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September 30, 2005

Obama on Litmus Tests and Democratic Civility

Sen. Barack Obama has done a very interesting post over at DailyKos schooling netroots activists about over-reaction to dissenters from party orthodoxy, and more generally about how to keep the big picture in mind. The post has drawn a remarkable number of comments, most of them positive. And you should also check out Markos' own response, which concedes Obama's general point and basically says Democratic dissenters ought to better explain their positions.Not surprisingly, I agree with just about everything Obama says, but beyond that, I just have to marvel at this guy's ability to consistently lift discussion of almost every topic to a higher plane.

Judicial Politics

I had a very interesting morning at the Day Job. The DLC's think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, held a forum on the changing politics of judicial nominations, featuring Stuart Taylor of National Journal, Jeffrey Rosen of George Washington University and The New Republic, and yours truly.PPI's Will Marshall moderated and introduced us, and after citing Taylor and Rosen's impressive legal resumes, mentioned my law degree from the University of Georgia and said: "It's good to have some kudzu among the ivy here today." After some consideration, I decided to take that as a compliment.It fell to me to serve as the defender of Democrats who voted against Roberts' nomination, and, more generally, to remind everyone of the real roots of the recent polarization of judicial nominations, in the devil's bargain the GOP has made with the Cultural Right. I also took issue with the idea that it would be just peachy keen for progressives if abortion policy were returned to Congress and state legislatures.If you're interested, the forum will probably be offered up to insomniacs at some point this weekend over CSPAN or CSPAN2. Or you can check out the streaming video available via CSPAN3. If you do, please kindly ignore my face-made-for-radio and listen to what I said. I did wear a cool red-white-and-blue donkey tie.

September 28, 2005

The Bug Man Gets Indicted

Well, the big news today has been the surprise decision of a Texas grand jury to indict House GOP Leader Tom DeLay for a criminal conspiracy to violate that state's ban on corporate campaign contributions. I've written about the broader implications of this thunderbolt over at TPMCafe, and the DLC weighed in institutionally in a manner that I cannot really improve on.The really big picture is that all sorts of chickens are now coming home to roost for the GOP. You can hear them clucking all over Washington: in the White House, where the FBI investigation of Jack Abramoff is now penetrating the previously impermeable heart of Bush Era politics and policy; in the conservative commentariat, which is now torn between defending the Republican establishment and accusing it of betraying its principles; and in Congress, where DeLay's troubles are creating a power vaccum among GOPers for whom power has been the only unifying principle. More and more, the Bush Era is beginning to resemble the Harding Era, without the humanizing features of sex and liquor. The self-righteous, clean-living (when it comes to private behavior other than indulgence in interest-group financed golf junkets) Tom DeLay is a perfect symbol of today's GOP, and its unacknowledged sins.

September 27, 2005

Wanted: Marxists To Resolve Dispute

This is going to be a rather self-indulgent post, but perhaps of interest to those of you who are into in political history, or just history.On Sunday I did a post about the big antiwar rally in Washington, and by way of suggesting that this assemblage wasn't as radical as it might have been, reminisced about an antiwar rally I attended in Atlanta in 1970 in which Trotskyist cadres coopted a bunch of peaceniks into marching alongside Viet Cong flags.My colleague The Moose, a fellow baby boomer who shared my youthful flirtation with Marxism back in the day, upbraided me by the water cooler to inform me that my memoir was objectively impossible, since the Socialist Workers Party and its collegiate wing, the Young Socialist Alliance, had in fact promulgated a Popular Front Party Line that eschewed identification with the NLF, or indeed, any message other than "U.S. Out of Vietnam Now."The Moose knows his Trotskyists very well. Indeed, after subjecting me to a round of criticism-and-self-criticism about my understanding of SWP policies, he went on to school me on the particular provenance of the Workers World Party (one of the indirect sponsors of the rally in Washington this weekend), which was born as a protest against the SWP's condemnation of the Soviet supression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.But I remember what I remember from 1970, as I trudged along in an antiwar march controlled by YSA activists, under the watchful eye of local SWP boss and future perennial presidential candidate Linda Jenness, an Atlanta native, and as YSA bullhorns redundantly intoned pro-NLF chants.I have no idea if, or if so, how many, Vietnam-era Marxists read New Donkey, but if so, we need some arbitation here. Was I ignorantly witnessing some weird Atlanta-based Left Deviationist strain of American Trotskyism? Was the march actually controlled by agents of RYM (Revolutionary Youth Movement) II, the residue of SDS after RYM I (a.k.a., the Weathermen) and the Progressive Labor Party (briefly the home of Lyndon Larouche) left? Was the whole thing an FBI plant?Inquiring minds want to know. And the whole subject is a reminder that today's internecine battles on the Left are a pale reflection of what they used to be, back when state socialism was still cool.

Blonde In Peril On Ice

Remember this spring's premium Blonde In Peril, Ashley Smith?You know, Ashley Smith, the Atlanta woman who was taken hostage in her apartment by fugitive cop-killer Brian Nichols, and eventually lulled him into submission by reading him a few passages from the Christian Self-Help classic The Purpose-Driven Life.Well, Ashley released a book today, and turns out that in dealing with Nichols she had something up her sleeve other than the wisdom of Rick Warren. In an interview with the Atlanta Constitution, she allows as how she gave the killer her personal stash of crystal meth.Smith did not, however, join Nichols in a quick, convivial snort. "I was not going to die tonight and stand before God, having done a bunch of ice up my nose," she writes.And people wonder why I love the South.In any event, this disclosure probably cost Smith a guaranteed spot in the gallery next to the First Lady for George W. Bush's next State of the Union Address.But she appears to have decided to take her story to a loftier venue. She's appearing on Oprah tomorrow.

