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December 29, 2005

Blessed Chaos, and Cursed Chaos

Sorry for the lack of posts, but the last few days have been absorbed with the blessed chaos of an extended family Christmas involving complex human and zoological logistics, travel across the Southland, screwed-up delivery orders of presents, and in my own case, an attack of acute bronchitis. I only have one political point to make today: adding to the chaos, I've been trying to sign up my mother-in-law for the Medicare Rx drug benefit, which her current insurer is forcing her to undertake under penalty of massive premium increases. And as anyone who's dealt with this particular beast can tell you, the new program is about as easy to navigate as The Name of the Rose. I know a fair amount about Medicare, and health insurance generally, but still, I'm terrified that I'm making serious mistakes. I cannot imagine what this is like for anyone without internet access or a rudimentary knowledge of the new system. I gather millions of seniors are depending on their pharmacists for guidance, which would be fine except for the fact that a number of drugstore chains are sponsoring or cosponsoring plans themselves, creating all sorts of conflicts of interest. And knowing the extent to which Karl Rove and company originally thought of this thing as a surefire political winner, it's almost inconceivable that the administration has let the new benefit become such a nightmare--inconceivable, at least, until you remember its handling of Hurricane Katrina and the reconstruction of Iraq.I know some Democrats get angry at me for continuing to stress the Bush administration's incompetence, instead of attributing every bone-headed move to corruption or pure malice. Lord knows I've written a lot about Republican corruption, and its ideological roots. But in the end, a gigantic and debt-ridden federal government that cannot even give away new benefits without creating a virtual parody of both public- and private-sector bureaucracy has blurred the lines between incompetence and malfeasance to the point where it's a distinction without a difference.

December 23, 2005

Good Old Days

There's something about Christmas that tends to make people nostalgic for the past. That's ironic, from a Christian point of view, since the Feast of the Nativity is the quintessential celebration of the radically New (preceded, in most Christian traditions, by the season of Advent, the quintessential time for looking forward).Still, the association of Christmas with simpler and better times probably has something to do with the seasonal upsure of Cultural Right whining about the good old days of the 1950s or 1960s or even later, when Christians could celebrate this holiday without worrying about church-state separation or the sensibilities of Jews, Muslims or other, heathen folk.As it happens, I ran across a quote today that nicely encapsulates the belief in the hellward trajectory of society shorn of official Christian trappings:

God has been driven out of public life by the separation of Church and State; he has been driven out of science now that doubt has been raised to a system.... He has even been driven out of the family which is no longer considered sacred in its origins....
Want to guess who said that, and when? James Dobson? Richard Land? Bill O'Reilly? Last year, or maybe last week?Actually, it was Giuseppe Melchior Sarto, better known as Pope (and Saint) Pius X, circa 1903, as quoted in Eamon Duffy's Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes.

Spirit of the Season

Via an email from the Georgia Democratic Party, I learned about an excellent idea for a seasonal gesture by a certain politician who has long proclaimed his fidelity to Christian principles. Yes, I'm talking about Ralph Reed, candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Georgia, who recently announced his regret that he harvested millions of dollars in Native American Casino money as a key player in Jack Abramoff's elaborate scam to chase off competitors to the tribes he was ripping off.

If Ralph really regrets his decision, shouldn't he give the money to a worthy organization? He could give it to Gamblers Anonymous, or Ralph could give his tainted Abramoff money to Native American charities, like Senator Conrad Burns (R-Mont.). If he truly feels remorse about working with people now under federal investigation and indictment, he should donate the funds so that he doesn't profit off this relationship that he now says he regrets.In addition to making the charitable contribution, Ralph could tell us all how he did not know the source of millions of dollars funneled to him -- even with emails made public by investigators that appear to directly contradict his claims of ignorance. Ralph has expressed regret and issued general denials, but he hasn't explained how it all fits together.Please take a moment and send Ralph an email calling on him to give the millions he took in from "Casino Jack" to a worthy organization. Also take a minute to check out some of Ralph's other nefarious actions at http://www.therealralphreed.com/ And while you're doing that, please check out the page that lets you forward the website to 10 of your friends, and help us spread the news.
I'm glad to see Georgia Democrats are working so hard to make sure Ralph gets into the proper spirit of the season.

December 21, 2005

Another Back-Door Play

In all the furor over the last few weeks about the various nasty provisions in House and Senate budget reconciliation bills, most of the attention was paid to a major rise in interest rates for student loans, higher copayments and tighter eligibility rules for Medicaid, and all sorts of shenanigans associated with reimbursement rates for Medicare and Medicaid.But with relatively little notice, our Republican buddies have also sought to pull off a back-door maneuver that could unravel the consensus supporting welfare reform. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has the details, but here's the big picture: Since the original welfare reform law of 1996 entered its last year in 2003, there's been a deadlock in the Senate over the administration's demand that work requirements for welfare recipients be increased without additional money for child care assistance, and the Democratic position (most notably promoted by Sens. Evan Bayh and Tom Carper) that the tighter work requirements will fail without the child care resources that make it possible for single mothers to go to work (a smaller group of Democrats oppose increased work requirements altogether),So now the GOPers are using the budget bill, which can't be filibustered, to simply impose their position on welfare on the Congress and the country, even though some of these provisions were not in either the House or Senate version of the bill.When you consider the intense and free-ranging debate that accompanied the enactment of welfare reform in 1996--the tense back-and-forth maneuvers between the Republican Congress and President Clinton, who vetoed two versions of the bill, and the acrimonious national debate on the subject--it's shameful that Republicans now want to make large changes in one of the most successful initiatives in recent history in the dark, with little or no debate. The fact that the changes they are insisting on are bad public policy adds injury to insult.

