puritanism, that's mostly what people like Clinton and Lieberman--and Gerstein and Sullivan--are calling for.But that leads me to Matt's second question:(2) What, other than agitating the air about it, are some of us Democrats actually talking about doing, if it's not censorship? First, as already suggested, we think it's helpful to take the complaints of parents seriously enough to study the problem seriously. Second, we think entertainment corporations, and anyone who directly markets products to children, should admit some social responsibility, and work with public officials to (a) develop, to the maximum extent possible, parental information and control mechanisms, like a unified rating system for television shows, video games, and movies, and like technologies that are more effective and user-friendly than the V-Chip; (b) create a "zone of protection" for really young kids by eschewing direct and indirect (i.e., television and internet) marketing techniques aimed at children too young to distinguish truth from hype and crap; and (c) provide some transparency about the most egregious of those marketing techniques, such as the practice of hiring "alpha kids" to wear brand name products to influence their peers.And if cooperative efforts to secure voluntary measures don't work, then we can talk regulation--just like we do with other corporations--if necessary.(3) If there's a problem, and at least some sorts of tangible public-policy solutions, then the argument that this is "all about politics" loses some of its sting. But of course, you "can't take the politics out of politics," so yeah, Democrats should look at this politically as well. And Amy is absolutely right that Democrats tend to view "cultural issues" as limited to abortion and gay marriage and other Republican-dictated agenda items, and Gerstein is absolutely right that such issues are often just the ways voters use to figure out whether politicians actually believe (a) there are principles more important than politics, and (b) there is such a thing as right and wrong.The whole hep Democratic world right now, from Howard Dean to George Lackoff to Bill Bradley right over to the DLC, says it's important that Democrats clearly identify "what they believe" and "where they stand" and "what values they cherish." If all the evidence--some scientific, some anecdotal or intuitive--suggesting that parents believe they are fighting an unequal battle with powerful cultural forces over the upbringing of their children is at all correct, then we have to take a stand there, too. It may matter a whole lot, if you look at the Democratic vote among marrieds-with-children--steadily dropping from a Clinton win in 1996 to an eighteen-point loss in 2004, a disproportionately large swing.And if there's a problem, and if there's a solution--however mild, cooperative, and at most regulatory--what's the problem with identifying with middle-class, working parents upset with big corporations? And that's where Amy Sullivan's, and my, injunctions against Democratic hypocrisy on this issue come into play.The New Republic's Noam Scheiber suggests this issue has exposed a deeper libertarian-communitarian rift in Democratic ranks that we need to talk about. That may be true as well. Matt, in one of his posts, cites my mockery of Paris Hilton's First Amendment rights as problematic. Actually, First Amendment jurisprudence has long acknowledged the legitimacy of "time, place and manner" restrictions on even the most protected (e.g., political) expressions, with a lower standard of protection for "commercial" speech. There's no need for either side to get absolutist about it, but I don't really think us communitarians are really on the brink of calling in Torquemada here.But any way you look at it, the willingness, or unwillingness, of progressives to identify with the parenting struggles of middle-class voters--in terms of basic economics, health care, work-family issues, taxes, and yes, corporate marketing to their kids--is an issue on which progressives, and Democrats, will ultimately be judged by history, and by voters.

To the Barricades!

If ever there was a gut check for Democrats, and an opportunity to stand up for principle, the vote in the House to abolish the federal estate tax (or inheritance tax, or Paris Hilton tax, or billionaire's tax, or whatever you want to call it) this week has gotta be it. Today's New Dem Dispatch sounds a call to arms.