September 26, 2005

Spend, Borrow, Spin

Sometimes a political news story barely requires commentary. This is from today's Washington Post:

Since Hurricane Katrina struck Aug. 29, Congress has approved spending bills and tax cuts worth nearly $71 billion. An additional $5 billion in housing, education and small-business assistance cleared the Senate, even before the Medicaid bill was considered. A united Louisiana congressional delegation is seeking $250 billion more.Republican leaders say the overall cost could be $100 billion to $200 billion. Although mindful of criticism, the leaders contend that such one-time expenditures -- albeit huge -- should not harm deficit-reduction efforts.Prodded by conservatives, President Bush and GOP leaders have said they are willing to offset those costs with spending cuts. But realistically, the political will does not exist to vote through the cuts that have been proposed, said House leadership aides and sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. Nor have Republican leaders given serious thought to reversing course on tax cuts, lawmakers said yesterday."I don't see any change in fiscal policy," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), a former vice chairman of the Budget Committee.The leadership has, however, felt the political sting of the recent deficit spending, which began with huge new transportation and energy bills this summer and cascaded into debt-financed hurricane relief this month. Republican leaders plan appearances this week on the syndicated radio talk shows of conservatives Sean Hannity, Tony Snow, Mike Gallagher and Lars Larson, as well as local radio and television shows, leadership aides said.
What a process. Enact unnecessary tax cuts, mostly for people who don't need them. Spend like a drunken sailor. Borrow money from foreign governments and future generations. And when the red ink mounts to a degree that your own political base gets disgusted, then get out there and spin!If Democrats can't figure out how to exploit the ongoing tragi-comedy of Republican fiscal policy, then we don't deserve power.

September 25, 2005

Antiwar and Remembrance

As you probably know, there was a major antiwar rally in Washington yesterday, with the number of participants ranging between 150,000 (the police estimate) and 300,000 (rally organizers' estimate). In any event, it was the largest anti-Iraq protest yet in the U.S., and inevitably, it is being compared to the monster antiwar rallies against the Vietnam War some 35-40 years ago.Indeed, the Washington Post's coverage of the protest was laden with nostalgia, including constant references to the greyhaired boomers who were liberally sprinkled in the assemblage. The Post's Style section spread on the event featured a large photo of Antiwar Horse Joan Baez performing at the post-rally concert on the Mall. You half-expected Country Joe McDonald to materialize and belt out: "One, Two, Three, What are we fighting for?/Don't ask me I don't give a damn/Next stop is ol' Baghdad."The event was decisively peaceful, and organizers did a good job of ensuring that no one went away without hearing arguments that the mess in Iraq is related to the mess on the Gulf Coast. Still, a lot of participants probably shared Matt Yglesias' worry that the antiwar message was blurred and perhaps even countered by the different, and, er ah, rather eccentric preoccupations of some of their peers:

[T]he organizers of any future events of this sort should try to implement some message discipline. If you organize a gathering to protest the war in Iraq, political beliefs expressed on the stage should be about the war in Iraq and not, say, the evils of the fast food industry or the tyranny of copyright law.
Matt makes a good point, but as a minor veteran of the Vietnam protest generation, I can tell him it could have been a lot worse. I'll never forget attending an antiwar rally in Atlanta, as a member of the High School Mobilization Committee To End the War in Vietnam, aimed at an appearance by Vice President Spiro T. Agnew. Several hundred of us earnest peaceniks struck out from downtown Atlanta in a march towards a hotel where Spiggy was speaking at a Republican fundraiser. Unfortunately, the local Mobe effort was controlled by the Young Socialist Alliance, the collegiate wing of the Trotskyist Socalist Workers Party. Its commissars placed Viet Cong flags at both ends of the procession, and controlled the bullhorns, from which bellowed such consensus antiwar slogans as "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh/The NLF is gonna win", and "Two, four, six, eight/We don't want your fascist state." A few naive "message discipline" advocates in the assemblage tried to counter with lame offerings like John Lennon's "All we are saying/Is give peace a chance," but no one could hear what they were saying over the cacophony from Leon's cadres. I'm pretty sure no one yesterday was chanting "O, O, O-B-L/Jew Crusaders Go To Hell," and if they were, nobody would have let them get close to a bullhorn. So maybe the current antiwar movement, whatever its tolerance for cranks, is closer to American public opinion than its much-hyped predecessor. Having said that, it's also clear that the "out now" faction dominating the Washington protest remains marginal, at least for now. In terms of reflecting any sort of national movement, it was a mere shadow of the gigantic rally held in London just prior to the invasion of Iraq. And that, folks, is probably the important thing to remember about "protest" politics generally in a democratic society: other than as an expression of free speech rights, they only matter if they eventually coincide with the views of those people who spent yesterday watching college football and worrying more about the March of Hurricane Rita than the March on Washington.

September 22, 2005

Dialectics of the Roberts Vote

Today the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 13-5 to approve John Roberts as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The three Democrats who voted with all ten GOPers to send the smooth but shifty lawyer towards his Supreme Goal were Senators Leahy, Kohl and--surprise, surprise--Feingold. Among Democrats outside the committee announcing their position today was Sen. Hillary Clinton, who said she'd vote "no." Some Democratic activists and bloggers sort of went medieval on Pat Leahy yesterday for announcing his support for Roberts. The reaction to Feingold--a probable presidential candidate in 2008 who has earned a fair amount of blogospheric support due to his perfectly timed call for a fixed timetable for withdrawal from Iraq--was more muted, though occasionally shocked and saddened. One common interpretation has been that 2008 wannabees are treating this vote as an opportunity to reach out beyond their natural political bases. Thus, according to this theory, "centrists" Biden and Clinton are building credibility with activists and the netroots, while Feingold is moving in the other direction to avoid typecasting as the candidate of the Left. My favorite take, by Daily Kos diarist LarryInNYC, goes well beyond the "keep your powder dry" theory that Democratic Senators voting "yea" are making sure they have maximum credibility to go after Bush's nominee to replace O'Connor, which will almost certainly change the overall balance of the Court. Actually, suggests Larry, some "yes" voters (presumably Leahy and Feingold) are actually planning to lead a filibuster against said nominee, and thus have signalled by their support for Roberts that they are in truth the shrewd, fighting Dems that disappointed activists had hoped they would be, while some of the "no" voters are probably unprincipled trimmers.Those of you who have studied Karl Marx or Karl Barth will recognize this as a fine example of dialectical reasoning. Is Larry right? Beats me. But I think we should all be open to the possibility that Democratic Senators voting for or against Roberts are actually doing so for the reasons they publicly state, just like all us bloggers and activists who have weighed in on the subject in recent days.