December 19, 2005

Midnight Riders

In these uncertain times, you can always count on congressional Republicans to be consistently devious. Last night's--or more accurately, this morning's--votes in the House were a case in point. First, the House GOP leaders rammed through a rules change, known as "martial law," which basically suspended all the normal rules, including the requirement that Members have 24 hours to read major legislation before voting on it. That paved the way for snap votes on secretly assembled defense appropriations and budget reconciliation bills, in the dawn's early light. The "defense" bill included Alaska wilderness oil drilling, cleverly linked to a big batch of money for Katrina recovery, not to mention funds for the military itself. And the budget bill, hammered out in closed House-Senate conference committee discussions with zero Democratic input, incorporated most of the House's obnoxious safety-net cuts, including higher copayments for Medicaid beneficiaries, higher interest rates for people obtaining student loans, and most obnoxious of all, a self-defeating major cut in funds used to collect delinquent child support payments. All this was in a 700-plus-page bill that nobody got to read before it was enacted on a 212-206 vote (every single Democrat voted "no," joined by a mere 9 Republicans). Adding to the deviousness of this grim night's work, congressional Republicans had earlier decided to strip out new tax cuts from the budget package, not because they don't intend to push forward with them in January, but because they want to distract attention from the fact that their brave spending cuts simply pay for a fraction of the revenues they will sacrifice in their mindless and regressive tax cut campaign. The GOPers are also cynically calculating that they can get new dividend and capital gains cuts without the filibuster protection of a reconciliation bill, by linking them to the alternative minimum tax relief that Democrats and Republicans want. (It's also important to recognize that January 1 will bring two new tax cuts almost exclusively targeted to higher earners, that were enacted back in 2001 but deferred as part of the originally devious Republican strategy of hiding the costs of their fiscal malfeasance). It's a pretty amazing shell-game, when you think about it, and the ability of Democrats to expose it will be a critical test of whether we can truly hold this dreadful gang accountable next November.

December 18, 2005

More "War On Xmas" Weirdness

In an earlier post, I made my own dyspeptic attitude towards the alleged "war on Christmas" pretty clear, from a Christian point of view. But now this phony war is escalating into the halls of Congress and the strip-malls of America, with no end in sight other than Christmas Day itself.In one of its periodic exercises in pointless but divisive symbolism, the U.S. House of Representatives has duly passed a resolution defending Christmas from its shadowy detractors, sponsored by a Christian Right pol from my own state of Virginia. Opponents of the measure appropriately raised the rather stark contradiction between this bold stand for Christmas, and the budgetary measures recently passed by the House that defy pretty much everything we understand as the "spirit of Christmas."But it gets worse: guerrilla bands of protesters in California are now harrassing shoppers at that archetypal red-state institution, Wal-Mart, thanks to the mega-chain's decision to use "Happy Holidays" as its merchandizing slogan for the season. Cultural Warriors of the Right have already sought to organize boycotts of Sears, Wal-Mart and Target on the same grounds. The Sacramento protests represent a lurch into Direct Action.The AP story on this incident tells you a lot:

About 50 protesters took part in Saturday's demonstration, organized by religious leaders. Dick Otterstad of the Church of the Divide donned a Santa Claus costume and greeted shoppers with the message: Don't forget about the meaning of Christmas."It is insulting that Wal-Mart has chosen to ignore the reason for the season," Otterstad said. "Taking the word 'Christmas' out of the holiday implies there's something sinful about it. ... This is a part of our culture."
But the protests aren't much working, either:
[E]ven shoppers who agreed with the protesters weren't willing to interrupt their quest for holiday deals."I believe in Christ, and I don't like the use of 'xmas' or the use of 'happy holidays,"' said Steven Van Noy, 39, as he left the store loaded down with packages. "The bottom line is that they had what I needed at Wal-Mart, so I went to Wal-Mart to buy it."
Now you do have to admire the truth-in-advertising honesty of a protest organizer who represents the "Church of the Divide." But the shopper who shares the protest's perspective yet ignores to join it is more representative of even conservative evangelical sentiment. I found it especially interesting that he objects to the use of "Xmas"--an objection I've been hearing literally for forty years, dating back to those simpler days when hardly anyone thought godless secular hordes controlled our culture.In fact, the substitution of "X" for Christ is an ancient Christian usage, reflecting the widespread adoption of the Greek letter "Chi" as a symbol for Christ (the "Chi-Rho," which looks like "XP," remains an abiding presence in priestly vestments and Christian art.)That significant numbers of conservative Christians don't understand this simple fact reflects poorly on their leadership, and illustrates the contrived nature of the whole "war on Christmas" demonology.Christians should have better things to worry about during the Feast of the Nativity, also known as Xmas.

