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June 30, 2005

White House Self-Deception

Yesterday's DLC commentary on the president's big Iraq speech suggested that yet again George W. Bush is demonstrating he's the ultimate one-trick pony as a leader in time of war. He's capable of communicating "resolve," and not much of anything else.So I was more than a little interested in today's Washington Post front-pager by Peter Baker and Dan Balz reporting that Bush is pursuing this we-make-no-mistakes tone of "confidence" on the advice of a political scientist who recently joined the National Security Council staff.The staffer in question, former Duke poli sci professor Peter Feaver (who also worked at the NSC early in the Clinton administration), is best known for a study he did with Duke colleague Christopher Gelpi on war leadership and U.S. public opinion. According to Baker and Balz, their big conclusion, based especially on Vietnam, is that the key factor in public support for a war is the perception that we're winning, with presidential assurances on this front being particularly important.It's not completely clear to me whether this characterization of Feaver and Gelpi's views is accurate; some of it seems to be coming from unnamed "Bush aides." And the piece also quotes Gelpi as saying that Bush's latest speech was insufficiently specific in laying out a strategy for success in Iraq.But still, it's more than passing strange that the White House would hire a political scientist to tell Bush exactly what he wants to hear in terms of his communication strategy on Iraq. It sounds sort of like scouring the earth for a dietician willing to tell a fat man that his habit of eating five pounds of ice cream a day is a good weight management technique.More importantly, it's troublesome to learn that the White House thinks presidential spin on Iraq is more important to public support than the actual facts on the ground. All the "resolve" in the world won't help Bush if the insurgency cannot be quelled, and if the Iraqis cannot achieve a political settlement that will make it possible for a stable government to function.The initial reaction to Bush's speech doesn't seem to indicate it had much of a positive effect on public opinion, and in part that's because his expressions of "resolve" were insufficiently linked to the kind of specifics that could make them credible. Maybe it's time for someone on the White House staff to break through the atmosphere of willful self-deception and suggest a communications strategy that's based more on facts and less on spin. In other words, maybe Bush should be told to lay off the ice cream.

June 29, 2005

Bush's Forgettable Iraq Speech

I haven't seen any snap polls showing the impact, if any, of Bush's big Iraq speech last night, but the circumstantial evidence seems pretty negative.1) Here he was doing a highly emotional speech, full of tributes to the troops, at Ft. Bragg, and he got one ovation other than at the end.2) Republican praise of the speech tended to focus on its rejection of a fixed timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, but rarely mentioned its other alleged functions, such as laying out a clear strategy for victory and reassuring the American people that he knows what he's doing.3) I checked out National Review's The Corner, a reliable Bush Amen Corner (at least on national security issues) which offers near-24/7 commentary, and was impressed by the subdued tone. Sure, the tireless Kathryn Lopez tried to break out the pom-poms once or twice, but most of the discussion focused on attacking media criticism of the speech, and some regular posters actually expressed concern about Bush's "strategy" for Iraq.4) Most ominously for Bush, his speech pretty much uniformly exasperated the "Blair Democrats," those who supported the war initially and who now oppose a fixed timetable for withdrawal. Indeed, some of the harshest criticism of the speech came from this quarter.In this connection, you should check out the DLC's take on Bush's effort, which may be the most thorough critique I've seen to this point.One point it makes is a really interesting question: why didn't Bush appeal explicitly to anti-Iraq-war Americans to put aside their disagreements over his original decision to invade Iraq and focus on the broadly accepted negative consequences of abandoning the country to chaos? He could have quoted a long string of Democratic opponents to the original war resolution, including Howard Dean, who are on record as emphatically saying we can't accept defeat in Iraq now that we're there, rightly or wrongly. He could have helped marginalized the fixed-deadline advocates. He could have been a "uniter, not a divider." And he could have probably bumped up support for his current Iraq policies, not just for a moment but for a while, by decisively severing the link between support for past Bush policies and support for what he's doing now.Instead, Bush strengthened the link between past, present and future Iraq policies by repeatedly returning to a rationale for the original decision to invade that, frankly, is losing credibility every day: it was all about 9/11. Yes, yes, I know, that was his strategy for deflecting criticism about Iraq in the 2004 campaign, but now Bush isn't trying to get re-elected; he's supposedly trying to avoid a nosedive in public support for what he's doing in Iraq today. And the fact that he still cannot let go of his dubious ex post facto rationalizations of the Iraq venture is a bad sign about what we can expect between now and the day he finally goes home to Crawford.UPDATE: As proof that the DLC does not demand internal coordination, much less impose party-wide litmus tests, I must confess that I did not read the accurate pre-speech post by my colleague The Moose, who predicted it would be "forgotten," before doing the above post-speech take suggesting it was "forgettable." But clearly, we do think alike, if sometimes we graze in different pastures.

June 27, 2005

Three Million Reasons We Lost

Garance Franke-Ruta has an interesting and in-depth article on the Democratic Party's creaky minority outreach efforts up on the American Prospect site. By way of emphasizing the Democratic habit of underinvesting in targeted media and messaging, as opposed to more mechanical GOTV efforts, she passes along this factoid: "Kerry spent less on targeted Hispanic media--$3 million--than he did on political strategist and consultant Bob Shrum." Well, just about any way you look at it, had Shrum's fees gone to targeted Hispanic media, Kerry would be president today.Of course, some might argue that Kerry would be president today if Shrum's fees had been stuffed in a paper bag and tossed into the Potomac River, but there's no question more targeted Hispanic media would have been helpful as well.