April 11, 2005

Dobson & Levin Fight the Klan

Josh Marshall helpfully pointed us all to a Focus on the Family radio interview of Mark Levin (author of Men in Black: How the Supreme Court is Destroying America, the latest right-wing bestseller) by James Dobson. Talk about a fair and balanced discussion.... it's like listening to a couple of McCoys covering a Hatfield family reunion.Josh went right to the money quote near the end of the broadcast, when Dobson quotes some nameless minister who compared the white-robed men of the Ku Klux Klan to the black-robed men of the federal bench.And that's vintage Dobson, who loves phony analogies depicting himself and his fellow extremists as brave souls defending themselves and the human race against totalitarian tyranny. A few years back, in a bout of self-pity about being "persecuted" by gay rights activists, Dobson took to comparing himself to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other "Confessing Church" victims of Hitler. Now, apparently, he's a Freedom Rider risking violence from the Klan.Any day now, I expect to see Dobson at some Save Tom DeLay rally leading a horde of lobbyists and cultural warriors, arms linked, in a heart-felt rendition of "We Shall Overcome." The whole Dobson-Levin conversation is an eye-opener for those, like me, who haven't quite had the stomach to digest the Latter-Day Right's view of the U.S. Constitution. Levin is a real piece of work, and it is not good news that his bestselling book may provide hundreds of thousands of readers with their only exposure to constitutional law. Unless I am missing something, he seems to object not only to recent Supreme Court opinions, but to Marbury v. Madison, the landmark case that established the right of judicial review 202 years ago.Levin's mastered the trick of stringing together every generally acknowledged constitutional abomination since then--Dred Scott, Plessy v. Ferguson, Korematsu v. The United States--and breezily identifying them with Roe v. Wade, which creates a nice litany of "black-robed masters" enabling "slavery, segregation, internment and abortion." His "solutions"--term limits for federal judges and a congressional veto of Supreme Court decisions--would, of course, require either constitutional amendments or armed revolution, but that doesn't trouble Levin. At one point, he says "we can't get our hands on the Supreme Court, but we can get our hands on elected officials." Nice turn of phrase for a legal beagle, eh? But then again, in addition to being a best-selling author, Levin's now a radio talk show host.The other really striking thing about the Dobson-Levin "interview" is exactly how far the Souderization of Justice Anthony Kennedy has gone. God, they hate this appointee of Ronald Reagan so much more than the "liberals" on the Court. With his usual stance of posing as a victim of those he is attacking, Dobson says: "Anthony Kennedy scares me;" Levin seems to posit Kennedy as at the center of a "cabal of radical leftists" who are literally taking over the country at the behest of "moral relativists" and one-worlders.This duo's reasoning is something to behold. Dobson slips effortlessly from yammering about "lifetime appointees to the Court" to blasting Florida Circuit Court Judge George Greer, the Devil Figure in the Right's view of the Schiavo case. I suspect Dobson knows Greer is an elected judge who won a new six-year term just last year, but hey, can't cut those judicial murderers any slack, can you?After all, when you're fighting today's black-robed Klan, you have to fight fiery cross with fiery cross.

April 10, 2005

One Thing We Can All Agree On

Today's Washington Post has an article by Mike Allen that amplifies earlier reports that conservative activists and House GOP factotums are gearing up for a campaign to defend the embattled Tom DeLay, with a message that (a) all his troubles come from a liberal plot financed by George Soros, and (b) if DeLay goes down, the GOP and the conservative movement go right down with him. Point (a) especially amuses me, since, well, people like me and my employers, the DLC, have been as angry and outspoken about DeLay's abuses of power as anybody, and personally, I haven't come within shouting distance of a single Soros dollar, and few would describe the DLC as part of some vast left-wing conspiracy.But point (b) is more interesting, insofar as it suggests the DeLay mess may reflect more broadly on the ethical standards and priorities of the GOP and the conservative movement as a whole. And there's a good argument they are right about that one. Who in the Republican Party, after all, complained about the Great Texas Power Grab of 2003, the DeLay-engineered re-redistricting scheme that led to one of his ethics problems, and to criminal indictments of some of his cronies? Who in the Republican Party has objected to the K Street Strategy, the DeLay-Santorum-Norquist campaign to force lobbying firms and trade associations to skew campaign contributions and staff hirings to the GOP or sacrifice access to bill-drafting? And up until now, who has drawn attention to the hyper-sleazy lobbying practices of close DeLay associates (and big-time GOP operatives) Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, whose Indian Casino Scandal may yet produce collateral damage among Republicans on a level not seen since Teapot Dome? More generally, how many Republicans have been willing to disassociate themselves from the whole Bush-era GOP fiscal/political strategy of hustling high-end tax cuts, corporate subsidies, and friendly legislation and regulatory actions in exchange for hard-line support for "our team?" Well, there's John McCain, but the list grows short after that. So as we get further into Tom DeLay's unhappy hour of scrutiny, it's fine with me if his defenders get their way, and we review his record of leadership as indicative and exemplary for his party and his ideological soul-mates in this period of total GOP domination of the federal government. Let's just all agree we are living in the DeLay Era of national politics, and let the chips fall where they may. As L'Affaire DeLay goes, so goes the nation? Deal.

