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January 31, 2006

Dear Angry Democrats

So yesterday's cloture vote against the Alito confirmation didn't work out that well. Scanning the comment threads of some of the really big left-of-center blogs last night, I didn't have to go too far to discover there are some really, really angry folks out there. But here's the deal, now that this particular deal has gone down:You can focus on the 19 Democrats who voted for cloture, or focus on the 40-odd Democrats who are going to vote against the actual confirmation today. You can read the whole Alito story as one of Democratic disunity, weakness and perfidy, or you can read it as a high-water mark of unity in the face of a confirmation that was never seriously in danger, in a U.S. Senate with a Republican ten-vote margin. You can look around for villains, blaming the failure of a too-little, too-late filibuster effort on some sort of DLC plot (yeah, our influence with senators like Inouye and Rockefeller and Dorgan and Conrad is well-known, and it's a good thing we have no links to Bayh or Clinton). Or you can just accept that it just wasn't going to happen no matter what anybody did, especially at the last moment, and note the remarkable unity of Democratic organizations (including the DLC) in opposing Alito. You can, if you wish, channel your disappointment and anger into an effort to purge Democratic senators in primaries, or you can realize our biggest problem is the limited quantity of Democratic senators, not their "purity" or willingness to make every fight in the Senate the fight of their lives. You can consider the glass half-full, or more than half-full, or you can pour it all out.And in making each of these choices, remember there are plenty of folks out there with the motive and the means to trumpet the colture vote into a disaster for the Democratic Party. It's a free country, and a free party, so do whatever your conscience dictates, but do it pretty soon, because there are many other political fish to fry, and as a party, we have to (with apologies to the organization by that name) move on.
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January 30, 2006

Why the SOTU Matters

Yesterday's Washington Post Outlook section featured a jeremiad by Lewis Gould arguing for the elimination of State of the Union addresses. As I read it, I was nodding along at his list of the absurdities that have come to accompany this annual ritual: the imperial entrance of the Almighty POTUS, the Real People in the gallery, the forced upbeat tone, the pressure to create phony proposals the administration has no intention of pursuing, the bloviating television commentary, etc., etc.Hell, I could add a few annoyances, such as the bizarre calesthentics of the vice president, the speaker of the House, and Congress itself (more amusing when the two figures behind the president are from different parties) in deciding when to clap, cheer, stand, sit, smile, laugh, or glower.Still, Gould undermines his own argument for banning the SOTU in examining George W. Bush's current dilemma:

Bush must now give his sixth State of the Union Address message without the accompanying drama of recent terrorist attacks such as those that preceded the 2002 address and without being on the brink of a war in Iraq, as we were in 2003. Like the sixth or seventh husband of an oft-wed screen star, the president knows what is expected of him. But how does he make the minutiae of health savings accounts or enhanced tax deductions for medical expenses interesting for his audience at home? The mysteries of copays and the "doughnut" in the Medicare drug benefit are not likely to bring viewers to the edge of their sofas.
Well, I'm not sure that last part is true if you happen to be a Medicare beneficiary who could use a little explanation of why the administration has foisted this fiasco upon them, but aside from that, who cares if this creates a difficult bit of stagecraft for Bush and his handlers? I mean, it's not as though the administration has this wonderful but wonky domestic agenda that poor Bush has to dumb down for the folks, is it? On health care, on energy, on ethics, on the budget, on Katrina, just to mention a few topics, Bush's problem is that his administration does not have anything new to say, but has to dress up the same old stuff as an agenda, which undermines his usual habit of justifying himself as the embodiment of the war on terror.So I'm glad Bush has to do this speech. Otherwise, this president who thinks his re-election was the only "accountability moment" he need suffer through would enjoy the power to appear before Congress and the American people only when it suits his own purposes.
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January 27, 2006