June 26, 2005

No Quick Latino Fix

One of the things we Democrats use to rock ourselves to sleep at night in these politically perilous times is the hope that demographic trends are working in our favor. And the central source of that hope is the belief that the Latino population of the United States is growing so rapidly that the future shape of the electorate is morphing rapidly in a more progressive direction.Totally aside from the fact that Democrats would be foolish to assume our current performance among Latinos can be counted on in the future, there's the troubling fact that the total Latino vote is a relatively small segment of the electorate, and will remain so for a while. That's the important and sobering message provided by Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center, in today's Washington Post.Suro nicely summarizes his argument in one sentence: "Because of a combination of lack of citizenship, a big youth population, and voter apathy, only one-fifth of Hispanics went to the polls in 2004. In other words, it took five Latino residents to produce one voter." Of those three factors depressing the Latino vote, only the third is one we can theoretically do something about in the near term. So why all the excitement about percentage increases in the Latino vote?Here, too, Suro offers an important distinction in commenting on the "record turnout among Latinos" recently generated by Los Angeles mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa: "[G]iven the low baseline, it wasn't hard. When it comes to counting people in almost any category, Latinos break their own records every day." But as my friend Mark Gersh, the number-crunching wizard of the National Committee for an Effective Congress, always points out, percentages don't win elections; votes do. And small percentage increases from large groups generate more votes than large percentage increases from small groups. That's why the little-recognized but central story of the 2004 presidential election was that a smaller percentage increase in ballots from non-Latino white voters more than exceeded the votes produced by near-record turnout among minority voters as a whole. This does not--let me repeat this--does not mean that Democrats should stop worrying about, or working among, minority voters. It specifically does not mean that Democrats should stop obsessing about now to reach Latino voters. Even if the Latino vote is growing less rapidly, in absolute terms, than some Democrats seem to assume, maintaining the current Democratic advantage is well worth every effort, and moreover, the Latino voting boom will definitely arrive in the relatively near future. What Democrats cannot do, however, is to comfort ourselves with the illusion that Latino voter growth will offset our ever-increasing weakness among white middle-class voters generally, or white married voters with kids specifically. (In fact, the upwardly mobile Latinos most likely to vote largely share the values and aspirations of middle-class non-Latino white voters). We need a strategy, a message, and an agenda that will make inroads into Republican majorities in those groups while continuing to attract and energize minority voters as well. We can't simply wait for demography to save us.

June 24, 2005

Is Polarization Failing? Part Two

ARG just released a national poll that suggests Bush's plunging approval ratings are actually being propped up by persistent Republican loyalty, which disguises an astonishing free-fall among independents:

Among Republicans (36% of adults registered to vote in the survey), 84% approve of the way Bush is handling his job and 12% disapprove. Among Democrats (38% of adults registered to vote in the survey), 18% approve and 77% disapprove of the way Bush is handling his job. Among Independents (26% of adults registered to vote in the survey), 17% approve and 75% disapprove of the way Bush is handling his job as president.
In other words, the views of Independents about Bush's job performance are identical to those of Democrats.Karl Rove's polarization strategy depends on building up hyper-loyalty among Republicans, raiding conservative Democrats, and getting close to an even split among Independents who don't like either party.At present, Independents ain't buying it, and that's really bad news for the GOP so long as Democrats are smart enough to promote a message Indies can like.

Darfur: Same Old Song And Dance

A couple of days ago Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick testified before the House International Relations Committee about the situation in Sudan, and particularly Darfur. And I found his comments a profoundly depressing repetition of every hoary rationalization about our failure to intervene in ethnic cleansing operations in the past.Rationalization #1 is the "sitting duck" hypothesis, summarized in an AP story about Zoellick's testimony as follows:

The Bush administration is opposed to the dispatch of U.S. or European forces to help enhance security in Sudan's Darfur region because they could be vulnerable to attack by terrorists, the No. 2 State Department official said Wednesday.The region is populated by "some bloodthirsty, cold-hearted killers," Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick said, mentioning Somalia in particular as one possible source.
It's ironic that Zoellick cited Somalians as an unacceptable threat to Western troops, since it is generally acknowledged that trauma over the "Black Hawk Down" attack on U.S. troops in Mogadishu had a lot to do with the Clinton administration's much-regretted refusal to intervene in Rwanda.Rationalization #2 also reflects the same chain of thinking that kept the West out of Rwanda:
NATO and the European Union now provide support in transport, logistics and planning for Darfur operations.Zoellick said any expansion in these roles to an on-the-ground presence could lead to charges by some Africans that "the U.S. or the colonial powers are telling Sudan what to do."
Rationalization #3 is more subtle, but you can clearly see it in the PowerPoint presentation Zoellick offered the House Committee. Zoellick repeatedly stresses connections between the Darfur genocide and the long-standing (though recently, for the time being, settled) North-South civil war in Sudan, and notes civil conflict in that nation goes back more than a century. This reflects another golden oldie excuse for non-intervention, heard often with respect to Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo: these people have been killing each other for eons, so what can we do about it?I find all this especially depressing coming from Zoellick, who (a) is one of the Bush administration's most competent diplomats; (b) has been willing to call genocide, genocide; and (c) has spent quite a bit of time in the area recently. Mark Leon Goldberg over at TAPPED has suggested that the administration is crab-walking its way over to a general rapproachment with the Khartoum government, based on its purported cooperation with U.S. intelligence on Islamic terrorism. As Mark aptly says: "It seems that we are back to the bad old days of cold Cold-War calculations: The United States doesn’t care what happens inside the borders of a cooperative regime." But even then, I don't remember senior U.S. officials explicitly condoning genocide by "allies."