April 9, 2005


Today is the 140th anniversary of Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, which essentially ended the American Civil War.As a (white) child growing up in the Deep South in the 1950s and 1960s, I looked forward in history class to the tale of the Appomattox surrender, because it marked the end of the interminable period of time we spent studying--or more accurately, saturating ourselves in--the War Between the States each year. Indeed, such was the extent of our wallowing in the Confederacy that we rarely made it past World War I in American history.Far beyond elementary school, in the broader southern white culture I grew up in, there was an odd exultancy about Appomattox that had nothing to do with vicarious relief at the end of that brutal war. No, we drank in the details of Lee's peerless dress and manner at the moment of surrender, and were encouraged to think of the shabby Grant's generosity in victory as little more than the acknowledgement of a superior being--and a superior, if Lost, Cause. A Cause, moreover, that was about everything other than the ownership of human beings--about states' rights, about agrarian resistance to capitalism, about cultured Cavaliers defending civilization against philistine Puritans, about Honor, about Duty.And that was the essence of Confederate Nostalgia in those days: a cult of romantic defeat, denial, self-pity and pride. I never quite shared it, even as a child, but never quite understood its pathological depths until its mirror images in Serbian and (some parts of) Arab culture became part of world events in more recent years. And remarkably, I get the sense Confederate Nostalgia is not only surviving, but perhaps even reviving among people too young to know its nature and political usages.So now, in many heated conversations with my fellow white southerners--and occasionally with Yankees who've been caught up by the Romance in Grey--I find myself insisting on an acknowledgement of the reality of the Confederacy, and its consequences for our home region.It was an armed revolution led by a planter class that could not tolerate restrictions on the "right" to transfer its human property into the territories.It was a "Cause" centered in the states most dependent on slavery, made possible by a secession bitterly opposed by poor white farmers in much of the region, and imposed on them by the narrowest of margins.It was a rebellion whose success entirely relied on the calculation that the people of the North would not sacrifice for abstactions like the Union and Freedom.Its inevitable defeat plunged the South and all of its people into a century of grinding poverty, isolation, and oligarchical government. Its heritage has been used again and again to justify racism and every other sort of reactionary policy.I look at Appomattox and see the end of a disastrous folly that killed over 600,000 Americans, maimed far more, and made life miserable for those of my ancestors who survived the Planters' Revolt. No romance. No victory-in-defeat. Just carnage and destruction in a bad cause made no better by the good men whose lives and futures it claimed.It is far past time for southern pride--which I share to an almost painful extent--to attach itself to everything, anything, other than those four disastrous years that ended at Appomattox Court House.

So, Where Were We?