Filibuster Nostalgia

As my last post indicated, I made my peace with the reality of a filibuster against Samuel Alito pretty quickly. After all, I am really unhappy about the impending reality of Justice Alito, and the likelihood that he will be cheerfully unravelling constitutional protections until well past the time when I've been trundled off to a nursing home.And though I doubted and still doubt the political wisdom of a suicide filibuster effort against him, once the genie was out of the bottle yesterday, I figured: What the hell--it should produce some serious political entertainment and some new pressure on waverers. And who knows: maybe a significant number of Americans will get bored with Big East basketball or bass tournaments tomorrow, channel surf to CSPAN, and experience judicial satori.So you can imagine my chagrin when I discovered this afternoon that after a few brief speeches, Senate Dems had agreed to adjourn the chamber until Monday, when a cloture vote is scheduled.On reflection, I realized that the lore of filibusters--the round the clock sessions, the cots in the hallways, the boxes of complimentary No Doz on every desk, and the orgy of unbuttoned speechifying--was associated with efforts to break a filibuster in the absence of enough votes to invoke cloture. In this case, the cloture motion had already been filed, and the votes to carry it were clearly there, so I can understand on a rational level why we aren't being treated to the spectacle of an oratorical Alitofest.But still, it's disappointing to realize that the big lurch towards the fateful decision to "filibuster Alito" actually just means a number of Democrats have pledged to vote against cloture on Monday.Maybe Dems are planning some serious rhetorical pyrotechnics then, even though Bobby Byrd is on the other side of the issue. And maybe the six gazillion calls Senators will get over the weekend will have some impact.Yet it makes me nostalgic for the days when announcing a filibuster meant the Senate was about to invert its staid and bipartisan image and go nuts, and the outcome depended on whether some septuagenarian could succesfully hold the floor when a Call of Nature threatened to overwhelm the Call to Service.
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Playing the Hand That's Dealt You

Well, by now it's obvious that the title of my last post on Democratic unity in the Alito debate should have ended with a question mark, now that several Senators have vowed to begin a filibuster, without the votes to defeat a cloture motion.But you have to play the hand that's dealt you. I can only hope Senate Dems make a serious effort to stay focused on the Big Case against Alito during the debate, and not provide the GOP with any negative ad material. It's especially important that they deal with the GOP "obstructionist" talking point by relentlessly reminding people that Bush deliberately picked this fight by giving conservative activists their very own Supreme Court nominee. And it wouldn't hurt to spend some time exposing the hypocrisy of "pro-choice" Republican Senators who are deliberately giving the anti-abortion movement the fourth vote they need--just one short of a majority--to erode and then overturn Roe v. Wade.If we are to have a filibuster, let it be one that is short on senatorial bloviation, and long on clear and concise persuasion. And if nothing else, maybe the debate will complicate Bush's State of the Union Address.
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January 25, 2006

Dems United On Alito

I know I'm late in officially registering opposition to the confirmation of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, but I've said enough negative stuff about him to make my position clear. I agree with the arguments for opposing Alito mentioned in yesterday's New Dem Dispatch. But I would add to them my particular concern that he is almost certain to do his best, or worst, to undermine or reverse Roe v. Wade, not only eliminating every woman's constitutional right to choose, but also turning the politics and legislative process of many states into an obsessive, nightmare struggle on abortion restrictions for many years to come. The Senate debate on Alito's confirmation is fully underway now; it appears Democrats have chosen an "extended debate" as a compromise between the short discussion and quick vote Republicans preferred, and the filibuster at least some Democrats wanted. I hope Democrats now make a more coherent and judicial-philosophy centered argument than was made during the Judiciary Committee hearings. Forget about Princeton. Don't get too obsessed with the arcana of "unitary executive" theory. The big point is that given a chance to nominate anybody he wanted to the Supreme Court, George W. Bush chose a lifelong movement conservative whose judicial philosphy will tilt the Court to the Right for many years, and will directly threaten the erosion or reversal of constitutional protections that really matter to the American people, beginning with the reproductive rights of women. And Bush did so as a blatant pander to the conservative activists who brought down Harriet Miers, and whom he now needs to defend his wretched record. As of now, only one Senate Democrat has announced support for Alito, and at a minimum, the vote against him will be much higher than against Chief Justice Roberts. Democrats are united on an important point of principle and politics, and while that will not keep Samuel Alito off the Court, it will matter down the road.
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January 24, 2006