Tips From the Coach

Having spent much of yesterday morning in Constitution Hall watching the happy and inspiring ceremony of my kid's high school graduation, I was brought back to the unhappy and dispiriting realities of contemporary American politics by press accounts of Karl Rove's pithy remarks to the New York Conservative Party the other night.I want to read the whole transcript (if it's ever made available) before commenting at length. But it sure sounds like a Rove classic, combining his well-known habit of deliberately outrageous behavior designed to obliterate real debate in a storm of polarized rhetoric, and his more specific approach in national security to suggest any criticism of Bush's record in Iraq or anywhere else must reflect a refusal to take 9/11 seriously.Perhaps the most interesting question about this speech's "message" is why Rove chose to scuttle out of the shadows and deliver it himself instead of employing surrogates. You have to wonder if the Boy Genius was frustrated with the limited effects of the GOP's counteroffensive on Iraq and Gitmo, and decided to put on a cap and whistle and go out there and personally show his team how to execute a Big Smear.'Til I have the opportunity to put on some rubber gloves and pick up Rove's speech with sterilized tongs, I'll just endorse the concise assessment made yesterday by Sen. John Kerry, who knows Karl's tactics well from painful experience:

For Karl Rove to equate Democratic policy on terror to "indictments" and "therapy" is an outrageous attempt to divide the nation at just the moment we must be unified. Just days after 9/11 the Senate voted 98-0 and the House voted 420-1 to authorize President Bush to use "all necessary and appropriate force" against terror. After the bipartisan vote, President Bush said, I quote: "I am gratified that the Congress has united so powerfully by taking this action. It sends a clear message - our people are together, and we will prevail."Karl Rove also said last night, quote: "No more needs to be said about the motives of liberals."Well, I think a lot more needs to be said about Karl Rove’s motives, because they’re not the people’s motives, and if the President really believed his own words of unity, then he should fire Karl Rove.
Kerry's right, but I'm sure he's not holding his breath waiting for Bush to cut Karl loose. After all, there's no way W. would be quarterbacking Team America without Coach Rove.

June 22, 2005

Biden's Iraq Speech

I know some Democrats are still mad at him for criticizing Howard Dean, and some, indeed, are still mad about his vote on the bankruptcy bill, but I tell you what, nobody can quite unload on the administration's foreign policies like Senator Joe Biden.He did a major speech on Iraq over at Brookings yesterday, and here's what he had to say about Dick Cheney's "last throes of the insurgency" line, by way of talking about his own recent trip to Iraq:

When you arrive in Baghdad, you're in a C-130. You do a corkscrew landing to make it more difficult for an enemy ground-to-air launched missile to take you down. When you land, you immediately have body armor placed on you. You are hustled quickly into a Black Hawk helicopter. In the helicopter, there are two brave young soldiers with 30-caliber machine guns hanging out the bays of those doors. You travel from the Red Zone to the Green Zone. The Green Zone is the supposed safe zone. You travel roughly 150 miles per hour, not a whole lot over 100 feet off the ground so as not to provide those on the ground with a profile [so they can shoot you down].You get off the Black Hawk in the Green Zone, which has redundant great cement blocks and walls to keep it secure. You are hustled in your armor into a beefed up Chevy van....

In short, I did not come away with the impression that the insurgency was, as the Vice President of the United States suggeested, in its last throes. And unlike the President of the United States, I am not, quote, "pleased with the progress," end of quote, we're making as I recently saw it.

You should read the whole speech, including Biden's unhappy but honest assessment of our future options if the Iraqi government cannot soon get control of the country.

June 21, 2005

Bible Girl Returns For a Limited Engagement

Many of you are probably familiar with the work of Amy Sullivan (who half-jokingly calls herself Bible Girl in reflection of her tireless devotion to the cause of making it clear the Cultural Right has no monopoly on Christianity), who gave up her blog, Political Aims, a while back to work as an editor at Washington Monthly. I'm happy to report that the fine folks over at Beliefnet have signed up Amy for a brief stint of blogging on religion and politics. You can tell she's missed the blogosphere, because she's knocking out several posts a day, and it's good to see she hasn't lost her distinctive tone of exasperated reasonableness. These are exasperating times for reasonable people. Be sure to check out Amy's posts on the John Hostettler outrage on the House floor, the heavy-handed GOP effort to Foxify public radio and television, and Tom Monaghan's rather creepy campaign to build a conservative Catholic gated utopia in Central Florida. I expect to weigh in on at least a couple of these subjects myself in a bit.NOTE: I know this is getting old, but I'm continuing to experience serious Wi-Fi problems, which have interfered with my ususal nocturnal blogging habits, but the techies are working on it.

June 18, 2005

Anti-Gay Activists: Obeying or Defying God's Will?