With a very weird stretch of time marked by the Schiavo saga, the death and funeral of Pope John Paul II, and even a Royal Wedding, it's a good time to take stock of where things are politically.Things are not looking good for George W. Bush and his party. His approval ratings have sagged after leaping after the Iraqi elections. The famously disciplined GOP is divided over a whole host of matters, with the famously pampered conservative base as unhappy as it's been in a long time.Bush's main domestic initiative, his Social Security privatization push, has gone nowhere, after months of presidential hype. Senate Republicans seem to be waivering in their long-threatened determination to ram through Bush's judicial nominations by outlawing filibusters. House Republicans are now indelibly identified with their Leader, Tom DeLay, who's working hard to achieve Gingrich-level pariah status, even aside from his ethics recidivism and his growing enmeshment in the Abramaoff-Indian-Casino-Shakedown scandal. House and Senate Republicans are at odds on a whole variety of substantive and political issues, including the budget, which may never get resolved this year despite growing public worries about ever-escalating public debts. The economy is chugging along in low gear, but not much so you'd notice. What people are noticing is a continuing health care cost spiral, which the GOPers haven't a single clue how to confront, and now a gasoline price spiral, which Bush energy policies would make worse.International affairs remain a relative bright spot for Bush, but now the post-election euphoria on Iraq has turned into another tense period of uncertainty, and the recent presidential commission report on the whole Iraq WMD issue has poured a few more gallons of cold water on the administration's international credibility. Promising developments are still underway in Palestine and especially in Lebanon, but in neither arena is a dramatic pro-democracy, pro-peace breakthrough as likely as it appeared a few weeks ago.It probably won't help Bush internationally that his next scheduled act is a high-profile confirmation fight over a proposed ambassador to the U.N. whose public record contains a string of obnoxious unilateralist comments as long as your arm. And to top it all off, his most important foreign ally, Tony Blair, is in a tough election fight; if Labour loses or simply loses a lot of ground, it will be almost entirely attributable to W.If you add it up, the president and his party appear to be in a whole heap o' trouble, with no obvious relief in sight.This doesn't necessarily translate itself into political gains for Democrats (more about that in near-future posts), but we can pretty much forget about the idea that Bush and company are off to a roaring second-term start.

April 8, 2005

The TV Test of Religious Relevance

In the midst of the shared ecumenical solemnity of Pope John Paul II's funeral, it's inevitable that the occasional ax-grinders have introduced a sour note of triumphalism. Here's an example I happened upon at National Review's group blog, The Corner, yesterday in the form of an email posted by my friend and occasional antagonist Ramesh Ponnuru:

WHAT A DIFFERENCE 27 YEARS MAKE. An email I got several days ago: "In watching the coverage, I've noticed something that you are too young to know about and no one else (to my knowledge) has commented on. When Pope Paul VI died (followed shortly after by the death of Pope John Paul I) commentary was sought, of course, from Protestant theologians and church officials. With one exception (Billy Graham), the Protestants invited to comment were associated with the mainline churches. They were National Council of Churches types. . . . In the past two days, I haven't seen a single such commentator (of course, it is possible that I've missed one or more). Instead, the Protestant voices that are being presented--Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson, Richard Land, etc.--are all Evangelicals. This seems to be true, by the way, not simply on Fox, but on CNN, MSNBC, and the networks. This, I believe, is telling. For all intents and purposes, mainline Protestantism has become irrelevant in this country. It is more marginal today than evangelicalism was when John Paul II became the Vicar of Christ. [My emailer is Catholic--RP.] Even the secular liberal media types seem implicitly to recognize that the Protestantism that matters in this country now is evangelical. This is a real transformation."
I cite this post because it reflects an observation that I hear very often from conservatives, especially those who aren't themselves Protestants, or in many case, even Christians or believers in any creed: "liberal" mainline Protestants are headed for the dustbin of history, mainly because they don't embrace a militant agenda of cultural conservatism, which is, of course, what Christianity is all about, right?The idea that mainline Protestantism is so "irrelevant" that even the "secular liberal" media have acknowledged it is an especially disingenuous argument. For decades, the news media ignored conservative evangelicals and pentecostal/charismatic Christians on the few occasions that they were forced to delve into religious issues. The same clueless producers (or their heirs) have now bought into the equally flawed proposition that people like Pat Robertson are exemplars of American Protestantism.For one thing, the line between "evangelical" and "mainline" Protestants is notoriously slippery. How do you classify the evangelical and mainline American Baptists and Disciples of Christ, or for that matter, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America? Are they simultaneously "irrelevant" and "the Protestantism that matters?"So let's take the other distinction Ramesh's correspondent used, and examine the statistical relevance of those Protestants affiliated with that great target of conservative abuse, the National Council of Churches. Hmmm. Seems the NCC is down to 36 denominations with just 45 million members.No wonder they can't get any of their leaders on television.