September 21, 2005

Leahy, Roberts, and Irony

Today Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT) announced he would vote to confirm John Roberts as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, dashing expectations that Judiciary Committee Democrats would oppose the confirmation en masse, and lowering expectations of a big vote against Roberts in the full Senate.While I was disappointed by Leahy's announcement (especially given its timing, which neutralized Harry Reid's decision to vote otherwise), I didn't find it terribly surprising. Leahy is Ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. As such, he will be the particular object of a massive Republican propaganda campaign about "Democratic obstruction" when the next, crucial Bush Court nominee is sent up in a couple of weeks. I would guess that Leahy calculated he would be more effective in opposing a Justice Brown or Owens or Jones or Garza if he takes a dive on Roberts. But it's certainly ironic that Leahy, given his history and voting record, and even his home state, has wound up taking a position "to the right" not only of Harry Reid, but of people like, well, me, not to mention DLC president Bruce Reed, who came out against Roberts in his blog on Slate.Maybe all those bloggers who keep saying the argument among Democrats is not about ideology, but about strategy, tactics and attitude, have a point, though when it comes to John Roberts, maybe not the point they expected. I suspect we will have much more unanimity when Bush makes his next Court appointment, under extreme pressure from the cultural conservatives he's asked to show faith in John Roberts.On this last point, I was really struck by a recent National Review piece that supplies a devious, jesuitical interpretation of Roberts' testimony on the constitutional law of abortion. If the author is right, Roberts didn't simply evade his Senate inquisitors; he threw sand in their eyes. That is certainly what his advocates believe, and need to believe. Given Roberts' almost certain confirmation, I hope they are wrong, and that their support will someday be viewed as ironic.But it ain't likely.

September 20, 2005

Governors: The Katrina Effect

Back in May, a lot of us Democratic bloggers took note, and heart, from the first in a series of tracking polls of all 50 Governors' approval ratings by the polling outfit SurveyUSA.The latest SUSA tracking poll, as Chris Bowers of MyDD quickly noted, shows some significant changes, especially in the states affected directly and indirectly by Hurricane Katrina. Indeed, while Katrina has helped push George W. Bush's approval ratings to their lowest levels ever, the disaster is helping several GOP governors.With the exception of Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana, virtually every Governor with a significant role in Katrina relief or recovery got a tangible bounce. In the following list, the first number is the governor's approval/disapproval rating in the September 16-18 SUSA tracking, while the second (in parenthesis) is his ratio in the May poll.Haley Barbour (R-MS) 58/39 (37/55)Bob Riley (R-AL) 58/37 (36/52)Rick Perry (R-TX) 49/45 (38/48)Mike Huckabee (R-AR) 58/38 (51/41)Sonny Perdue (R-GA) 61-34 (47/40)Perdue's Georgia wasn't hit directly by Katrina, but did suffer some storm and tornado damage; he got a lot of ink for immediately calling the legislature into a special session to approve a gasoline price gougingbill.One Democratic Governor benefitted from an "Ophelia effect:" NC's Mike Easley, whose approval ratio improved from 52/34 to 64/30.The "Katrina effect" helps three incumbent Republican Governors up in 2008 who were and may still be in some political peril, Rick Perry, Sonny Perdue and especially Bob Riley. The latter faces a primary challenge from "Ten Commandments" Judge Roy Moore, and a potentially tough general election opponent in Lt. Governor Lucy Baxley. (Riley got some more good news today when his predecessor, Don Siegelman, formally announced he was challenging Baxley for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, ensuring an expensive and possibly divisive primary).Barbour's boost not only gets him out of the political woods in Mississippi (where he doesn't face re-election until 2007), but also provides some fuel for the previously laughable boomlet of support for the ol' rascal to run for president in 2008.All these effects are probably temporary, and all these Republican beneficiaries have lots of other problems. Perdue, for example, is presiding over a significant economic slide in a state that has known little but boomtimes for much of the last two decades. In Alabama, Roy Moore's supporters are going to back him against Riley come hell or high water. And in both these states GOPers remain vulnerable to slow-developing fallout from the Jack Abramoff/Ralph Reed Indian Casino Shakedown Scandal.Outside the Katrina Region, the SUSA tracking polls don't show a great deal of movement. Among Democrats, Ed Rendell (PA) and Phil Bredesen (TN) have slipped a bit, but both still look like solid bets for re-election. Mark Warner (VA) now has an approval/disapproval ratio well over two-to-one (66/29), which could help his designated successor, Tim Kaine, this November. Christine Gregoire of Washington has climbed from 34/58 in May to 45/49 in September.And the bottom five Governors are all Republicans: Blunt (MO), Fletcher (KY), Schwarzenegger (CA), Murkowski (AK) and Taft (OH). Ah-nold was already in trouble in May, with a ratio of 40/56; now he's down to 32/65, in polling done about the time he announced his re-election bid.All in all, it's a timely reminder that national issues cut differently in the states, and that whatever happens with Congress, there's an enormously important series of pitched battles going on over governorships across the country.