December 17, 2005

That Godless Liberal Jerry

Being basically non-vindictive in nature, I didn't spend much time wallowing in the agony of Republicans in Virginia and elsewhere over the outcome of the Kaine-Kilgore gubernatorial race. The good-government side of me hoped that GOPers nationally would learn the lesson that reflexive right-wing positions like opposing any and all taxes, demonizing immigrants, and demagoguing the death penalty, just don't work any more.But it looks like Virginia Republicans are determined to ignore the evidence. As the Washington Post has reported in a news item and an editorial, the Commonwealth's GOP leadership is putting out the word that ol' Jerry lost because he wasn't conservative enough. This is, to put it mildly, an odd assessment. Ol' Jerry was an obdurate member of the anti-tax faction of the state party, a boon companion to the Christian Right, a big-time gun lover, and a guy who played every conservative card in his campaign. I can't even imagine what GOPers think he should have done, other than maybe changing his name to Attila and refusing to pay his own taxes.The partisan side of me reacts to this strange development by saying to Republicans: Amen, and keep it up. If Jerry Kilgore is not sufficiently conservative for you, then you are living in a strange land and need to get back in touch with Virginia and America.

December 16, 2005

Overreaching With Dirty Hands

Today's stunning Senate repudiation of the Bush administration's demands for a permanent enactment of expiring provisions of the Patriot Act is a good example of what happens when you overreach with dirty hands. A shorter-term extension of the Patriot Act--even its most controversial provisions--would have probably won easily. But no, the administration had to go for a permanent law, fundamentally affecting U.S. civil liberties to deal with a war on terrorism that is no doubt a long-term threat, but not, we pray, a permanent feature of life. And it didn't much help the Bushies' case that the key vote in the Senate coincided with a New York Times report that they've been deliberately violating congressional procedures governing surveillance of U.S. citizens by the National Security Agency, on the direct orders of George W. Bush. You know, when you don't much ever tell the truth, there will be moments of truth when your demands for more and more power over the lives of real people, justified by the presumption that you should be implicitly trusted, just don't work any more. That's basically what happened in the Senate today. And it was not simply a setback for Bush and his minions, but also a reflection of a climate in Washington, largely engineered by the White House, in which it's tough to rationally discuss the proper balance between security and the civil liberties security defends.

December 14, 2005

Getting Things Done

Tonight I happened to stumble on a MyDD post by Matt Stoller that tries to grapple with a Zogby poll indicating that a majority of Republican and Democratic voters, and virtually all Independents, support politicians willing to compromise their principles to get things done.Matt writes an eloquent and agonized essay on these findings, but somehow winds up deciding that progressives should ignore them, and in fact, gird up their loins to change the minds of such voters by demonstrating that principles are more important than getting things done.My first impulse after reading this post was to cite Bertolt Brecht's famous sardonic suggestion to the East German government in a time of turmoil that it "dissolve the people, and elect another." But that's probably not fair. Matt's trying to figure out why Democratic voters in particular, despite all the polarization of the last few years, still support the idea of compromise with the hated partisan enemy.I think this is a matter of placing the em-PHA-sis on the wrong syl-LA-ble. Matt's worried about the willingness of voters to "compromise principles," and should be focusing on their desire to "get things done," which in the end, is what politics is all about."Getting things done" is a yardstick for contemporary politics that's just as damning to George W. Bush and the Republican Party as all the partisan rhetoric you could hope for about their evil motives--rhetoric I engage in myself all the time.It's actually very good news that a majority of voters in every category seem inclined to apply that yardstick to their political choices. That's a competition progressives generally, and Democrats specifically, ought to be able to win. And in fact, using the public sector to "get things done" on the vast array of national challenges that Republicans are ignoring or screwing up is a pretty important matter of principle in itself.

Real War

While there's not really a "war on Christmas" going on in this country, there is a "war on the Christmas spirit" going on in Washington, courtesy of the Republican leadership in Congress and their perverse priorities on budget and tax issues. Check it out in today's New Dem Dispatch.

December 13, 2005

Phony War

Ah, yes, it's another Christmas season, and another opportunity for elements of the Cultural Right to start up their fatuous whining about the "War on Christmas." I did a post on this last year which I won't repeat now. But I must say that I am ashamed of those of my fellow-Christians--surely a small if noisy minority--who purport to be crushed by the burden of equality; offended by the demands of interfaith respect; victimized by the injustice of state neutrality; and oppressed by the tyranny of the naked public square.When you consider the vast march of martyrs through the centuries who have suffered and died for Christ against the real, physical, limb-rending, heretic-burning, death-dealing power of state discrimination, what weak and faithless successors we are if we pretend the Gospel is threatened by "Happy Holidays" cards or Kwanzaa songs or "winter carnivals." It's especially absurd to see some conservative Protestants joining this self-pitying display, given the nurturance they have long enjoyed from America's liberal and pluralistic traditions. Indeed, those among them whose roots are in the Calvinist Reformed tradition seem to have forgotten that the celebration of Christmas itself was illegal in Calvin's Geneva, John Knox's Scotland, and even in Puritan New England, and frowned upon by many Presbyterians until well into the twentieth century. So please, if you truly want to "put Christ back into Christmas," do that in your homes, your churches, and your hearts. But you are missing the "reason for the season" if you continue this uncharitable and altogether un-Christian agitation for the fool's gold of special privileges and a martyr's crown you have not earned.