Although it doesn't break much new ground, Russell Shorto's profile of hard-core anti-gay-marriage activists in the Sunday New York Times is notable for getting to the very heart of the matter. Unlike many Americans who dislike the idea of gay marriage while generally accepting gays and lesbians as people with a right to follow their sexual orientation, the activists (typically conservative evangelicals) Shorto interviews oppose gay marriage precisely because they cannot accept the idea of homosexuality as a biologically determined orientation. Indeed, he says, they seem to understand that any chink in the argument that homosexual behavior is a "libertine lifestyle," a mental illness, or a disease, will expose them to a terrible series of moral and even theological dilemmas:

For them, the issue isn't one of civil rights, because the term implies something inherent in the individual -- being black, say, or a woman -- and they deny that homosexuality is inherent. It can't be, because that would mean God had created some people who are damned from birth, morally blackened. This really is the inescapable root of the whole issue.
Indeed it is. Accepting the scientific evidence that homosexuality is biological would turn the religious argument on the subject upside down, since discrimination against people because of their God-given nature is defiance of God's will rather than obedience. And the self-condemnation involved would be unavoidable, since they could not simply cite the marginal scattering of scriptural condemnations of homosexuality from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to Paul; these authorities, after all, knew nothing about biology other than their own observations. In this light, the anti-gay "prophetic stance" of so many politically active conservative evangelicals is another spiritually dangerous submission of religious truth to cultural conservatism and partisan politics.And that's why they can't compromise: they're out on a limb with their souls on the line, secular to the core but unable to see it.

June 17, 2005

Catching Up

I didn't do a post yesterday because the WiFi card in my antiquated laptop shut down; I must've forgotten to feed the hamsters again. Before that happened, I did do a long post over at TPMCafe.com, proposing six rules for intra-party etiquette, that you might find interesting. And my enforced inability to cyber-jabber did encourage me to listen to some other voices.Over at Bullmooseblog.com, my colleague Marshall Wittmann indulged in one of his periodic fantasies about a John McCain/Bob Kerrey third party ticket. Upon encountering him today, I suggested The Moose was grazing amongst the funny mushrooms again.On a more serious note, I attended a Progressive Policy Institute event (a link to the video should be up on the CSPAN2 site later today) featuring Larry Diamond, whose new book about the Iraq occupation, Squandered Victory, is a riveting account of the Bush administration's "arrogance, ignorance, isolation and incompetence" in post-invasion Iraq, and the consequences we are facing now and for the immediate future.And just a few minutes ago, I read a powerful piece in The Weekly Standard by Matthew Continetti about the deeper origins of Ralph Reed's latest troubles, which suggests his involvement in the Abramoff/Indian Casino scandal may turn out to be the tip of the ethical iceberg. Continetti runs through a whole series of questionable lobbying and p.r. campaigns Reed has taken on during his relatively brief but extremely lucrative career as a consultant (e.g., several contracts with Enron), and notes that Reed's past ability to disguise his sources of income cannot survive the scrutiny he's invited by running for Lieutenant Governor of Georgia. "For once," says Continetti, Reed's "political timing is off."Reed remains the front-runner for the GOP nomination, with an array of GOP establishment figures in Georgia and in Washington in his corner. And he did manage to intimidate one potential primary opponent, State Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, into backing off, even though Oxendine was leading Reed in early polls. But he still faces state Rep. Casey Cagle, who has won the support of a large number of Republican legislators. And they aren't being bashful about going after Reed on his ethics record and his unsavory Washington associations. In an Atlanta Journal-Constitution op-ed piece earlier this week, Bob Irvin, a former GOP legislative leader, called on Reed to drop out, with this prophecy: "If you should win the nomination, many thousands of Republican voters will desert us for the Democrats in 2006, defeating not only you but also many other good Republican candidates, maybe even Gov. Sonny Perdue."Now there's an eminently achievable political fantasy that The Moose and I can share.

June 15, 2005

Where's the Plan on Iraq?

Thomas Friedman's column on Iraq in today's New York Times raises a couple of rather pertinent questions: does the Bush administration really have a strategy for a successful end-game? And if not, does anyone else?It's increasingly obvious that the administration's happy-talk about Iraq--most notably Dick Cheney's claim that the latest upsurge in violence is the insurgency's "last throes"--is mendacious stonewalling of the worst kind. There are a lot of theories kicking around about the administration's actual thinking. One is the idea that it's simply waiting for the approval of a fully constitutional Iraqi government this fall before finally announcing an intention to begin withdrawing U.S. troops. Another is the belief, suggested by my colleague The Moose, that the Bushies have entered a full LBJ Vietnam mode, in which they are imprisoned by past decisions and are simply blundering ahead without vision or hope.Either way, what should the rest of us think or propose? To be sure, most Democrats, whether or not they supported the original decision to to invade Iraq, have generally supported the proposition that failure to secure the country and create a decent opportunity for a stable democratic regime would be a terrible setback for America and its interests. And to be sure, Democrats don't have much responsibility for the horrendous series of misteps by the Bush administration that have led us to this unhappy juncture in Iraq. But simply calling for U.S. withdrawal on a fixed timetable unrelated to the political situation in Iraq, as many Democrats are beginning to do, simply compounds the administration's irresponsibility and reinforces the Bush/Rove/Rumsfeld argument that theirs in the only alternative to retreat and surrender.Friedman argues that critics of the administration should propose "doubling the boots on the ground" in Iraq to shake up the current drift towards chaos and give the Iraqi government a once-and-for-all chance to force Shia and Sunni leaders to pick sides and commit themselves to a pluralistic democracy. Given the Pentagon's struggles to support the current level of deployment, I don't think this is a lively option.But Friedman's demand that we all stop staring at polling data on Iraq and have a real debate on what we propose to do is salutory. If the administration is unwilling to engage in that debate, then it should be forced upon them by Congress and the country. My own small insight is that perhaps we should begin to make reduction of the American presence a political prize for all the factions in Iraq--an incentive for Sunni support of the government, and a source of credibility for the government itself. Perhaps that's where the administration is headed, but if so, they need to say so, to Iraqis, and to Americans as well.The time for happy talk is over. Iraqis aren't buying it, and neither are Americans. It should be easy for Democrats--and increasingly, for many Republicans--to unite in a demand for a real plan.