September 19, 2005

A "No" Vote on Roberts

I don't want to start the fur flying with my colleague The Moose, who did a post earlier today explaining why he'd unenthusiastically vote to confirm John Roberts Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. But I definitely disagree; like him, speaking for myself only. To compress The Moose's argument somewhat, he suggested that Roberts is acceptable because (a) he's not a crazy person, and (b) Bush won the election, and presidents of either party deserve some benefit of the doubt on judicial nominations.I, too, am happy that Roberts appears to have ruled out paid-up-membership-in-good-standing in the Constitution In Exile movement. But Lord-a-Mighty, I hope we haven't gotten to the point where the only disqualifier for a conservative Chief Justice would be if he or she openly and defiantly declares that most of the works of all three branches of the federal government over much of the twentieth century violates the Original Intent of the Founders, and must be overturned by judicial fiat.The fruits-of-victory argument is probably more important to the case for accepting Roberts, since it applies to the Democratic presidents of the future as well as to Bush.But I would respond that Bush has already deeply undermined that tradition by (1) refusing any serious bipartisan consultation over his judicial nominations, in sharp contrast with his predecessor, Bill Clinton, who almost certainly took a few names off his potential SCOTUS list to avoid a confirmation fight; and (2) engaging in an open, high-stakes campaign to reshape the Court and U.S. constitutional law through his appointments, with Roberts serving as the linchpin if not the ultimate tipping point.In other words, we are at a moment in which Supreme Court appointments represent a lunge towards Eternal Life for this wounded presidency. If stopping that lunge means sacrificing routine Republican votes for future Democratic SCOTUS nominations, so be it.And that, I would contend, is the most compelling argument against the final and best rationale for not worrying about Roberts: he's just a one-for-one replacement for Rehnquist, and thus does not change the balance on the Court.That's true, but Roberts is 50 years old, and since, as I profoundly hope, 50 is the new 30, he therefore represents in all probability at least a thirty-year extension of Rehnquist's conservative and occasionally counter-revolutionary jurisprudence. Think about this: for the next seven or so presidential terms, SCOTUS will be "the Roberts Court." This is not something progressives should minimize according to tactical considerations of the nomination in this moment's political struggles.I do agree that the next presidential nomination to replace Justice O'Connor is even bigger in terms of shaping the future Court. And I don't think Democrats should be forced to walk the plank to oppose or filibuster Roberts, who will probably get universal support from Senate Republicans.But given this nominee's enduring significance; the Bush administration's clear right-wing judicial-activist intentions; and the need to make it abundantly clear that the next nominee, if he or she is to the right of O'Conner, will face obstruction sho nuff--a robust Democratic vote against Roberts would be a very good thing.

September 16, 2005

Conservatives and Cronyism

As a follow-on to Gov. Vilsack's comments about conservative incompetence in governance, I highly recommend Noam Scheiber's latest TRB column in The New Republic. Noam presents a general theory of the difference between "normal" cronyism and the sort of extended, exponential cronyism that's often found in conservative administrations, where you don't just hire your friends, but your friends are allowed to hire their friends, ad infinitum.Like Tom Vilsack, Noam Scheiber thinks conservative hostility to government's legitimate purposes has consequences for how competently government is run:

If you happen to think bureaucracies are structurally incapable of improving people's lives, and if you have contempt for the kinds of people who reside in them, then you have two choices: You can either slash the bureaucracy and refund taxpayer's money, or you can reconcile yourself to the existence of bureaucracy and run it as a patronage operation.
It's pretty clear which fork in the road the Bush administration has taken. Yes, they've rebated some well-heeled taxpayers' money, but have actually increased spending at a remarkable pace. But in the end, all those Treasury notes the Chinese are buying are essentially financing a patronage operation of epic proportions.

September 15, 2005

Why Conservatism Is Failing Us

I've written a quick and unhappy reaction to the president's big speech from New Orleans this evening over at TPMCafe.But in terms of understanding the broader issues being raised by the Katrina disaster, the incompetent response, and the impending recovery, I urge you to read a statement by DLC Chairman and Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack that was posted earlier today.Here are some excerpts:

The failures in our national response to Hurricane Katrina did not simply stem from mistakes, however egregious, of individuals whose replacement with more experienced and competent public servants will take care of the problem in the immediate and distant future. These failures represent the broader failure of an ideology of contempt for the responsibilities of government, and for the sense of community that is fundamental to genuine self-government....We are learning every day that there really is something worse than a big, debt-ridden government that tries to do too much and fails. It's a big, debt-ridden government that tries to do too little, and succeeds....The devastation and human tragedy of Hurricane Katrina provides a painful but necessary opportunity for us all to rethink our attitude towards our own public institutions and those who serve in them, rejecting the false choice of government as an end in itself and government as a dead end remote from our worthier endeavors.And that's why current Republican proposals to turn the Gulf Coast into a conservative ideological laboratory with private-school vouchers, wholesale deregulation, and suspension of wage standards on federally financed construction projects must be rejected. A second, ideologically driven abandonment of public responsibility in this region would be intolerable.
Vilsack nicely ties together the past, present and (potentially) future failures of the conservative ideology in addressing America's most urgent needs. It's a timely analysis, and warning.

September 14, 2005

Meanwhile, Back In the Commonwealth

With so much else going on, I've neglected to blog about the gubernatorial race--one of two in this off-year--in Virginia, featuring Democrat Tim Kaine and a Republican with the unfortunate surname of (Jerry) Kilgore.The race is now heating up and heading into the home stretch. And the dynamics are very interesting. Virginia is a state with a small but significant built-in Republican advantage in statewide races. Yet incumbent, term-limited Democratic Governor Mark Warner is extremely popular, and George W. Bush's approval ratings here have dropped well below 50 percent.Both gubernatorial candidates have notable strengths and weaknesses. Lt. Gov. Kaine is a former Richmond mayor and one-time civil rights lawyer--not the best biography for a statewide candidate in Virginia. Moreover, he's a "seamless garment" Catholic who opposes both abortion and the death penalty, though he's repeatedly pledged to enforce existing laws on both topics. Kaine is also very smart, very disciplined, and has pretty much run circles around Jerry Kilgore on the few occasions when the Republican has agreed to debate. He's come up with a credible proposal for holding down property taxes (skyrocketing in the D.C. suburbs of northern Virginia), and is now accentuating a plan for universal access to pre-K education. And most of all, Kaine will benefit from support from Warner, who is expected to expend some serious political capital on his preferred successor down the stretch.Kilgore is firmly aligned with the anti-tax, Christian Right faction of the Virginia GOP, which has seen better days, but is still capable of delivering a virtually uncontested nomination. His main strength (other than a pretty-boy appearance and an ability to cheerfully perform every inane campaign stunt in the books) is his base in southwest Virginia, a normally Republican region that Warner carried in 2001. The wild card in the race is independent Russell Potts, a renegade Republican state senator from the Shenandoah Valley who supported Warner's budget and tax deal, and is basically running to Kaine's left on taxes and abortion. Despite intensive efforts by the Washington Post editorial page to hype his candidacy (the Post is strangely angry at Kaine for not supporting another major tax increase to deal with traffic congestion), Potts doesn't seem to be catching on. The two major candidates are evenly matched financially, and in terms of national support. A poll by the Post released last weekend confirmed the conventional wisdom of the race by showing Kilgore up over Kaine by a small but statistically significant 4 percent (7 percent among likely voters), with Potts getting about 5 percent, and 9 percent still undecided. Nearly half of voters indicated their preferences were fluid, and name ID for both candidates was surprisingly low, given their recent ubiquity. The regional breakdown of the poll showed Kilgore with big leads in the three most conservative regions of the state--Southside, the Valley, and Southwest Virginia--and Kaine ahead in Central Virginia and Hampton Roads. If there was a surprise in the poll, it was that Kilgore is running nearly even with Kaine in Northern Virginia, mainly due to big margins in the exurbs. This showing may be attributable to Kilgore's noisily abrasive exploitation of an immigration controversy in the area, where local officials approved a publicly financed gathering site for day laborers, often new immigrants from Central America. Aside from the usual conservative line about immigration enforcement, Kilgore has luridly suggested links between Hispanic gangs and al Qaeda. No kidding.The same poll showed Warner is the most popular politician in the state, and also showed heavy support for Kaine's pre-K proposal.To the extent that Kilgore's lead depends on a generic Republican advantage in the Commonwealth, the recent troubles of the Bush administration, and the likelihood that late-deciding voters may treat the election as in part a national referendum, are potentially bad news for this most generic of GOP conservatives. There's also a statewide-televised candidate debate on tap in early October, which could accentuate Kaine's verbal and intellectual advantage.The crucial X-factor in this race may well be Mark Warner. It's no secret he is considering a presidential race in 2008. And while potential presidential primary voters won't care about what happens in the contest to succeed him in Virginia, Warner's already formidable insider reputation for political skill would definitely be enhanced if he succeeds in helping Kaine pull off a come-from-behind victory. Whatever happens, people outside Virginia are likely to view this election in the context of national politics; with Jon Corzine now almost certain to romp in the other off-year gubernatorial election in New Jersey, Virginia's contest will determine whether Democrats achieve a portentous sweep or an ambiguous split.For those of us who live in the Commonwealth, the stakes are higher: will we continue Warner's remarkable record of accomplishment, or go back to the days when GOP governors seemed determined to make Virginia a laboratory for bad, mean-spirited and deficit-ridden government? For me, of course, this is really personal. As a resident of Virginia, I just don't want to spend the next four years explaining that I am neither biologically or politically related to Jerry Kilgore. Please help me, my fellow citizens.