Alito's Troops

Some of the media takes on Samuel Alito suggest there's serious doubt he would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade if given the chance.That doubt certainly does not extend to the anti-abortion movement. Check out Dana Milbank's Washington Post dispatch from yesterday's anti-Roe rally in Washington, wherein he discovered that the usual somber mood of this annual event had dramatically changed thanks to the confirmation of John Roberts and the likely confirmation of Alito:

It was a day of clarity after weeks of fuzz generated by Supreme Court nominee Sam Alito and members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The nominee -- expected to be endorsed by the committee today -- maintained that he did not have strong legal views about abortion. And senators acted as if abortion were not the reason they would vote for or against him.But at yesterday's March for Life, neither speaker nor marcher was confused by the Kabuki. "We must support the confirmation of Judge Alito and other jurists who will support a strict-constructionist view of the law and make it possible once and for all to end Roe v. Wade ," Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), a leading House conservative, thundered.In the crowd, Sheila Wharam of Baltimore was festive, almost jubilant. "We're getting close," she said, holding a banner urging "Mr. Justices, Please Reverse Roe v. Wade."

Day of clarity, indeed.
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Canada Reluctantly Goes Right

Canada's national election yesterday went pretty much as forecasted: the Conservatives won a plurality of seats in the House of Commons, and will get to form a minority government under Stephen Harper. But it's reasonably clear Canadians were casting votes to expel the current scandal-plagued Liberal government of Paul Martin rather than to give the Tories any real mandate to move the country to the Right. Minority governments in Canada don't tend to last very long, and moreover, even those Tory governments who have won strong majorities in recent decades have typically gone belly-up after short holds on power. Aside from public ambivalence about the Tories, Harper will have to deal with a House of Commons where the balance of power is held by the left-labor New Democratic Party and the Bloc Quebecois, which is well to the left of center on most domestic and foreign policy issues. Despite making gains and punishing its ancient Liberal enemies, the BQ actually had a disappointing election, falling far short of the 50 percent vote in Quebec it had publicly set as its goal. And the NDP, which slightly boosted its share of the total vote from 15.7 percent to 17 percent, still wound up with only 29 seats in the House, as compared with 124 for the Tories, 103 for the Liberals, and 51 for the Bloc. So while it's easy to identify the loser in yesterday's elections, the ultimate winner is anybody's guess. Martin quickly resigned as Liberal leader, and aside from Harper's behavior as a P.M. without a majority or a mandate, the Grits' ability to regroup under new and uncertain leadership is the key political variable Up North. The most jarring difference between contemporary Canadian andU.S. politics is the restrained tone of the former, even in a campaign considered "bitter" by Canadian standards. Martin's much-derided campaign for survival depended heavily on negative ads warning Canadians of the Tory boogeyman and its Republican friends in Washington (motivated in part by a largely unsuccessful drive to get NDP supporters to engage in "strategic voting" for the Grits in closely competed contests). It did not go over well.I got a personal taste of the low-key nature of Canadian politics yesterday afternoon, when I picked up a Toronto AM radio station while driving up I-95 from Richmond. NDP Leader Jack Layton was being interviewed; he sounded sort of like a decaffeinated Dick Gephardt--bland, wonky and very civil, particularly for a guy whose election-day objective was to shore up the "base" of the country's most firmly ideological party.The aspect of yesterday's vote that might well have parallel implications here in the U.S. is obvious enough: the connection voters made between Liberal ethics scandals and that party's entrenched status and smug sense of entitlement to power. And that's why Republicans probably shouldn't get much satisfaction from a temporary and minority government led by their "friends" in Ottawa. North and south of the border, voters can and will provide corrupt and bumbling incumbenets with an "accountability moment," even if they harbor misgivings about the opposition. Word up, Karl.
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January 23, 2006