December 12, 2005

From Adlai To Gene To Dean

I don't have a lot to add to the appraisals of Eugene McCarthy--who died this weekend--being offered by others, but do want to riff on a theme suggested by former Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet over at The New Republic's site.Kusnet usefully focuses on McCarthy's real breakthrough moment in national Democratic politics, his fiery nominating speech for Adlai Stevenson at the 1960 convention in Los Angeles. This now-forgotten incident was at the time a very big deal: as Teddy White explained in The Making of the President 1960, the draft-Stevenson movement, underscored by a very noisy demonstration of activists around the convention site, was momentarily a threat to the pre-ordained nomination of John F. Kennedy.But while Kusnet focuses on the temperamental aspects of the tradition that linked Adlai and McCarthy to such later liberal activist heroes as Mo Udall and Bill Bradley--candidates who sometimes conveyed the sense they were too good to actually win--I think there's a more obvious strain that runs from Stevenson to McCarthy to McGovern to Gary Hart to Paul Tsongas to Howard Dean (and could include Russ Feingold if he emerges as a major candidate in 2008). It's a tradition of candidates who expanded the Democratic appeal into previously Republican or independent upscale professional territory, but at the risk of losing touch with the old Democratic coalition of working-class and minority voters.For those of you who tend to think this trend began much more recently, it's sobering to recall that the term "egghead" was first popularized as an anti-intellectual slur against Stevenson supporters in 1952. And each of "Adlai's children" in later Democratic candidacies drew his signature support from social and economic elites determined to overthrow some aspect of mass culture or politics, from Stevenson's implicit attacks on the philistinism of Ike's America, to McCarthy's ironically detached refusal to play "politics as usual," to McGovern and Hart's crystallization of discontent with old-line Democratic "machine" politics, to Tsongas' mix of social liberalism and economic conservatism, to Dean's antiwar-fed revolt against the Washington Democratic Establishment.All these candidates struggled, to one degree or another, to attract much support from blue-collar and minority voters, though arguably they might have pulled together a broader coalition if they had actually won the nomination (the one who did, George McGovern, performed credibly among minority voters but lost catastrophically among union households). Before you hit the button to send me a nasty email about lumping Howard Dean together with "Adlai's Children," we obviously don't know how a Dean general election campaign might have fared, though the disproportionately upscale and non-minority nature of his original movement was beyond dispute, and a source of much hand-wringing among Deaniacs at the time.Ironically, it was probably McCarthy's great rival, Robert F. Kennedy, who offered the best potential fusion of a New Politics appeal that attracted New Class voters, while keeping together the traditional Democratic coalition. After all, RFK's primary campaign of 1968 did indeed draw a mind-boggling coalition from Wallacites to lunch-bucket ethnics to African-Americans and Latinos. But it's worth remembering that RFK's popularity among liberal intellectuals and anti-war professionals was much higher after his assassination than when he was an actual candidate (when he ran for the Senate in 1964, virtually the entire Manhattan liberal intelligentsia endorsed his Republican rival).On purely empirical grounds, Bill Clinton in 1996 and Al Gore in 2000 have been the two nominees who were best able to consolidate upscale support while hanging onto much if hardly all of the old coalition. And Kerry did as well as Gore among highly educated voters, while losing more at the other end of the spectrum.Gene McCarthy, a temperamentally conservative man much more likely to quote Thomas Aquinas than Thomas Jefferson, was hardly the ideal fusion candidate. And a lot's changed, politically and demographically, since 1968. But the challenge of adding to the coalition without subtracting from it elsewhere remains.

December 11, 2005

RIP Richard Pryor

I spent most of the weekend driving around Virginia attending to various chores, and didn't see or hear any news, so it wasn't until today, when I was driving my kid, Jack, back to school in Richmond, that I learned that Richard Pryor had died. Jack broke the news to me in a quiet way, knowing how much I adored this man. In fact, Jack bought me a Pryor box set for Christmas last year, after discovering for himself that this icon of the 70s and 80s was a lot funnier than the people that come and go on Comedy Central these days.That was appropriate, since I bought my own father a couple of early Pryor albums--yes, the ones with the n-word in the title, which provided some additional comedy as I struggled to find a way to ask for them from an African-American store clerk--back in the mid-1970s.You want to know how powerfully funny Richard Pryor was? After memorizing these albums, my father, a middle-aged southern white man from a very conservative background, became Richard Pryor for about a year. Everytime I'd see him, we'd go through a complex call-and-response greeting based on some Pryor routine. (And Pryor also supplied the right thing to say for virtually every occasion; if I'd screwed up in some way, my father was likely to lightly rebuke me with the words of Pryor's wino accosting a Martian: You done landed on Mr. Gilmore's property!)And to this day, nearly thirty years later, we both know the whole oeuvre by heart. And so does Jack.A lot's been said, and is being said today, about how Pryor stretched the boundaries of taste in comedy, and in particular, how he confronted the realities and absurdities of race, and that's very true. Indeed, his routine on the experience of being a black man pulled over by a white traffic cop (Get out of the car; raise yo' hands, drop yo' pants, spread yo' cheeks. A gas station's been robbed, and you look just like the n---- who done it!) probably provided a lot of white people with their first understanding of racial profiling, and what it's like to be a permanent suspect in your own country.But Pryor was ultimately not just a "great black comic;" he was simply the funniest man alive, by a large margin. If, like me, you agree with the late Hunter Thompson that "a sense of humor is the only prima facie evidence of sanity," then Richard Pryor was, for all the foibles in his personal life, one of the sanest men alive, and one who helped keep the rest of us sane as well.May God give him rest, and return to him the joy he gave so many others.