September 13, 2005

Rebuilding Accountability

Over at TAPPED yesterday, Garance Franke-Ruta asked a compelling question: how, exactly, can we really expect to hold Bush and his minions accountable for their serial acts of misgoverment? And over at TPMCafe, Mark Schmitt responded by making a strong argument that today's Republicans escape accountability because, well, they don't really give a damn what anybody thinks about them other than on general election days.Maybe I'm just consumed with anger at the administration and its congressional allies right now, but I think Mark's basically right. Most of these people have no concept of "accountability"--in terms of short-term performance, long-range consequences, the judgment of history, or even public opinion. Their only benchmark is progress towards their own ideological goals, which are "starving the beast," destroying the very possibility of meaningful bipartisanship, radicalizing permanent institutions like the judiciary, the military and the corporate sector, and keeping Americans afraid of the world and each other. That's why they've relied so heavily on abuse of power; it's the only way to perpetuate their power without compromise or accountability. And that's why they are so uninhibited by most considerations of truth or decency. In fact, I would argue that their most important tactical consideration has been to destroy the possibility of accountability by short-circuiting all the signals whereby a healthy society normally judges its leaders. Any source of objective measurement has been systematically discredited as inherently ideological: scientists are secularist fanatics; the media are elitist liberals; the judiciary is full of anti-Christian activists; the opposition party is anti-American. We've all had much fun with the conservative characterization of "liberals" as "reality-based," but it's no laughing matter: the essence of Rovism is to eliminate any zone of rational persuasion and force Americans to pick sides in an identity politics of real and perceived privileges under imaginary assault. Years ago, a friend of mine from Alabama observed that what bugged her about Republicans as people is that they had the subtelty and sensitivity of hammerhead sharks. So the question is: how do you fight a hammerhead shark, particularly a wounded hammerhead shark? Clearly, you can't go very far negotiating or reasoning with this kind of beast; you just become chum. But I don't put a lot of stock in the reigning opinion of so many Democratic bloggers that the answer is to become sharks ourselves. I've always opposed the idea that Democrats can win a selfishness competition with the GOP, offering our government benefits versus their tax cuts; they'll win every time if voters are asked to conduct a personal cost-benefit analysis of what they think they are "getting" for their tax dollars. Nor do I believe, in the end, we can out hate them or out thug them; even if that course was not morally repugnant, it's politically self-defeating; the ultimate sell-out to Republican values.So if we do not happily cooperate with the GOP in reducing all politics to our team versus their team, and our "truth" versus their "truth," to what higher standard can we appeal? And that gets back to the problem of accountability in an age with few uncontested facts and no credible referees to keep a score card.Our task can be summed up as this: we have to rebuild accountability, brick by brick. That requires relentlessly putting forth a message that reminds Americans of their real and tangible interests, individual and collective, and then measuring GOP governance, and GOP candidates, accordingly. This effort will naturally involve presenting Democratic alternatives to meet the accountability standards we propose, which means dealing aggressively with entrenched (if generally false) negative stereotypes about our own party. And ultimately, the "accountability moment" will indeed have to happen at election time, or sufficiently in advance of election time to convince Republicans they are at risk not only of losing seats, or losing power, but losing a political argument with epochal consequences, just as they did during the Great Depression. The good news is that the whole Republican identity politics game is a house of cards based on the perception that Bush and the GOP are competent stewards of a threatened status quo ante of moral certainty, economic growth, and American power. Iraq and Katrina--and perhaps the impending cascade of ethical disasters--could damage those perceptions and greatly aid a Democratic effort to remind Americans of what their government should actually stand for.

September 12, 2005

Baseball and the Supreme Court

As you may have heard, in his very brief opening statement for his confirmation hearings as Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts regaled the Senate Judiciary Committee with a baseball analogy to explain his basic judicial philosophy:

Judges and justices are servants of the law, not the other way around. Judges are like umpires. Umpires don't make the rules; they apply them.

The role of an umpire and a judge is critical. They make sure everybody plays by the rules.But it is a limited role. Nobody ever went to a ball game to see the umpire....I will decide every case based on the record, according to the rule of law, without fear or favor, to the best of my ability. And I will remember that it's my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.