June 14, 2005

Senators (Sort Of) Above the Fray

Last month SurveyUSA created a big political buzz by releasing a 50-state batch of polls with the approval/disapproval ratings of America's Governors. Democrats did better than Republicans, and red-state Democrats did sensationally well. This week SurveyUSA released a similar batch of polls rating U.S. Senators, at a time when Congress as an institution, and Republican Congressmen in particular, are getting pounded in most public opinion surveys. Lo and behold, all 100 Senators have positive approval/disapproval ratings, in sharp contrast to Governors. Now, part of this result reflects the enduring reality that Governors, as chief executives of their states, are held responsible for general public attitudes about state government, while Senators can pretend they are bravely bringing home the bacon for the home folks while evading responsibility for general attitudes towards Congress, or even their party in Congress. Executives feel the heat for public unhappiness, while legislators deflect it elsewhere, anywhere. Still, the SurveyUSA ratings on Senators are interesting. Barack Obama is America's most popular Senator in his own state, with a 72/21 approval/disapproval ratio. The least popular Senator is John Cornyn from Bush's home state of Texas, who registers at 40/36. Notable 2006 target Rick Santorum actually has the highest disapproval rate of any Senator, with a 45/44 ratio. Ohio's Mike DeWine continues to beg for a strong opponent in 2006, coming in at 44/43. Conrad Burns of MT is at a marginal 50/42 ratio. Supposedly vulnerable Democrat Ben Nelson is at a robust 64/26, while the other Nelson, Bill of Florida, is doing relatively well at 47/29. Among the bottom-feeders in the survey are, unfortunately, a bunch of GOPers who aren't up in '06, including the aforementioned Cornyn, Richard Burr of NC (42/36), Tom Coburn of OK (43/40), his colleague Jim Inhofe (44/42), and Mel Martinez of FL (43/39). In general, Senate Republicans are suffering somewhat from the plunging approval ratings of their party, but not as much as they should. And that's something Democrats should accept as a party-wide challenge.

June 13, 2005

Novak's Latest Stab-in-the-Back Theory

I guess after many, many years of reading Robert Novak's twisted columns, I shouldn't be surprised at anything he writes. But in his syndicated column today, the Prince of Darkness reaches a new low in sheer weirdness and mendacity. Its hypothesis is that Tony Blair is stabbing poor, honest George W. Bush in the back by conspiring with U.S. environmentalists and double-dealing politicians to force U.S. compliance with the Kyoto Protocol on global climate change, for the express purpose of destroying U.S. economic growth. Watching Novak construct this argument is stomach-churning. There's the blind quote from a "White House aide" planting the lurid idea that "Kyoto was never about environmental policy.... It was designed as an elaborate, predatory trade strategy to level the American and European economies." There's a wildly out-of-context 2001 quote from a European Commission official suggesting Kyoto is about, well, a lot of things, including economics, which in no way supports the Novak hypothesis. There's the weird and unsubstantiated assertion that Europe's industries "have been devastated" by Kyoto. And there's the total misrepresentation of Blair's position, which is not to demand U.S. accession to Kyoto, but to create a "parallel track" where the U.S. takes some action to reduce carbon emissions (a position embraced by Bush during his 2000 campaign, and abruptly abandoned once he took office), pending further negotiations on a common strategy to deal with climate change. This whole, ridiculous argument is predicated on the right-wing assumption that action on greenhouse gases is incompatible with economic growth. Tell that to the growing number of U.S. business executives--most recently, those at Duke Power, a major utility--who believe action on this front is not only compatible with economic growth, but is essential to maintaining U.S. competitiveness on the new, clean technologies that are emerging to deal with the greenhouse gas challenge. But of all Novak's twisted arguments, the worst is this idea of Bush as a victim of some sort of conspiracy. "Bush is surrounded by hostile friends" on climate change, says he. It's true, of course, that most scientific experts within the administration are convinced climate change is a potentially catastrophic problem, with especially catastrophic implications for the U.S. economy. It's true that most rank-and-file Republicans think this is a challenge worthy of national action. It's even true that a growing number of conservative evangelical Christians are identifying this as an important "stewardship" issue. And it's true some, though not enough, Republicans on the Hill have decisively separated themselves from the right-wing argument that this is all some sort of bogus anti-growth effort to make us all live in grass huts and bicycle to work. But Bush's genuinely false friends are those, like Novak, who persist in encouraging him to defend a head-in-the-sand position on climate change that's as deeply irresponsible as the administration's fiscal policies. Since this is a president who seems to enjoy being told he's always right, I somehow doubt he'll figure this out.