Buying the Stairway To Heaven

During a busy weekend down in the country, I neglected to do my usual trolling of Georgia media to see if anything significant had happened to damage the campaign of Casino Jack Abramoff's buddy Ralph Reed to become Lieutenant Governor of the Empire State (and then Governor, and then President of the United States).Fortunately, the Carpetbagger Report was more vigiliant than I was, and supplied links to two Atlanta Journal-Constitution articles about Ralph's frantic effort to avoid embarassment at the annual meeting of his homeboys and homegirls, the Christian Coalition of Georgia. On Saturday, Jim Galloway reported that Reed's campaign was offering via email to pay registration fees and even pick up hotel room costs for supporters willing to show up for the Christian Right gabfest. But on Sunday, the AJC's James Salzer filed a story from the event itself, reporting that the crowd appeared equally divided in support between Reed and his primary opponent, state senator Casey Cagle. This is really bad news for Ralph: he shells out cash to make it easy for his friends to attend what should have been a revival meeting for his campaign, and instead he gets a tepid reception and mixed reviews. True, Ralph has been spending a lot more time lately in the service of Mammon than of God, and Mammon's legions may still back him in the July GOP primary. But still, he tried to use Mammon's resources to put on a good show for the faithful this weekend, and it appears to have gone over about as well as his claims that he didn't know Jack Abramoff was shoveling gambling money in his direction. As those intrepid politico-theological pundits Led Zeppelin observed, it's a perilous business to buy the stairway to heaven.
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January 22, 2006

Abramoff: The Ultimate Partisan

A couple of weeks ago, I did a post predicting that the GOP's "damage control" strategy on the Abramoff scandal and related Republican abuses of power would include an effort to basically say: "Everybody does it."But I didn't think they'd have the chutzpah to claim that the Abramoff scandal itself was bipartisan.I mean, here's a guy who has been at the absolute epicenter of Republican and conservative-movement politics since the 1980s. His College Republican deputies, Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed, who have risen to incredible power in the GOP machine, were the chosen bag-man in all his shakedown schemes. The lies he told his client-victims were exclusively about his inordinate power in the GOP's New Ruling Class in Washington, nicely underlined by his appointment by the incoming Bush administration in 2001 to the transition team for the Interior Department, his big moneymaking target. And there's not a shred of evidence that anybody sent sacks of cash to Democrats on his say-so.Jack Abramoff was so complete and absolute a career-long partisan that he stayed partisan whether he was acting within or in violation of the law. Indeed, that may be the only straight thing about this crooked man. Josh Marshall hit the nail on the head: "tying" Jack Abramoff to Republicans is like tying James Carville to Democrats. Every moment of Casino Jack's career, there's been a big elephant in the living room, every time he looked in the mirror.
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January 19, 2006

Defining the K Street Strategy

It's reasonably clear by now that despite some significant differences on the details, the really striking difference between Democratic and Republican "lobbying reform" proposals in Congress is that Democrats are promising to shut down wider abuses of power like the K Street Strategy, while Republicans basically deny the K Street Strategy even exists (or, as that unlikely Republican "reformer," Rick Santorum, occasionally claims, it's just a good government process whereby GOP Hill Barons benevolently try to make sure lobbying shops hire the best qualified people). So it's kind of important to understand what the K Street Strategy is really all about.Like everyone else, I recommend, and have recommended from the day it was published, Nick Confessore's famous 2003 Washington Monthly analysis of the whole scheme (in which "good government" Ricky Santorum plays a prominent role). But long and brilliant articles like Nick's don't necessarily boil it all down to something newspapers can understand, so here's my simple take: The K Street Strategy was and is an effort to concentrate the vast array of money and power commanded by lobbyists into a simple relationship with the vast array of money and power commanded by the Republican leadership of Congress (and its ally in the White House). The message so often conveyed by Ricky and others to K Street is simply this: you're on our team, and there's no other team to join. Thus, the K Street Strategy, aimed explicitly at consolidating lobbyists into a single and disciplined force, had to be accompanied by a parallel consolidation of total power within the federal government, creating the big and single bargaining table. That's why the K Street Strategy was indeed the crown jewel of Republican corruption, and why it went hand in hand with so many other abuses of power in Washington. Its whole aim was to create a cartel of power with a few players who were free to do what they wished at public expense, not only to do each other's will, but to perpetuate the arrangement as long as possible. So please, "even-handed" reporters, don't buy into the idea that today's Republicans are just emulating the abuses of power practiced by yesterday's Democrats. This is new stuff: the ruthless effort to establish a small place in Washington where all the deals go down, and all the money changes hands, and all the legislation gets cleared. It's breathtaking in its audacity, and Democrats need to explain that destroying it isn't just a matter of "lobbying reform" or even "ethics reform," but a necessary effort to restore Congress as a functioning representative body.
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January 18, 2006