My first reaction to this homespun wisdom from the extremely sophisticated habitue of Washington society, with an impeccable High Tory background to boot, is that he's being coached by the ultimate Homespun High Tory, George Will, just as Will once coached Roberts' boss and idol, Ronald Reagan, in communications skills prior to a presidential debate.My second reaction echoed that of Armando on the Daily Kos site, who made this acute observation:
It is an interesting analogy Judge Roberts draws. And it seems to me to be an excellent argument for why Judge Roberts must answer the questions put to him by the Senate. As any baseball fan knows, umpires are not uniform in the delineation of the strike zone. Some are "hitters" umpires. Some are "pitchers" umpires. Some call the high strike. Some call the outside pitch.And when it comes to the Supreme Court of the United States, it is important that we know what Judge Roberts' "strike zone" is. His record, the part that was not concealed by the Bush Administration, gives many of us pause regarding Judge Roberts' "strike zone." His stated antipathy for the right to privacy, for voting rights measures, for discrimination remedies, etc., demands followup. What does your "rulebook" say about these things Judge Roberts?
But why stop there? Maybe the Judiciary Committee should conduct the whole hearing in baseball metaphors.Worried about Roberts' disposition towards Roe v. Wade? Maybe he should get this question:
SEN. FEINSTEIN: Judge Roberts, it's safe to say the American League's Designated Hitter rule, adopted in the same year that the Supreme Court announced Roe v. Wade, overturned a rule of play that stretched back to the beginnings of baseball. The DH still upsets a very large number of people who view it as a violation of the sacred canons of the game.We only have one Supreme Court, not one for each "league," not one for pro-choice and pro-life Americans. Do you think as an "umpire" you should have the power to overturn a precedent of more than thirty years, and change the rules? Would you call out every designated hitter?
Concerned about Roberts' views on civil rights? Okay:
SEN. KENNEDY: Judge Roberts, a few years before the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision--a decision your mentor, the late Chief Justice Rehnquist, deplored in at least one memo--a man named Branch Rickey unilaterally and arrogantly violated a baseball tradition going back to well beyond the date of the "separate but equal" doctine of the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson, by employing Jackie Robinson as a major league baseball player. Should an umpire in 1947 have refused to "bend the rules" and responded by calling Robinson out every time he came to bat? And if not, should today's umpires interpret the rules to counteract all those years of "judicial arrogance" by changing the strike zone to handicap minority players who hit or pitch?

See how this works?

There's even a nice analogy on all those economic issues where Roberts is almost a sure vote for protecting property rights against the predations of labor and Big Government:

SEN. SCHUMER: Judge Roberts, shortly after the Great Society years, baseball's economics were revolutionized by a series of court decisions that culminated in the elimination of baseball's "reserve clause," which made free agency possible. As you know, to this day, baseball owners--or at least those who are not pursuing free agents--argue that this decision destroyed baseball's balance of power and led to today's high salaries and ticket prices.

Would you, as an umpire dedicated to the greater welfare of the game, try to reimpose the "reserve clause"? And if so, how would you do it without abandoning your role as a mere dark-robed arbiter of the rules as they stand?

Maybe Roberts should have tried football as a metaphor.


September 10, 2005

One Step Forward, One Step Back on Redistricting

While most of us have been otherwise preoccupied, there have been two significant developments on the redistricting reform front, one positive, one negative.The good news is that the package of Ohio ballot initiatives, bearing the rubric of "Reform Ohio Now," has been certified as having received the requisite petitions to appear on the November 2005 general election ballot in the Buckeye State. One of these, as you may know, creates an entirely new redistricting system under independent auspices and sets out criteria placing a premium on competitiveness (one leading GOP opponent in the state predicts it could cost his party, which had previously carried out an egregious gerrymander, up to six U.S. House seats). Republicans will continue to fight the initiatives in court, and are already raising money to beat them in November, but at the moment, RON's future looks bright.The bad news is in Florida, where one of that state's three political reform initiatives has been ruled off the ballot by a state court on grounds that its text exceeded the state's 100-word limit by six words. The disqualified initiative was the one that set out criteria for redistricting; another still viable initiative creates an independent redistricting commission, and still another requires immediate redistricting prior to the 2008 elections. Since, IMHO, redistricting criteria are the key to successful redistricting reform, the Florida development was a serious though hardly fatal setback. Still, it looks like Ohio will provide the earliest and perhaps the best testing ground for reform.

September 8, 2005

Break in the Party Lines

I profoundly wish we could all suspend politics and simply concentrate on the relief efforts along the Gulf Coast, but given the administration's focus on political damage control, that's impossible. Moreover, as the DLC pointed out yesterday, the administration must admit its mistakes or continue them.It's beginning to look like they may not have much choice. The administration's aggressive political strategy over the last week--alternating from rationalizations to blame-shifting to claims that the president has now saved the day--is failing dismally. Even the most fool-proof Rovian tactic--filling the air with noise and creating an atmosphere of polarization so foul that people give up trying to "understand" and view events through a strictly partisan prism--is failing, as more and more rank-and-file Republicans, and even conservative opinion-leaders, find the damning facts uncontestable. The single biggest symbol of this development is today's Robert Novak column. The Prince of Darkness, Washington's most reliable barometer of the conservative zeitgeist, barbecued the administration for both its handling of Katrina, and its ham-handed political response, which clearly has Republican Congressmen fearing for their re-elections. Novak goes out of his way to quote Rep. Chris Shays--hardly one of the Prince's favorites, but a guy whose fate in 2006 could have a large bearing on the future control of Congress--as directly comparing the Bush White House to Nixon's in its "sense of arrogance" and its belief that "loyalty and never admitting a mistake matter more than the truth." Novak generally knows what he's doing, and the Nixon analogy was a big shot across the bow of the White House to remind its occupants that GOP loyalty has its limits. Those of you old enough to remember Watergate, and those who have read about it, are probably aware there was a palpable turning point in 1974 when many Republicans abandoned Nixon out of outrage or political expedience. No, I am not suggesting that Bush is in the kind of peril that engulfed Nixon, but still, given the enormous partisan loyalty he has commanded in the past, wholesale GOP defections on a fundamental question of leadership, competence and honesty, are a danger sign to Bush of unprecedented magnitude.