April 7, 2005

Phil and Ted

After expressing puzzlement yesterday at the political value of the Alliance for Justice's "Phil A. Buster" ads opposing the "nuclear option" on judicial nominations, I opened up today's Washington Post, and there, in the Reliable Source column, was a photo of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) posing with some dude dressed up as Phil, the animated bullhorn. The caption directed readers to the "nifty cartoon" starring Phil and his little friends Check and Balanz. Several younger colleagues have let me know the "Save Phil" 'toon is an effort to replicate the School House Rock genre of retro-chic educational animations from the '80s and early '90s. In other words, it's an ironic knockoff of an ironic knockoff. Still haven't found anybody who likes it, though one colleague said: "Sure, it's awful, but we've been talking about it half the day, right?"

April 6, 2005

Explaining Phil A. Busters

Curt Matlock of MyDD provided a link today to an ad that the Alliance for Justice (a respected liberal group that played a big role in the Bork confirmation fight back in the day) is planning to run on national cable and selected broadcast markets, in an effort to gin up the public against the "nuclear option" on judicial nominations.Matlock didn't comment on the effectiveness of the ad, but take a look yourself, and see if you think a long animated spot featuring a talking bullhorn named Phil A. Buster, and his friends Check and Balanz (not to mention the Founding Fathers, described as "really smart guys") is going to turn the tide. I do think the ad is likely to boost support for the filibuster among first-time voters in 2016 or so, but the deal will probably go down well before then.I know that some people don't think Democrats should ever be critical of anybody on "our team," and maybe the ad is one of those ironic, so-bad-it's-good things that old goats like me don't "get." But I hope somebody's working on an ad that operates on a slightly more literate level, if only to prevent those "really smart guys" who designed our system from rolling in their graves.

April 5, 2005

The British Elections

Earlier today Tony Blair called for the dissolution of Parliament and a general election on May 5. That's right: one month from today, with the campaign actually not getting completely underway until after Pope John Paul II's funeral on Friday and Prince Charles' wedding on Saturday. So it's basically going to be a three-week sprint to the wire, astonishing as that may seem to us Americans who are used to two-year marathons.Moreover, Blair's announcement coincided with the release of a couple of national polls showing Labour's margin over the Tories shrinking significantly. The Guardian/ICM poll has Labour at 37 percent, the Conservatives at 34 percent, and the LibDems at 21 percent, with a lot of indications of voter volatility. This is a bit misleading, since Labour enjoys a vote-distribution advantage that would convert these numbers into a parliamentary majority of somewhere between 90 and 100 seats, but it's still likely to be a more competitive election than appeared likely just a couple of weeks ago.As many of you probably know, British party politics in the last few years have revolved around four dynamics: (1) significant public unhappiness with Blair's foreign policies, and especially Britain's role in Iraq, which have offset general approbation of Labour's domestic, and especially economic policies; (2) the chronic weakness of the Tory opposition, which suffers from leadership and message problems that make the superficially similar problems of American Democrats pale in comparison; (3) the steady transformation of the LibDems, who used to be generally considered a centrist party, into a Left Opposition to Labour, especially on foreign policy and cultural issues; and (4) restiveness about Labour's relatively long hold on power, which would become really remarkable if it wins a third straight general election.I don't know how many NewDonkey readers are interested in British politics, but I do intend to blog about this semi-regularly between now and May 5. And while I will try to present objective analysis of what's going on, I'll disclose right up front that I am a Tony Blair and Labour partisan.No, I'm not happy with the moral and intellectual support that Blair has provided not just to George W. Bush's foreign policies, but to Bush himself (every time they have a joint press conference, I half-expect Bush to respond to a question with: "What he said."), but what do you expect from any British Prime Minister? I have zero doubts, and lots of reasons to believe, that 10 Downing Street would have been ecstatic at a Kerry victory last November, and that the U.S.-British alliance would have flourished as never before.But the bottom line is that on every key issue facing his country, our country, and the world, Tony Blair has an abundance of exactly what virtually all U.S. Democrats say a party of the center-left should have: a clear, articulate vision; a values-based progressive message that does not ignore collective security or cultural issues; and a full agenda for shaping change in the interests of most people, especially those with no privilege or power, even in places like Africa. He is also, of course, one of the few twenty-first century survivors among the wave of center-left politicians who won striking victories throughout the West in the 1990s, consigning, or so it seemed at the time, Reagan-Thatcher style conservative politics to the dustbin of history. And to the extent that left-leaning Labour activists (and their U.S. counterparts) with various issues with Blair hope Gordon Brown succeeds him as P.M. during a third term, let me add that I think Brown is a potentially great leader as well, and shares Blair's New Labour vision more than a lot of observers realize. So I hope Labour wins, but will try to offer a few news items and insights on the campaign as it develops, and however it develops.