June 12, 2005

Charters, Vouchers, and Accountability

Over at the Washington Monthly's Political Animal site, Kevin Drum draws attention today to the first in a big series of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports on that city's notable experiment in school choice. The MJS's findings suggest that the use of public funds for religious public schools have made a difference for some, but not generally most, students affected. And after citing a particular report on the lack of accountability for results among "choice" schools in Milwaukee, Kevin draws this pointed conclusion:

I can be talked into experimenting with vouchers and charter schools. But if the real goal is just to expand funding for parochial schools and allow them to operate with no oversight, count me out.
As a strong supporter of charter public schools, I agree with Kevin's statement. But this is precisely what separates, in theory at least, the charter school movement from the conservative demand for publicly financed private-school subsidies, a.k.a. vouchers. By definition, a charter school is an independently operated public school that is issued a charter, i.e., a performance contract, that explicitly identifies the educational outcomes it promises to deliver, on pain of losing public funding. And for all the rhetorical support conservatives sometimes offer for charter public schools, their support for voucher programs shows they don't understand or truly care about the distinct bargain of flexibility in exchange for results that the charter movement is all about.I will defer to my colleague Andy Rotherham over at Eduwonk for a nuanced analysis of the Milwaukee experiment, which I am sure he will soon supply. But I think it's important to note that in a "choice" experiment that includes both vouchers and charters, the bad things about the former can obscure or even defeat the good things about the latter.

June 11, 2005

The Forgotten Armageddon

We all know that elements of the Cultural Right, and their Bush administration allies, are sympathic to scriptural ideas about the hellwards direction of the world towards Armageddon. But on one front where Armageddon most threatens us, the administration and its friends are so indifferent that you have to wonder if they have cut a deal with the forces of Antichrist: global climate change.Today's Washington Post has an appropriately angry editorial about the Bushies' serial defiance of all the science, all the policy, and all the truth about climate change. It's enough to make you feel apocalyptic.

June 9, 2005

A Cultural Conversation on the Left

Something very interesting has been happening this week on several progressive blog sites: a genuine and heated discussion about the legitimacy of Democratic expressions of solidarity with parents worried about the impact of popular culture on their kids.This is a subject I've written about a lot, but let me tell you, it's been pretty lonely work. A lot of Democrats just become unhinged at the suggestion that our habitual concern for corporate responsibility towards working families might extend into the entertainment and advertising industries. My friend Amy Sullivan did a post on the Political Animal site back in April that in passing endorsed the idea of a "consistent responsibility message" for Democrats, and practically got cyber-lynched in the comments thread.So I was surprised and delighted when The American Prospect's Garance Franke-Ruta (who, unlike myself and Amy, does not have a background that arouses suspicions of latent Bible-thumper sympathies) did a long post commenting on Barbara Whitehead's new Blueprint article on parents, culture and Democrats, and made the most compelling case I have yet seen for Democratic solidarity with culturally-stressed parents. Indeed, she even offered a clear reason for the antipathy of so many bloggers and political operatives on the Left to this subject. Citing Whitehead's argument that marrieds with young children experience a "life-stage conservatism" based on their responsibility to teach kids right from wrong, Franke-Ruta suggested there's a sort of "life-stage liberalism" on cultural issues among the young single people who dominate the Left blogosphere and Capitol Hill staffs. Actually, she rather more pointedly called it "adolescent libertarianism," but sarcasm aside, she rightly understood that 23-year-olds are more likely to identify with trash-culture-consuming kids than with their anxious parents.Franke-Ruta's piece touched off a vigorous debate with her colleague Matt Yglesias, that ultimately drew in Kevin Drum and Kenny Baer, and ended amicably and constructively. Indeed, Matt closed the loop by penning a draft speech on culture and parenting that showed there's a lot of potential common ground available on this subject.So I'm feeling a lot less lonely.

June 7, 2005

Eating Their Young

It's generally accepted that conservative activists were a lot more upset about the judicial nomination "compromise" in the Senate than were their Democratic counterparts. But if current developments in Ohio are any indication, the Right isn't going to get over it without extracting some revenge. According to a (subscription only) article by Lauren Whittington in today's Roll Call, conservative fury about Sen. Mike DeWine's involvement in the compromise is endangering the campaign of his son, Pat DeWine, in a special election to fill the seat of new U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman. Until the Senate went non-nuclear, the younger DeWine had been the front-runner for the GOP nomination in this heavily Republican district, mainly thanks to a big fundraising edge. But now, according to a poll conducted for his leading rival, former Rep. Bob McEwen, the two are neck and neck, with DeWine's favorable/unfavorable ratio at a queasy 40/36 as opposed to McEwen's 51/5. According to Whittington, the most important reason for DeWine's high negatives is his father's role in the Senate compromise. Indeed, he's even suffering from conservative anger at his father's Ohio colleague, George Voinovich, for his opposition to the Bolton nomination. "The actions of the two Ohio Senators," reports Whittington, "considered blasphemous by much of the GOP base, have dominated conservative radio outlets in recent weeks." What's most interesting about this story is that anger over the judicial compromise and the Bolton "betrayal" is apparently not limited to full-time activists; it's extending deep into the conservative rank-and-file. And that shows the Right-Wing Noise Machine, so effective as an instrument on behalf of the GOP, can turn lethally self-destructive if the Republican coalition begins to fall apart.

Is Polarization Failing?