September 7, 2005

Rorschach Test

Like a lot of Republicans, Sen. Rick Santorum of PA provided an initial response to the horrors of New Orleans last week that basically blamed the victims:

In a weekend interview with WTAE-TV about the victims of Hurricane Katrina, Santorum said: "You have people who don't heed those warnings and then put people at risk as a result of not heeding those warnings. There may be a need to look at tougher penalties on those who decide to ride it out and understand that there are consequences to not leaving."
And like a lot of Republicans, Santorum is now furiously back-tracking, arguing that he was only talking about people with the means to leave New Orleans who refused to go.In the back-tracking race, Santorum is competing with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who drew fire for dealing with the New Orleans catastrophe by suggesting the city is not worth rebuilding. Now the ol' wrestling coach is claiming he was only talking about how, not whether to rebuild New Orleans.It's increasingly clear, as others have observed, that Katrina, and especially its impact on New Orleans, have provided something of a national Rorschach Test. Some people initially reacted with horror, concern and even guilt towards the victims; others immediately blamed them for leaving themslves in harm's way and then behaving in a disorderly manner to survive. These reactions have not completely broken along partisan or ideological lines, but they have broken that way often enough to suggest that polarization is now affecting our basic sense of community.To put it baldly, the kind of people most affected by Katrina cannot count on the party running the federal government for anything other than the level of assistance dictated by public opionion. If Rick Santorum or Denny Hastert suddenly become serious advocates for serious relief aimed the affected populations, it will probably be because they failed that first Rorschach test, and are trying to compensate for it. Democrats have a clear responsibility, and a clear opportunity, to show they do indeed get it, and can do better in times of national crisis--the first time.

September 6, 2005

The Bush "Investigation"

As a follow-up to his administration's not-so-subtle efforts to blame state and local officials in Louisiana for the incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans, the President announced today that he would lead an investigation into "what went wrong and why" on the federal end. This astonishing news raises several interesting questions:1) Does this mean Bush is now going to admit his administration did screw things up, contributing to an avoidable loss of life and untold damage to New Orleans and its people? 2) If so, doesn't it sorta kinda violate the idea of objective investigations for the chief executive of the erring enterprise to head up the probe?3) Is Bush open to the idea that maybe his friend "Brownie," whom he praised after the worst screw-ups as having done a "heck of a job," actually did not do a "heck of a job" after all? 4) And how's about the leadership of the Department of Homeland Security, the organization that employed and directed ol' Brownie?5) While Bush hunts high and low for incompetents in his administration, will he leave the most likely suspects in charge of the relief and recovery effort in the Gulf Coast? Is ol' Brownie, dismissed not long ago from his crushing responsibilities as a show horse enforcement official, the indispensable man in the operation? And insofar as Bush himself raised concerns about the implications of the botched recovery for homeland security, does he really want to keep DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff in overall direction of the massive project? This whole thing is incredibly bizarre. The president who has never, ever, in more than four years, admitted a single mistake, and never fired anyone for anything other than the sin of admitting mistakes, is going to investigate his own administration for mistakes that he has yet to admit other than at the highest level of abstraction. Maybe that's the whole idea: he'll find someone who admitted a mistake, and blame the mistakes he won't admit on them. Talking heads will roll.

September 5, 2005

Labor Day

With everything else going on this weekend, some may have forgotten that today commemorates the contributions of working Americans and the labor movement that represents them.This has obviously been a tough year for the labor movement, what with a sluggish economy, sky-rocketing health care and energy costs, never-ending pressure on jobs and wages from offshoring, continued corporate efforts to even further skew the balance of power between employers and employees--and of course, the split in the AFL-CIO.But interestingly enough, Americans seem to be appreciating the importance of unions, to themselves and to the country, as much as or more than ever. Check out this handy compilation of public opinion research data from Ruy Teixeira's site. And let's all work to make a better Labor Day possible next year.

September 4, 2005

Another Word From the Forgotten

On Friday I quoted at some length from a New Orleans Times-Picayune newsblog item about deaths occurring among people waiting for relief in the St. Bernard-Placquemines Parishes areas south and east of New Orleans. Congressman Charles Melancon, who represents the area, was the paper's main source for the horrifying reports.Well, today Melancon wants the President of the United States to come see conditions on the ground in his district, in a statement that directly challenges the we-did-the-best-we-could, and it's-the-state's-fault spinathon coming out of the administration for the last several days. Here's the summary from the T-P newsblog:

Today, 3rd District Congressman Charlie Melancon invited President Bush to personally tour the devastated areas outside New Orleans in Southeast Louisiana. President Bush has announced plans to be in Louisiana on Monday.Congressman Melancon's comments on the invitation follow:"People in Plaquemines Parish, St. Bernard Parish and other affected area in the Southeast Louisiana's 3rd District need to see that the federal government has not forgotten them." "Today, I invited President Bush to join me on the ground in these parishes as soon as possible - ideally tomorrow - as we work to rescue survivors and get supplies where they are desperately needed.""The fact is that 124 hours after Katrina hit, Plaquemines Parish still had received little or no contact from FEMA. Other parishes in southeast Louisiana went days without hearing from federal officials - that's unacceptable.""Thankfully, Louisiana State Senator Walter Boasso and local officials, along with the Louisiana National Guard, Louisiana State Police, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries and other entities were able to reach folks on the ground. Together, we worked to put support efforts in motion and coordinate efforts to convey specific needs in the area to those who could take action. While slowly improving, conditions in parishes throughout Southeast Louisiana are beyond dire. Hundreds died among the thousands of residents who were stranded at Camp Katrina on Chalmette Landing. Areas nearby are equally grim. We need all the federal support we can get, and the only way to understand that is to witness it first hand."
Melancon's certainly right that it's the lack of a prompt federal response that's truly "unacceptable," and probably right in assuming that you apparently have to be involved in a presidential photo op to get an appropriate degree of federal help even now.