December 9, 2005

Outsource the House Ethics Committee

Michelle Cottle over at The New Republic's site provides a simple but elegant case against the U.S. House of Representatives' ability, certainly under current management, to police its Members' ethical practices. She suggests its ethics committee be abolished as toothless and misleading, and I tend to agree.Giving congressional ethics rules the power of law, with criminal sanctions for those abuses that involve the selling of influence and the extortion of bribes, would be a good way to replace the current system. And for policing the less criminal but still important ethics violations, creating an indepedent ethics body for Congress, as Bruce Reed has suggested, is another good idea.But the key point is to understand that what we are experiencing these days is not a sound system being overwhelmed or undermined by egregious behavior, but an inadequate and dysfunctional system being exploited by the wolves who always thrive when the sheep have no real shepherd.

December 8, 2005

Meanwhile, Back on the Bench....

The twin obsessions in Washington right now about Iraq and the continuing pandemic of GOP scandals have obscured the once and future obsession of George W. Bush's efforts to reshape the Supreme Court. To be sure, Samuel Alito's nomination has yet to undergo Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, which is why few senators from either party have taken definitive positions. But as Ryan Lizza points out on The New Republic's site today, the gradual build-up of evidence about Alito's strong antagonism to Roe v. Wade is taxing the abilities of administration spinmeisters who want to keep this nomination in The Roberts Zone.Like a lot of observers, I've long felt Alito's prospects for a relatively easy confirmation depended on whether he is perceived as another Scalia (scary conservative judicial activist) or as another Roberts (reassuring conservative judicial incrementalist). His handlers have done a pretty good job of keeping the dial turned towards the Roberts model, mainly by stressing his calm temperament and geniality; I guess the planted axiom is that Nice Guys Don't Overturn Abortion Rights.But as Lizza notes, Alito's growing paper trail of outspoken hostility to Roe, and especially the internal memo he wrote his colleagues at the Justice Department laying out a stealth strategy for ridding the Constitution of abortion rights, are stepping on his current message. And the rejoinder that Alito's appeals court decisions upholding Roe as precedent show his deep respect for stare decisis is, as Lizza also notes, a crock: lower courts do not have the option of overturning Supreme Court decisions, but Supreme Courts most definitely do.Thus, even as Washington and the whole political world look elsewhere, the probability that the Alito nomination will hang fire is slowly growing. And after the Miers fiasco, accompanied by a growing sense among conservatives that time's beginning to run out on their tainted ascendancy, Alito's handlers may not have the wiggle room to make too many dubious assurances that the putative justice might well turn out to be a vote to sustain Roe. Another nice feature of Lizza's analysis is that he shares my redundantly expressed view that any judicial, much less cultural, conservative reflexively thinks of Roe as the mother of all abominations. There's absolutely no reason to think Samuel Alito thinks otherwise, and a lot of evidence to suggest his views on Roe are exactly what you'd expect.Now, there are two arguments you often hear in Democratic circles on this subject that sound initially plausible but which, in my opinion, are dangerously off-course. The first is that Republicans actually don't want to overturn Roe because it would produce a political backlash once state legislatures and governors had to actually decide whether to support or repeal basic abortion rights. The second is that Democrats should smile upon a reversal of Roe, for the same reasons.The first argument, even if you buy it, suggests that Republican politicians can perpetually keep cultural conservatives running around the political track like greyhounds chasing a rabbit that can never be caught. Sure, some GOP pols may hope that's true, but now, at the moment the Right has prayed and dreamed about for a generation, I just don't think Republican cynicism on abortion will be allowed to prevailAnd the second argument, while defensible in theory, just doesn't make any sense in the real world. Whatever you think of the constitutional provenance of Roe, the idea that a post-Roe world would somehow entail a sort of national referendum on basic abortion rights, with a dignified debate and simple up-or-down votes in every state, defies everything we know about the politics of abortion and the nature of state legislatures. The reality is that the reversal of Roe would turn state politics across the country into an endless, 24/7 battleground over a vast array of abortion legislation, perhaps indefinitely. At worst, it could produce the kind of reasoned debate associated with the Schiavo case, every single day, across the country. At best, abortion policy would overshadow many compelling issues most of the time, and some compelling issues all of the time.So you don't have to be an abortion rights ultra to shudder at the prospect of Roe's reversal. Yet Alito's confirmation will likely bring us face-to-face with that contingency.If the genial Jersey judge conducts a pitch-perfect balancing act in the Judiciary hearings, maybe none of this will matter. And even if he doesn't, Senate Democrats obviously don't have the votes to block him, and face an agonizing decision about using a filibuster weapon thatwill likely be snatched away from them immediately--and permanently--through the invocation of the Nuclear Option.But no matter what happens next, Alito is probably not going to be confirmed without serious controversy, and is probably going to face a fight. And the fight will likely, and naturally, wind up revolving around the constitutional status of abortion, which much as we might wish otherwise, is truly hanging in the balance, if not right now, then in a future so near that we should all soberly consider its baleful nature--terrible for women, and bad for democracy.