The "White Working Class" Debate

Need a break from poring over gift-rule and lobbyist-disclosure provisions? If so, Ruy Teixeira has posted an excellent summary of the simmering debate that's been going on in academic and political circles since November 2004 about Democratic weakness in the "white working class," and just as importantly, how to define that group.I'll let you read this long post yourself, but do want to quote some rather startling 2004 stats that dramatize the different impact of educational levels and income on voting behavior:

Among non-college-educated whites with $30,000–$50,000 in household income, Bush beat Kerry by twenty-four points (62 percent to 38 percent); among college-educated whites at the same income level, Kerry actually managed a 49 percent to 49 percent tie. And among non-college-educated whites with $50,000–$75,000 in household income, Bush beat Kerry by a shocking forty-one points (70 percent to 29 percent), while leading by only five points (52 percent to 47 percent) among college-educated whites at the same income level.
I'm sure age is a variable affecting these numbers, but still: guessing at an average of those two groups, it's pretty clear the bulk of the non-college-educated white middle class went for W. by roughly a two-to-one margin. That's correct, but Lord knows it ain't right.
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January 17, 2006

So Pick Another Metaphor

Conservatives are blowing up a big brouhaha about Sen. Hillary Clinton's remark yesterday that the U.S. House of Representatives has recently "been run like a plantation." That got my attention, because I once drafted a New Dem Dispatch using exactly the same metaphor for exactly the same management of exactly the same institution, and a cautious colleague suggested I find a different word (don't remember which one I wound up using, and I've written so many NDDs blasting the House GOP that the search function on the DLC site is of little help). But that didn't mean I thought the metaphor inapposite, since the House is indeed run by tyrannical overseers who don't much care about the views or welfare of the people (Members or staff) toiling in the fields of legislation. Moreover, aside from the current management of the House, staffers for decades have referred to Congress as "the last plantation" because of the working conditions there. But let's say it's the wrong word, since it connotes racism or actual slavery. What metaphor works for you, critics? Maybe we should have a contest. Here are a few nominations:* an 18th century sweatshop* the H.M.S. Bounty* the Third Soviet Congress of the Toilers of the East* a Saudi public hearing* an Enron stockholders' meetingYou get the point. But Hillary's critics don't.
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January 16, 2006

Martin Luther King, Jr.

I did a blog post last year suggesting some appropriate things to meditate on in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, and won't repeat it (though a similar take is now up on the DLC site as a New Dem Dispatch). But I do want to share some words by Alan Wolfe in a 1998 New York Times book review of Taylor Branch's second volume on King's life and death, that sum up his accomplishments better than I ever could:

Our century's identity has been to insure that the ideal of civic equality announced to the world in 1776 would become a reality. Just to help make that come about, King had to overcome the determined resistence of terrorists without conscience, politicians without backbone, rivals without foresight and an FBI director so malicious that he would stop at nothing to destroy a man who believed in justice....For all the tribulations his enemies confronted him with, it is not those who foolishly and vainly stood in his way whom we remember, but Martin Luther King, Jr., our century's epic hero.
That's exactly right.
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January 13, 2006

Slicing and Dicing "Progressive Activists"