No Nukes Lobbyists

Whoever's in charge of headline writing over at The Hill, the congressional insider tabloid, pulled off a minor masterpiece in today's banner: "K Street Fears Nuclear Winter." The accompanying article by Geoff Earle reports that business lobbyists are not exactly happy about Senate Republican threats to "go nuclear" with a procedural maneuver disallowing filibusters on judicial nominations, which Senate Democrats have promised to fight by making life a living hell for the GOPers by refusing to go along with routine Senate business.Sure, some business lobbies like the National Association of Manufacturers have pledged support for the GOP's efforts to ram judicial nominees through the Senate, but this is really the Cultural Right's fight. K Street potentates have been asking Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist to delay the confrontation on judges until later in the year, after they get some more goodies out of the Senate like the pending energy and highway bills.The longtime enforcer of conservative message discipline among the K Street crowd, our ol' buddy Grover Norquist, told Earle the Gucci Shoes will eventually fall into line with the judge-bashing, bench-stacking Gospel.

Norquist said the lobbying community was "insufficiently" involved right now, "but they will be." He noted that tort reform and the rulings handed down by state and federal judges were primary issues for buisiness groups.
Yeah, and not only that, but you better get in line if you want your own stuff from the administration and the Congress, right, Grover?Today's edition of The Hill also features a gossipy item by Hans Nichols suggesting that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are arguing over the right way to frame (damn! George Lakoff is ruining a perfectly good verb!) the upcoming "nuclear option" fight, with Reid favoring a direct and narrow pitch and Pelosi wanting it to be part of a broader message about GOP abuse of power in Washington. House and Senate prerogatives aside, there's a legitimate difference of opinion on how to handle this fight. I'm sympathetic to Reid's apparent belief that it will take a focused and sustained message effort to get the public to understand, much less care about, a fight over Senate rules. But Pelosi's absolutely right that it should be part of a broader reform message about a runaway Congress and federal government under iron Republican control. Indeed, that's a message Democrats should hammer away on from now until November of 2006, no matter which particular abuse the GOPers are indulging in on any particular day.