It's no big secret that the Bush/Rove polarization approach to politics and policy is predicated on the belief that since self-identified conservatives handily outnumber liberals, destroying any middle ground will force moderates to choose sides in a competition where Democrats have to win a huge, disproportionate number of them to stay even. But as a new Washington Post survey shows, Democrats may soon be well-positioned to do just that. According to the survey, while four of five Democrats think Bush is focusing on the wrong priorities, and nearly as many Republicans disagree, an astonishing 68 percent of self-identified political independents agree with Democrats on this question. And let's be clear: it's not that they worry about Bush's particular approach to this or that issue, or don't know enough about it--they think he's focusing on the wrong issues entirely. Since the dominant conservative wing of the GOP is now deeply, and probably irreversibly, invested in Bush's current agenda, it will be very difficult for him to change gears dramatically, even if he did have something relevant to offer on the economy, health care, or Iraq, which he doesn't. Thus, it may well be that the powerful logic of polarization--a strategy that simultaneously allows you to rev up your base, reward constituencies, and force the opposition to counter-polarize--is turning perverse, as Bush struggles with a restive base, clamoring constituencies, alienated swing voters, and a united Democratic opposition that, for all its problems, seems more in touch with what Americans care about.

June 6, 2005

Bad Seed On Rove's Stomping Grounds

Ah yes, I've been waiting for this all year. Finally, as the Abramoff-Scanlon-Norquist-Reed Casino Shakedown Scandal gains momentum, some are beginning to wonder if a close acquaintence of all these gents named Karl Rove might have had some idea what was going on. Last week my colleague The Moose cited a Texas Observer article by Rove-watcher Lou Dubose reminding readers of lots of little favors the Bush White House performed for Abramoff and Norquist and their clients (both men, of course, especially Norquist, were early and avid backers of W. for president in 2000). And everybody knows Ralph Reed has been a big-time Bush-Rove favorite who helped create the Christian-K Street coalition which saved W.'s bacon against John McCain in 2000, and who was allowed to test-drive the GOP's state-of-the-art Get Out the Vote strategy as Republican Party chairman in Georgia in 2002.But I come at this issue from a slightly different perspective. When it first became apparent that the Texas scam of Reed taking Abramoff-generated Indian Casino money to run anti-gambling initiatives had been replicated in Alabama, I thought: Hmmmm. Texas and Alabama. Alabama and Texas. Don't we know somebody famous who made these two states his personal political stomping grounds in the 1990s? Some guy named Rove?Rove's dominance of Texas politics in the 1990s is a well-known story. But as Josh Green explained in his Atlantic profile of Rove last year, Alabama was nearly as large a preoccupation for the Boy Genius. As part of his patented effort to bond the business community and cultural conservatives (and their money) to the GOP through abrasive judicial campaigns, Rove was deeply involved in an effort to take over the Alabama Supreme Court from 1994 to 1998 (indeed, his one loss was to a judicial candidate named Roy Moore, a defeat which, according to Green, deepened Rove's respect for the political power of the Christian Right).Now, none of this proves in the least that Rove had any involvement in the Casino Shakedown, even though it sure seems Rovian in its three-cushion-shot dynamics of raising special-interest money to succor conservative constituency groups and damage Democrats. But the idea that anything as big as this scam, involving several Rove/Bush intimates and three very visible statewide public campaigns, went down in those two particular states without ol' Karl having a clue about it is as incredible as the idea that Ralph Reed got millions of casino dollars without suspecting the source of the money. Somewhere, the bloodhounds are gathering and getting the scent of dirty dollars. It will be interesting to follow their trail.

June 5, 2005

New Details in Reed Gambling Scandal

In today's Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jim Galloway gives us a much clearer picture of the 1999-2000 Alabama gambling/anti-gambling scandal in which Ralph Reed, candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Georgia, played a central role.Turns out the 1.1 million that flowed from the Choctaws of Mississippi to Grover Norquist to anti-gambling forces in Alabama to Reed's consulting firm occurred during two different campaigns. The first, involving a $300,000 payment, went to the successful effort to defeat a state lottery initiative backed by then-Gov. Don Siegelman. The rest of the money, $800,000, passed through the Alabama Christian Coalition the following year, and was aimed (successfully) at stirring up public opposition to a bill that would have authorized video poker at four ailing dog racing tracks.More importantly, Galloway clearly explains the motives of the Choctaws in shelling out this much dough to influence gaming laws in Alabama. They weren't so much worried about a lottery or video poker in Alabama. Their real concern is that legalized public gaming in Alabama would open the way for a 'Bama tribe, the Creeks, to upgrade an existing facility with bingo-based games into a full-scale casino, in direct competition with the Choctaws across the border.Today's piece also reveals that Reed has a new story about the source of the money: it came from a special account set up by the Choctaws from their non-gambling revenues. This will apparently become his fallback defense if nobody believes his highly dubious argument that he had no idea his ol' buddy Jack Abramoff was involving with Indian gaming.I doubt this defense will cut much more ice than the original Reed profession of innocence. The issue is not exactly which Choctaw bank account financed the anti-gambling effort in Alabama; it's the motive that matters. And there's not much doubt one tribe, on the advice of Abramoff and utlilizing his close friends Norquist and Reed, was spending freely to avoid competition from another.So far Reed seems to have controlled the immediate political damage to his campaign of his ever-more-intimate implication in the Abramoff scandal. But within the next week or two, the Alabama Christian Coalition is expected to release the results of an internal investigation of the mess. And at a time when Alabama Democrats are pushing a proposal to demand that groups like the Christian Coalition who are involved directly in campaigns disclose their funding sources, the organization might just decide to drop a heavy dime on Reed. Stay tuned.