Chris Bowers has a truly fascinating post up over at MyDD, ostensibly about Hillary Clinton's lack of popularity in the progressive blogosphere, but really encompassing a sort of political sociology of the the world of "progressive activists."He begins by stipulating a few important points about the "netroots:" they are by no means co-extensive with or even representative of the Democratic "base;" but nor are they "tinfoil hats" or people marginal to the regular political process. They are, in fact, a segment, and a growing segment, of the small but influential universe of "progressive activists."Chris then goes on to argue that while the "netroots" should not be confused with the actual party base, they are the "base" among progressive activists: i.e., despite their relative wealth and educational attainments, they are (or just as importantly, perceive themselves as being) engaged in a sort of inside-the-upper-crust class warfare against the "elite" progressive activists who dominate Washington, the major political institutions, and many national campaigns. It's this warfare that animates netroots hostility to HRC, suggests Bowers, because she is perceived as the perfect vehicle for those "elite" activists.I do think Chris is accurately capturing the predominant netroots view of the supposed struggle for the Democratic Party. His careful focus on netroots perceptions keeps him from having to definitively identify himself with the belief that Washington's Democratic activists are a single tribe that regularly gathers in Georgetown salons to share twelve-dollar martinis and biting comments about bloggers, and plot the next Establishment campaign (a belief as remote from reality, IMO, as the "tinfoil hat" view of the netroots).Interesting and valuable as it is, Chris' analysis doesn't quite come to grips with two issues.The first issue is that there is another class of "progressive activist" out there that's not necessarily part of the netroots or of the "elite" DC establishment: state and local elected officials and party personnel and volunteers, union political organizers, racial and ethnic group activists, single-issue devotees, and hyper-engaged plain citizens. Sure, some of them read or contribute to blogs, and some of them are affiliated with Establishment institutions as well. But many of them (especially in red states) don't particularly trust either of Chris' two categories of "progressive activists," and as a whole, they are probably closer in views and lifestyles to the actual "party base" than either one. And overall, I suspect this third class of activists tends to like HRC a lot more than the netizens do, and that matters.The second issue is the bigger one: the question of exactly how much impact any activists have on rank-and-file opinion, especially in a widely contested presidential nominating process like the one we'll probably see in 2008.We already know Washington Elite Activists have never had the power to simply impose their will on the Democratic electorate, long before there was any netroots. Lyndon Johnson in 1968, Ed Muskie in 1972, a whole host of candidates in 1976, Ted Kennedy in 1980--these were all "DC elite activist" candidates who crashed and burned. And by the same token, Democratic nominees George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, and Bill Clinton had limited support from those quarters when they first ran for president.The "netroots" activists are too new to have that kind of humiliating track record, but the fate of their two favorite 2004 candidates, Howard Dean and Wes Clark, cannot simply be dismissed as irrelevant. This is by now an ancient argument, but I'm struck by the unwillingness of many Dean veterans (more now, oddly enough, than at the time it was happening) to worry about the fact that the campaign peaked before a single actual Democratic voter had a chance to say anything about it. Yes, there were many factors that contributed to Dean's demise, with media obsession about "the scream" being one of them, but the widespread assumption in the netroots that Dean was "taken down" by Washington Democrats unfortunately avoids reflection on the possibility that all the cash and energy and excitement simply were not communicable to actual voters.In other words, activists of every class and every stripe are important to what happens in 2008, and perhaps netroots hostility to Hillary Clinton is a leading indicator of an attitude that could eventually engulf an HRC campaign (if she actually runs, which I for one am not that sure about). But in the end, it truly is about the party rank-and-file, and even the independent voters who participate in many key stages of the nominating process. All of us activists need to remember that, and regularly balance our self-regard with a slice of humble pie.
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January 12, 2006

Ray Davies On Lobbying Reform

Today I spent some time drafting a New Dem Dispatch for the DLC providing some plenary thoughts on lobbying reform, and the broader issues Democrats need to raise to deal with the broader culture of corruption in Washington.And the whole time I was writing this piece, entitled "Money Should Not Talk," some odd wrinkle in my brain was playing an ancient song by the Kinks, from the rock opera Preservation (Ray Davies' meditation on the idea that Britain's capitalists and socialists were simply a reincarnation of the Cavaliers and Puritans):Money can't breathe and money can't seeBut when I pull out a fiver people listen to meMoney can't run and money can't walkBut when I write out a cheque I swear to God I hear money talkMoney talks and we're the living proofThere ain't no limit to what money can doMoney talks you out of your self-respectThe more you crave it, the cheaper you getEvery saga needs a theme song, and I nominate this one for the Abramoff/Scanlon/Reed/Norquist affair. Maybe some progressive radio station could play it during the national news.P.S.-- A few years ago, I was having a beer with an intense young Blairite press operative from the British Labour Party, and offered the observation that Ray Davies was the real progenitor of The Third Way. He sort of examined my face in a clinical way, and then struck up a conversation with the first total stranger he could engage.
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January 11, 2006