December 7, 2005

The McCain Conundrum

One of those low-grade-fever, under-the-radar discussions that often consume the chattering classes involves the possibility that the Republican Party will offer up John McCain as the successor to George W. Bush in 2008. It's an especially interesting topic to us political junkies who know (a) how much savage hatred was built up in 2000 between McCain and the movement conservative/K Street/theocon establishment backing Bush; (b) how often McCain has violated conservative litmus tests on domestic issues ranging from tax cuts to global climate change to ethics legislation; and (c) how tempting it is to McCain's old GOP enemies to bring him back into the establishment to save it from total immolation in 2008.I've already weighed in on a TPMCafe discussion of McCain's future, but was prompted to say more here by an interesting assessment of McCain's rapproachment with conservatives written by Byron York of National Review, published by The New Republic.York is a very good old-school reporter who knows the conservative world intimately, so I'll take his word for it that McCain's efforts on Bush's behalf in 2004; his base-pleasing outspokenness about the righteousness of the war in Iraq; and the recent conservative convergance with the Arizonan on the fiscal profligacy of the congressional GOP; are all factors that cover a multitude of McCain's past and present heresies against Republican orthodoxy. But I submit those heresies--which include McCain's sponsorship, with Joe Lieberman, of the climate change legislation conservatives hate passionately--remain a bar to a McCain run in 2008, unless he goes far out of his way in the future to tack back to the Right. The other factor, of course, is exactly how desperate Republicans are becoming when they think about 2008. Do they embrace their ancient intraparty enemy over their friends? Will they demand McCain bend the knee on a variety of conservative litmus tests? How many assurances will they require about the shape and the staffing of a potential McCain White House? (Will my colleague The Moose, for example, be banned from grazing among the canapes at White House receptions?).My own gut feeling about the current conservative flirtation with McCain is that it's all a matter of hedging bets. The Right will look high and low for a presidential alternative to McCain, but the big priority is to make sure they get a sufficiently clear set of commitments from him to make the competition as insignificant as possible.For us very interested outsiders in this Republican debate, the major question is how big a piece of his own persona McCain has to repudiate to attract GOP forces who'd rather try to tame and train him, than to actually listen to his words. And for McCain, the question is how far he's willing to go to make his own proud and independent words meaningless.

December 6, 2005

Conservatives and Corruption

Rick Perlstein, author of Before The Storm, the fine 2002 book about the 1964 Goldwater campaign, is getting some blogospheric buzz after posting a speech he did to a conservative confab at Princeton. In his acerbic remarks, which undoubtedly discomfited hosts who expected him to regale the group with AuH2O war stories, he examined the parallels between the Goldwater zealots who got caught up in the manifold ethical and legal problems of the Nixon administration, and those who today are distinguishing themselves likewise in scandals and other violations of conservative principle, such as fiscal profligacy.Rick's observations about the corruption of conservative ideologues into what they once disparaged as mere "Republicans" are acute and on-target, but I'd add an additional thought about the second-generation conservatives who are now running and ruining our country.I wrote a review for Blueprint magazine earlier this year that compared and contrasted Perlstein's book with Craig Shirley's hagiography of Reagan's failed but seminal 1976 campaign, Reagan's Revolution. And Shirley's book made it plain that most of the people who now control Washington made their bones in that and subsequent Reagan campaigns, not in Goldwater's or Nixon's efforts.If you compare the Goldwater and Reagan generations of conservatives, the first thing that jumps out at you is that the latter became convinced that conservatism needed for political reasons a much sunnier disposition, and a more popular agenda, than that offered bt the dour but principled Arizonan. The second thing that jumps out at you is that Reagan himself won the GOP nomination and the presidency after embracing a supply-side economic doctrine that made it easy to be conservative, offering tax cuts that paid for themselves without forcing any real decisions about the role of the federal government in national life.This doctrine has largely been discredited economically, but it's had a sensational and still-vibrant run as the political underpinning of Republican fiscal policies that promise to square every circle, and invite every corruption of traditional conservative principles.The transition from supply-side theory to corrupt practices has been devious if predictable. But the big jump was supplied by Grover Norquist's "starve the beast" concept (the phrase itself borrowed from Reagan's budget director, David Stockman, who ultimately deplored the idea), that conservatives should embrace tax cuts without worrying about spending cuts, since the former would eventually force the latter. In my own article about Norquist's significance, I described "starve the beast" as offering Republicans the political equivalent of a bottomless crack pipe: you could support both tax cuts and spending increases, and use both to buy votes and reward favored constituencies, because it would all come out in the wash someday, when future administrations and Congresses would be forced to balance the books.The ready embrace of "starve the beast" ideology by the Republican Party of the W. era has also exposed another rotten underpinning of conservatism in power: if you don't believe in the actual ability of the federal government to do anything of real value, then why not turn federal agencies into patronage machines and well-paid holding pens for rising young ideologues?This question, I suspect, explains how you get from Reaganesque critiques of bureaucratic incompetence to Brownie, in less than a generation.In other words, I believe the endemic corruption of conservatives in power we are witnessing today is not just a morality play about power's corrupting influence, or about the descent of ideologues into the practical swamps of politics. Worse than that, it's about the consequences of entrusting government's vast power to people who can't think of it as a force for the common good, and thus, inevitably, treat it as a force for private gain.