April 4, 2005

The Post-European Pope

I struggled all weekend to find something distinctive to say about the life and legacy of Pope John Paul II, and have a hypothesis to offer. In the end, what Karol Wojtyla will be most remembered for is not his role in the end of the Cold War, or the formidable windbreak he built against the storms of doctrinal change initiated by the Second Vatican Council. His most important legacy, I surmise, may be as the key transitional figure in the transformation of Roman Catholicism specifically, and Christianity generally, from a "Western" tradition rooted in Europe to a truly global faith centered in the South rather than the North.This may seem counter-intuitive, since this Pope was himself pre-eminently European, with a faith and outlook shaped by the twentieth century's struggles against European totalitarianism, and a life that personified the destruction of the divisions between Eastern and Western Europe. Moreover, he went a long way towards healing European Christianity's most shameful historical disease, its murderous intolerance of religious minorities, most notably Jews.Yet nearly everything about the powerful and perhaps irreversible trajectory he set for the Church points South, to the Third World, and away from Europe and the United States. Many obituarists of this Pope have struggled to categorize him ideologically as "conservative" on faith and morals yet "liberal" or even "radical" on issues of globalization, poverty and war, even as they acknowledge the unity of his own thinking.But these are Eurocentric ways of looking at his teachings, which may confuse and distress American Catholics and what's left of the faith in Europe, but make perfect sense to most Catholics in Africa, Latin America and Asia.A deeply illiberal approach to issues involving sexuality and gender; a rejection of capitalism as a necessary counterpart to democracy; and an abiding hostility to U.S.-European political, military, economic and cultural hegemony: this is a consistent point of view with strong support in the global South, among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Indeed, in many respects what John Paul II represented was a living link between the pre-modern traditions of European Catholicism and the post-modern realities of much of the rest of the world.And in that respect, John Paul II was following, not just leading, the faithful. As will be pointed out often during the next couple of weeks, there is now a Southern majority in the College of Cardinals that will elect this pope's successor. Most of the Church's growth is in the South, or among southern immigrants to the North (most notably the Latin American immigrants to the U.S.). John Paul II's peripatetic travel was notable not just in its pace, but in its scope, especially in Latin America and Asia. And it's no accident that the short list for the successor to the first non-Italian pope in half a millennium includes serious candidates from outside Europe for the first time ever.Sure, John Paul II clamped down on the "liberation theology" popular in some elements of the Latin American clergy, and reined in some of the more exuberant liturgical experiments underway in Africa (as well as in the U.S.). But such actions should be understood as steps to consolidate the South's position in the universal church, not as efforts to impose European norms.This is, of course, just a hypothesis, and perhaps I am being unduly influenced by the North-South struggle underway in my own faith community, the Anglican Communion, where African and Asian bishops are headed rapidly down a path that may soon lead to the isolation and/or expulsion of their U.S. and Canadian brethren, with the Church of England itself probably next in line for punishment for its "modernist" heresies.But the case for John Paul II as the crucial figure in the Roman Church's non-Roman, non-European, non-American future seems more compelling to me than a lot of the competing interpretations. And this possibility should especially give pause to the American conservatives, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and irreligious, who are outdoing each other this week in viewing this pope's legacy through the lens of their own cultural and political obsessions. This pope's opposition to "American exceptionalism" invariably embraced opposition to the death penalty, to capitalist triumphalism, and to George W. Bush's unilateralist foreign policies, as well as to abortion or birth control or the removal of feeding tubes from the hopelessly dying.Many conservatives accuse John Paul II's American flock of practicing a "Cafeteria Catholicism" of selective obedience to Rome. But the American Right, I would argue, is practicing "Cafeteria Conservatism"--an equally selective interpretation of this pope's teachings and legacy, which lead not Right or Left but South.

April 2, 2005

Karol Wojtyla R.I.P.

Pope John Paul II died today at 84. There will be much to say, and much said, about the life and legacy of this remarkable man, but for now: may he rest in peace.

April 1, 2005

A "Culture of Life" and Darfur

Tonight I saw HBO's film about the Rwanda genocide of 1994, "Sometime in April." It's a powerful movie, and it is especially impressive in making it clear how little the U.N. and the U.S. did despite extensive knowledge of what was happening day by day. As for the French... well, the film does a subtle but devastating job of showing Paris' sympathy for the wrong side. As it happens, there is something that I and the other millions of people who may ultimately see "Sometime in April" can do other than feel guilty. We can raise holy hell about today's ongoing genocide in Darfur, a situation in which New York and Paris and Washington (along with Moscow and Beijing) seem determined, once again, to do little or nothing until it is too late.The OAU presence in Darfur is completely inadequate to the task. U.N. action will probably be blocked by Russia and China. Today's New Dem Dispatch proposes an emergency NATO mission. That will require immediate and vocal leadership from the President of the United States, who for once has a genuine opportunity to show he really believes in a "culture of life," and in U.S. moral leadership. Like my colleague The Moose, I believe agitating for action in Darfur is a mission that should unite all sorts of disparate elements of the blogosphere.