British Parallels

This morning's Washington Post includes a timely reminder from Anne Applebaum about the parallels between the ongoing Republican scandals in Washington and the similar scandals that produced the total meltdown of Britain's Tories in the mid-1990s. As Applebaum notes, it took an opposition politician of extraordinary skill and vision (Tony Blair) to convert Tory misfortune into a Labour ascendancy, which, despite all Blair's recent problems, has lasted through three general elections. It might not be a bad idea for Democrats to take a long look at these British parallels and learn some tactical and strategic lessons.
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January 9, 2006

Joe in '00

I watched with some interest the blogospheric debate last week over Peter Beinart's TRB column for the New Republic about Joe Lieberman and his critics. Markos went after Beinart, with some justice (and a lot of unnecessary abuse) for conflating ideological and purely partisan grievances about Lieberman. But I have to say he missed the important point in Beinart's piece, which was that both Joe and Joe-haters are in danger of treating the Iraq War as the only issue that really matters. Markos' defense of Joe-hating cites Lieberman's status as "the go-to guy whenever the press needs a Democrat to bash another Democrat." Maybe I've missed something, but I can't really think of any examples where Lieberman has bashed Democrats on any subject other than Iraq.Indeed, the only non-Iraq issue that Markos cites against Lieberman is this: "[He] rolled over during the recount in 2000 without fighting for the victory Gore had earned."And that's just a bad case of revisionist history. Put aside for a moment the fact that Al Gore, in the opinion of most objective observers from both parties, would have won decisively if he and Bob Shrum had not perversely refused to run on the successful policy record of the Clinton-Gore administration ("I'm Clinton without the sex" was the message even a child would have understood). Within the tortured and limited view of the election in Florida, Al Gore would not have been competitive in that state without Lieberman's presence on the ticket. And even when it came down to the Florida recount, Lieberman's alleged "rollover"--his repudiation of any plan to issue wholesale challenges of overseas military ballots--was a tiny factor compared to the Gore High Command's bad decision to demand a selective instead of a statewide recount, which proved disastrous when the Florida Supreme Court predictably authorized the latter when it was too late. Tie elections obviously make it possible to cite any particular factor as critical, but blaming '00 on Joe is just wrong. Hell, the U.S. Supreme Court would have handed the election to Bush even if the Gore-Lieberman campaign had violated its principles by tossing out a few military ballots. So I would say to JoePhobes: express your opinion, and make your case; but don't let's get dishonest and blame the man for the fact that he, not Dick Cheney, should currently be Vice President of the United States.
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No Executive Blank Checks Without Balances