September 2, 2005

Helping Hands and Pointing Fingers

Finally, finally, finally, there are some signs of federal action to relieve the primordial crisis in New Orleans, timed no doubt to coincide with the president's disaster tour, but welcome nonetheless.There's not much question the relief is late in coming, but the more important question now is this: is it enough?Here's an editorial from the Times-Picayune posted this afternoon:

On the elevated portion of Interstate 10 near Orleans Avenue, a group of displaced people pushed a wheelchair carrying a dead woman. She wore pink pajama bottoms -- and a white kitchen garbage bag on her head. People wandered around expressway on-ramps hoping for a ride to... anywhere. Outside the Superdome, refugees were crowded onto a concrete walkway. The situation inside the Dome was beyond hellish.Hurricane Katrina has created a humanitarian crisis of unimaginable proportions. And if the main strategy for addressing that crisis is to evacuate the east bank of New Orleans, then local, state and federal officials need to move much faster to get people out. On streets across the city, people are in agony. And lives are in danger, because of looters, because of dwindling medical supplies, because of conditions that would strain even the healthiest of people.Security had improved in much of the city late Thursday and Friday. It was a relief to see so many uniformed men bearing machine guns patrolling expressways and major intersections. But in some parts of the city -- particularly those slivers of Uptown New Orleans that suffered relatively little flood damage -- the presence of law enforcement and relief agencies seemed minimal at best. In those same areas, some residents were still under the dangerous illusion that they could wait out Katrina's aftermath at home, just as they waited out the hurricane itself. Others understood the dangers but had no way to travel and little hope of getting authorities' attention. On Constantinople street near Prytania, a severely sunburned, diabetic 80-year-old had run out of insulin, and the woman who had given her shelter could get no assistance. On Belfast Street near Fontainebleau, two 93-year-olds needed to evacuate but could not. As more and more people clear out of the city indefinitely, those who remain are at even greater risk. People across the east bank need help in getting out, and lives will be lost if they do not get it.
In other words, photo-op relief efforts concentrated on the most visible problems are nice, but something more systematic needs to happen right away.And that brings me to the difficult but necessary subject of the politics of this. A lot of Republicans have claimed that Democrats are "politicizing" Katrina by raising questions about disaster preparations and relief efforts, especially in terms of FEMA's languid pace in taking charge, the background of FEMA mission-drift and funding cuts, and the tardy White House focus on the crisis.But it's now pretty clear the White House is politicizing the situation even more starkly and much more divisively. The underlying theme of the president's tour of the region today is that things are going very well in places like Alabama and Mississippi with the right (literally and figuratively) state and local leadership. Meanwhile, the storyline continues, Bush has to go down to New Orleans (with the wrong, i.e., Democratic leadership) himself to get things turned around.This is apparently what Bush meant this morning before his departure from Washington when he said the relief effort wasn't "acceptable." He wasn't talking about FEMA's universally derided initial response; in Mobile, he told FEMA Director Michael Brown (or "Brownie," as he called him) he was doing a great job. No, Bush's stern disapproval was aimed at New Orleans and Baton Rouge.Watch the conservative blogs and news outlets; we're about to see a big effort to scapegoat Kathleen Blanco, perhaps Ray Nagin, and even the stranded low-income people of New Orleans themselves, for the disaster that's happened over the last few days; there have already been hints of this in so many places that I can't begin to cite or link to them. Maybe that's the price the victims of this nightmare have to pay for real and adequate federal relief, but it should not and will not go unchallenged.

Death Outside the Spotlight

For all the horror in New Orleans, it's been clear that Katrina's impact was actually more intense in suburban and rural areas south and east of the city, where the populations have largely been cut off from contact with the outside world, including the news media. Here's an especially harrowing report from St. Bernard Parish, published tonight in the Times-Picayune newsblog. Note the time lines in this report; how much of this tragedy occurred well after Katrina left the area; and the implied reproach to non-existent federal help.

About 100 people have died at the Chalmette Slip after being pulled off their rooftops, waiting to be ferried up the river to the West Bank and bused out of the flood ravaged area, U.S. Rep. Charles Melancon, D-Napoleonville, said Thursday.About 1,500 people were at the slip on Thursday afternoon, where critical supplies like food and water are scarce, he said. Melancon expressed serious frustration with the slow pace of getting these items to the people waiting to finish their journey to safety. Many of those at the slip were evacuated from a shelter set up at Chalmette High School that suffered massive flooding as the waters rose during Hurricane Katrina. Melancon said people are being plucked out of their water-surrounded houses, but the effort to get them out of Chalmette and provide them with sufficient sustenance is the problem.While he did not directly criticize the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Melancon said they are ultimately responsible for making sure that people are taken care of. “That is where the buck stops,” said Melancon at a briefing at the state Office of Emergency Preparedness.People at the slip indicated that 100 people had died since they arrived, although Melancon said he did not know how they perished. Melancon said he saw 300 people sent on a tug-boat pulled barge to the Algiers landing, but there weren’t any buses once they landed.
We're just now beginning to come to grips with the region-wide death toll, and how much of it might have been avoided with a massive and immediate federal response.

September 1, 2005

An Accountability Moment

I'm not sure how calmly I can talk about today's developments in New Orleans. Let's take a quick inventory. You had:* Thousands of hungry, thirsty, sick and desperate people crowding evacuation points amidst dead bodies and ongoing violence.* Stretched-to-the-max and sometimes beseiged police officers having to siphon gasoline from parked cars to patrol the streets, and after stopping looters in stores, expropriating goods to keep themselves hydrated, fed and clothed.* More failed efforts to fix the breaches in the levee system, even as new flooding was temporarily halted by an equalization of water levels between the city and Lake Pontchartrain (in other words, maximum flooding).* A second straight televised speech by the President of the United States that exhibited an eery disconnection from events on the ground, and perhaps a panicked realization that this is quickly becoming a potential political disaster for the administration.* A public comment by the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representativescasually suggesting that New Orleans might not be worth rebuilding.Eventually federal help will arrive; Guard units did start showing up this evening to restore order, and evacuations from the Convention Center and the Superdome resumed.But the suffering endured by the most vulnerable people in New Orleans in the interim cannot be erased, and the damage to the city--physically, economically, and morally--during the last few days of chaos will make the task of recovery and reconstruction (assuming Denny Hastert lets it go forward) vastly more extensive, expensive, and potentially futile.This has been another one of those unacknowledged "accountability moments" for the Bush administration. The president is not responsible for Acts of God, but by God, he should be responsible for acts of the federal government when Americans most need it.