December 5, 2005

Gubernatorial Landscape

With all the obsession in Washington over (brightening) Democratic prospects for retaking the U.S. Congress, it's good to see the Washington Post taking notice of the other big battleground for 2006: governorships.In yesterday's WaPo, Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza note that 22 Republican governorships will be up next year, as compared with 14 Dem seats. They cite New York, California, Ohio, Florida, Nevada, Arkansas and Colorado and Maryland as Republican-held state chief executive postions potentially vulnerable in 2006, with Massachusetts as an add-on if Mitt Romney decides not to go for another term. For some reason, they miss Alabama and Georgia, where Republican incumbents got a temporary boost from their reaction to Hurricane Katrina, but remain vulnerable. 'Bama's Bob Riley still has to get past Judge Roy Moore, R-Hysteria, and then will probably face Democratic Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley, a candidate with almost no negatives. And Georgia's Sonny Perdue remains a shaky pick against Democrats Cathy Cox and Mark Taylor, both of whom were running ahead of the GOPer in pre-Katrina polls.I'd add to the mix Alaska, where profoundly unpopular incumbent Republican Frank Murkowski's acting like he will run again, at a minimum creating a messy and negative GOP primary. House Democratic leader Ethan Berkowitz (disclosure: a friend of mine) is already in the field, and could be joined by former Gov. Tony Knowles, but anyway you slice it, this is not a safe seat for GOPers.The WaPo report cites Michigan's Jennifer Granholm, Wisconsin's Jim Doyle, and Illnois' Rod Blagojevich as potentially vulnerable incumbent Dems, with Iowa's open seat (vacated by Tom Vilsack) as another GOP target. But the Dem incumbents have yet to draw any kind of world-beating rivals, and the Iowa situation remains very fluid.Add it all up, and it looks like the Donkey party is in a great position to regain a majority of governorships (we currently trail 28-22). And that's great news for a party that came out of the 2004 elections afraid that it was becoming ghettoized into a small number of states.

December 2, 2005

In Defense of The Moose

I rise today to a point of personal privilege: the opportunity to defend my friend and colleague, and fellow blogospheric furry mammal, The Bull Moose (a.k.a., Marshall Wittmann) from a double-barreled attempt over at DailyKos to barbecue his tough old hide.What did the Moose do to earn this extensive abuse? He provided a short quote to the Washington Post commenting on the likely Republican treatment of Nancy Pelosi's Iraq statement the other day, the point being that the timing of the statement reinforced the White House's effort to frame the Iraq debate as offering a Manichean choice between victory or immediate withdrawal. The Post reporter, sensing an opportunity to make some trouble, tracked down David Sirota and read him the quote, and Sirota dutifully called Marshall an "insulated elitist" who was stabbing the Democratic Party in the back. (Side-note to David: you might want to discard the stab-in-the-back metaphor, given its unsavory origins in post-World-War-I German politics. Sorry for the "elitist" pedantry, but it's good advice).In response to this exchange, Markos went on for a number of graphs accusing The Moose of calling Pelosi a coward, of calling Jack Murtha a coward, of supporting Bush on the war, of being a neocon chickenhawk, etc., etc. Armando went further, accusing Wittmann of McCarthyism, and of being a "Rovian pawn," and concluding with a demand that the DLC fire his ass.Lordy, lordy. So many words of abuse in response to so few words of provocation. Where to begin?When I read the quote, I thought it was pretty clear Marshall was describing the Rovian spin on Pelosi's statement, not agreeing with it, and I know for a fact that's what he meant, in a longer conversation with the reporter from which the quote was lifted. But okay, let's say for the sake of argument that he left the impression he did agree with it. Where did he call Pelosi a "coward?" Where did he call Murtha--whom he has previously defended from Republican attacks--a "coward?"To avoid any misunderstanding on this point, let me be clear: Marshall's beef with Pelosi isn't about her position on Iraq, or Murtha's, or anybody else's. It's a free country and a big-tent party. But she's the party leader in the House, making a statement transparently designed in its timing to become the Democratic response to Bush's speech. Sure, she claimed she wasn't speaking for the Caucus, but in the next breath, said a majority of the Caucus agreed with her but wouldn't come out and say so (which certainly ran a higher risk of being interpreted as an accusation of "cowardice" against Democrats than anything Wittmann's said, BTW).Now, over at Kos, and all over the blogosphere, people say positive and negative things about the leadership qualities and tactical and strategic decisions of Democrat leaders all the time, and sometimes that causes heartburn, but they're rarely if ever accused of "McCarthyism." Marshall's criticism of Pelosi is something I've heard echoed in conversations with many Democrats, some of whom agree with the actual Pelosi-Murtha position. I hardly think it's the Sin Against the Holy Ghost to tell a reporter what he already knew about this line of internal debate.The next cookie on the plate is the assertion that Wittmann is a stay-the-course shill for Bush's war policies. Gee, let's see: just yesterday, The Moose said nobody should believe Bush is really changing his strategy on Iraq until he gets rid of Donald Rumsfeld. I somehow don't think that was in the daily Pentagon talking points on Iraq. And in fact, Wittmann has been regularly critical, often angrily so, about Bush's handling of Iraq and national security generally. Yes, he's more hawkish than many Democrats (after all, he's an independent), and he's more hawkish than I am, but he's no shill for Bush on any subject.And that brings me to the real howler in the attempted Moosicide, the "Rovian pawn" bit.I don't expect Armando to know that much about Marshall Wittmann's history, but I certainly do. He was a conservative intellectual and activist in the 90s who got to see people like Rove, DeLay, Reed, Abramoff, Norquist, Gingrich, Bush I and Bush II, up real close, and got very sick of what his party was becoming, and started saying so publicly. He was a key figure in John McCain's 2000 effort to take the GOP away from the K Street/theocon crowd, and became if not Public Enemy Number One, then certainly on everybody's enemies list. He was shown the door at two conservative think tanks for his heresies, and finally, when his hero McCain decided to make at least partial peace with the Power Crowd, he walked.I don't see anybody holding David Brock's past associations against him, but The Moose, probably because he hasn't totally jumped over to Our Team, doesn't seem to benefit from any Prodigal Son generosity, at least outside the DLC. And anybody who reads his blog regularly knows that nobody, not Markos, not Armando, not me, not you, does a more savage and effective job of exposing the rottenness of the whole GOP machine in lurid and extremely well-informed detail.And that's why the DLC employs him; why we don't demand that he tow anybody's party line; and why he's a valuable ally to Democrats, even if you disagree with him, which I do pretty often. We need to listen and even sponsor independent voices; maybe we'll learn something from them, if only how to appeal to the millions of voters who have left Their Team but haven't joined ours.On a more personal note, it pains me to see Wittmann demonized by anybody, especially as some sort of hatchet man, because he's actually one of the nicest and certainly funniest people I've ever met. He and I have a water-fountain routine where we lapse into Marxist factional jargon in describing the day's political events ("Lieberman has clearly exposed himself as a Social Fascist Right Opportunist;" "Our red state strategy must separate the small peasants from the kulaks.") And far from Sirota's description of him as a Washington Elitist, Wittmann's greatest thrill in politics was his recent opportunity to hang out with Kinky Friedman (and his sidekick, "Jewford," one of the original Texas Jewboys) in Dallas. I hope when he's grazing in retirement, he can publish the full account of this encounter in its screamingly hilarious detail.So please, Moose-o-phobics, lighten up and recognize a rare talent whose regular refusal to serve up turgid partisan fare, and occasional outrages, are more than offset by his knowledgeable skewering of the right-wing machine, and his independent willingness to tell us things we don't like but probably ought to consider.