June 4, 2005

Full Nelson

There's an interesting Babington piece in today's Washington Post that says things are looking up for the two most vulnerable Democratic Senators going into the 2006 elections: the Nelson boys, Ben of Nebraska and Bill of Florida. In Ben's case, there are signs the compromise on judicial nominations, whatever it means to the federal bench or the future of the filibuster, has been very popular in Nebraska. And in Bill's case, Florida Republicans continue to struggle to recruit a strong candidate to challenge him, with Rep. Katherine Harris, a cult figure among GOP activists but a probable loser in a general election, looking more and more like the front-runner for the Republican nomination. Holding the Nebraska and Florida seats is absolutely critical to the prospect of serious Democratic Senate gains in 2006. That's why the growing signs of a full Nelson sweep are sweet for Democrats who would prefer to focus on knocking off vulnerable Republicans like Santorum, Burns and Chafee.

June 3, 2005

Al Qaeda 3.0?

Whether or not you think al Qaeda is still capable of launching another major terrorist strike on the United States, it's clear the loose network inspired by Osama bin Laden has significantly morphed since 9/11. Iraq has replaced Afghanistan as al Qaeda's primary training ground and deployment center, and increasingly, its leading figure is Abu Mus'ab al Zarquawi rather than Osama himself. In a fascinating new article in The New Republic, Joseph Braude suggests al Qaeda is beginning to undergo a second transformation based on its emergence in an urban rather than rural setting. He focuses on a little-known but increasingly savage al Qaeda-based Islamist resistence to Quaddafi's regime in Libya. And he goes on to suggest that the same conditions--a weakening militarist regime with a poor grip on tribal and religious loyalities, and a growing urban lumpenproletariat fed by military downsizing--exist in abundance in Syria.My first reaction to this hypothesis was to think: "Al Qaeda's new targets are Quaddafi and Assad? Excellent!" But as Braude points out, an urban-based Islamist resistance linked to global terrorism could easily spread to less unsavory Muslim regimes in the greater Middle East. Moreover, al Qaeda's modus operandi in both Afghanistan and Iraq--importing, training, using and then re-exporting "foreign fighters" to wreak havoc elsewhere--seems to be happening in Libya right now. At any rate, check out Braude's piece, and see if it makes you more or less concerned about the future shape of the terrorist network that the Bush administration is beginning to think of as a spent force.

June 2, 2005

Bush's Incoherence on Stem Cell Research

The intellectual and moral incoherence of George W. Bush's position opposing federally funded embryonic stem cell research is a topic that many have written about, including Matt Yglesias, the DLC, and myself. But in a new posting on the New Republic site, Michelle Cottle adds another count to the indictment: the insight that the in vitro fertilization process that Bush and his fellow stem cell research demonizers stubbornly refuse to address is an element of the downside of the "culture of life" they claim to be defending. People who desparately want to be parents are the ones generating all those excess embryos without which we wouldn't be having this debate. Check it out.

June 1, 2005

The Post-Holocaust Candidate

I have often written about the twisted religious roots, and the disturbing political implications, of the belief of many leaders of the Cultural Right that the United States of America is a fundamentally evil society thanks to the nefarious (and increasingly imaginary) power of godless, baby-killing, marriage-hating, Christian-persecuting liberals.Well, it looks like these folks may have themselves a candidate for president: Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, said to be eying a 2008 run.I knew Brownback was a pretty strange dude, and popular on the Cultural Right, and did notice his comments during the stem cell research debate about the "killing of young human beings." But not until I stumbled on George Will's puff piece on the Kansan in a recent Newsweek did I know how fully he has internalized the America-as-Nazi-Germany logic of the most serious and extreme anti-abortion advocates.According to Will, Brownback believes the effort to extinguish abortion rights will succeed because:

[T]he youngest voters, ages 18 to 25, are the most pro-life cohort. They were born, he says, when abortion rates were highest, so "many of them feel they're the survivors of a holocaust: one in four of their compatriots are not here.''
I don't know where Brownback is getting his polling data on young voters. But aside from that, this little quote indicates exactly what the man thinks of the rest of us who have somehow managed to get through the years since Roe v. Wade without acknowledging we are NARAL's Willing Executioners.(A footnote to Brownback's use of Holocaust imagery is that his 1996 Senate campaign was accused, though never with any concrete evidence, of complicity in a whispering campaign about the Judaism of his Democratic opponent Jill Docking).The other thing I quickly learned about Brownback is that he's a recent convert from Methodism (albeit the George W. Bush-style conservative wing of that denomination) to Catholicism--and not just any old Catholicism, but Opus Dei Catholicism. Yes, like columnist Robert Novak, he entered the Church via the hyper-conservative ministry of D.C.-based Opus Dei priest John McCloskey, a man who believes "liberals" have no place in Christianity, much less Catholicism.So it looks like Brownback is the perfect vehicle for those who believe Christians have a religious obligation to be politically conservative and activist Republicans.One thing is for certain sure: if Brownback emerges as the powerful candidate of the Cultural Right in 2008, two men in particular are going to become even bigger celebrities than they are now: Dan Brown, author of the Opus-Dei-centered novel The Da Vinci Code, and Thomas Frank, the preeminent analyst of the peculiarly virulent strain of Kansas Cultural Conservatism that lifted Brownback to the U.S. Senate.