December 1, 2005

World AIDS Day

One of the saddest aspects of modern life is that modern advance-society people and their news media tend to get bored with ongoing challenges that lose novelty.That's definitely the case with the global AIDS crisis.Yes, the AIDS crisis in America has abated somewhat, but it's still with us.Yes, the AIDS crisis in Asia has yet to gain headlines, but it will.And yes, the AIDS crisis in Africa is old news by now, but it continues to represent the most massive humanitarian disaster in a continent already beset by disasters beyond measure.Many of us outside Africa have learned to beat our breasts about our failure to stop the genocide in Rwanda, and a few of us are agitated about the ongoing quasi-genocide in Darfur, and that's all good. But the death toll, actual and potential, from AIDS in Africa makes every man-made contribution to the Grim Reaper's work pale by comparison.There are things we can do to succor the dying and suffering, to limit future deaths, and to take care of the vast number of orphans AIDS is producing. And taking those steps, particularly in terms of medical and pharmaceutical supplies, should be divorced from the broader argument over conditional or unconditional assistance to African regimes.It's sad that "awareness" remains the primary goal of AIDS advocates on this World AIDS Day. But that's where we are, and any American who professes fidelity to a compassionate view of human morality, based on religion or any other system, should manifest this awareness in a serious effort to demand action and save lives.

Iraq and Vietnam

There's lots of things going on this week in the tangled politics and policy of U.S. policy towards Iraq. I've already commented on Bush's latest big speech on the subject; indeed, I may have been uncharacteristically too generous towards the slippery Chief Executive, based on subsequent analysis of the Great Big Policy Document he released along with his speech.The DLC issued its own assessment today, not only challenging Bush's continued happy-talk on Iraq (and its unwillingness to show a change of strategy by, say, firing Donald Rumsfeld), but also disagreeing with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi's ill-timed endorsement of an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, combined with an unhelpful I'm-not-speaking-for-the-House-Caucus-but-they-secretly-agree-with-me statement. Beyond these large points, there was another negative assessment of Bush's speech from an unusual quarter with an unusual message: Lawrence Kaplan of The New Republic. A writer often described as a Democratic neocon, and an unambiguous supporter of the Iraq war effort, Kaplan takes on Bush's claim that the military is now adopting state-of-the-art counterinsurgency methods learned in Vietnam, and pretty much hits it like a pinata from several different directions. It's definitely worth reading. Matt Yglesias' comment on Kaplan's piece is quite good as well.And speaking of Iraq and Vietnam, I had one of those old-guy moments today when I suddenly remembered a moment in the debate on Vietnam which reminds me of the odd disjunction between the relatively small policy differences dividing most Democrats and many Republicans on Iraq, and the big tonal and intepretative differences they sometimes convey.In the famously fractious 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the big platform debate over Vietnam (note to young people: this was back when big platform debates were still possible) involved a majority plank which endorsed free elections in South Vietnam to create a coalition government including the National Liberation Front (the political arm of the Viet Cong), and a minority plank endorsing a coalition government including the NLF that would be required to sponsor free elections. The policy distinctions between these two planks were about as meaningful as today's difference between supporters of a benchmarked withdrawal from Iraq based on estimated dates, and a timetable withdrawal contingent on benchmarks. Yet at the time, these two proposals were almost universally described by the news media as "pro-war" and "anti-war" platform planks. The lesson is this: So much as many of us might wish to focus on the policy details of proposals about what to do now in Iraq, you can't take the politics out of politics, and the "tonal" or "contextual" implications of various proposals, despite their substantive similarity, matter a great deal.