I must vigorously dissent from the views expressed by my friend The Moose about the president's NSA domestic surveillance adventure. I'm proud that we can have this kind of useful debate within the big-tent confines of the DLC. And I hope this post won't be misused and abused to bash my antlered colleague, whose defense of Bush on this one subject is but a small tree in the forest of his condemnations of W.The heart of The Moose's argument is that freewheeling executive power is essential to the prosecution of the War on Terror, and that those of us--not just Democrats, but many Republicans--who would fence in that power by requiring observance of the rule of law are either mindless of the threat we face from Jihadism, obsessed with civil liberties absolutism, and/or blinded by Bush-hatred to the need for extraordinary national security measures.I plead innocent to all three counts of this indictment, and suggest The Moose is missing three characteristics of the War on Terror that make some limits on executive power not only advisable but essential: (1) this is a protracted, Cold War, that cannot be successfully waged in an atmosphere of permanent emergency; (2) congressional and judicial oversight of executive counter-terrorism activities is the only way we can ensure an effective war on terror; and (3) conspicuous respect for the rule of law is the only way we can sustain domestic support for the war on terror, and the only way we can successfully offer our own institutions and values as an alternative to Jihadism in what is preeminently an ideological battleground.There is one, and only one, exception I would make to these three principles: the possibility of nuclear terrorist acts. As of yet, no one in the administration has claimed the NSA surveillance program was in any way targeted on that possiblity (indeed, it wasn't targeted at much of anything, best we can tell), and moreover, this administration seems determined to do as little as it can to actually deal with the nuclear terrorist threat, if it requires multilateral action or spending money on things like port security.More generally, the administration has been painfully slow--despite warnings from the 9/11 commission and congressional mandates to get moving--to deal with reforms in how intelligence agencies compare, analyze, and act upon raw intelligence data. U.S. law enforcement agencies had plenty of data on the 9/11 conspirators before they acted; more data swept up by the kind of program Bush later authorized wouldn't have addressed the inability of the system to understand and act on that data.In addition, any consideration of emergency executive powers has to involve a close look at the alternatives to scofflaw behavior. If FISA was deemed inadequate by the administration, it could have and should have gone to the Congress controlled by its own party in 2003 and asked for amendments, which most Democrats would have supported as well. The habit of demanding unlimited executive power when it's unnecessary is one of the most unsavory aspects of this administration's behavior, as illustrated most recently by the president's statement that he would not feel constrained by the prisoner treatment rules sponsored by Sen. McCain, and duly enacted by Congress.And that, in the end, is probably the heart of my difference of opinion with my friend The Moose. The legal case for the president's NSA ukase is shabby at best; the editors of The New Republic, hardly wimps when it comes to the War on Terror, demolished it in an editorial last week. You can be hard-core on the War on Terror and still be hard-edged in criticizing the administration's we'll-do-what-we-see-fit position, and even those who agree with Bush on this particular subject need to begin with the presumption that his critics have a legitimate and patriotic case to make. (After all, even Joe Lieberman joined the Democratic filibuster against the Republican effort to make the Patriot Act permanent with little debate).The Moose concluded his latest post by proudly calling himself a "Hamiltonian mammal" who favors a strong executive. Well, I'm a Jeffersonian mammal by temperament and tradition, and though both strains of the American political dialogue have much merit, Jeffersonians tend to understand that while Lincoln, TR, and FDR, among others, have vindicated faith in a strong executive, we also have to have a system that deals with presidents like Harding, Nixon and George W. Bush. That means no executive blank checks without balances, especially when those balances are entirely consistent with a robust defense of our country.
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January 8, 2006

GOP Damage Control

It's now becoming obvious that the Congressional Republican leadership, buttressed by the institutional GOP, the White House, and most conservative media, have adopted a three-pronged strategy for minimizing the damage associated with the Abramoff scandal and related outrages:1) False Moral Equivalency: the "everybody does it" defense for GOP corruption may not be morally or intellectually respectable, but it does benefit from its consistency with the views of a large and abiding segment of the electorate, who assume absent compelling evidence to the contrary that indeed "everybody does it." Democrats have to pound away on the unusual, unprecedented (at least since the Gilded Age) and systemic nature of Republican corruption to overcome this argument. (Tom Toles' cartoon today is a simple and useful example of the picture we must paint). And countering this false equivalency is another powerful reason for offering a strong and comprehensive reform agenda and a new set of rules that Democrats openly ask voters to hold themselves accountable to.2) Scapegoating Hopeless Cases: The "few bad apples" defense is obviously designed to lay all the blame for GOP corruption on people who are already destined for disgrace, if not a stretch in the hoosegow. That's what's already happened to Abramoff, and may now be happening to Tom DeLay (though the slippery Bug Man, if he manages to get re-elected this year, should not yet be counted out, given his long-standing ability to control his colleagues without officially taking on the mantle of maximum leadership). And that's why it's critical for Dems to consistently draw attention not only to the many and longstanding ties between disgraced figures like Abramoff and Scanlon to the highest figures in the GOP, but to the pattern of abuse of power and money madness that suffuses the whole Republican machine. In other words, Abramoff's follies are examples of the problem, not the problem itself.3) Embracing Minimal Reforms: The most devious strategy of all is for GOPers to suddenly proclaim themselves interested in a reform agenda of their own, as reflected by the laughable designation of Sen. Rick (K Street) Santorum as a point person for Senate Republicans on lobbying reform. And aside from deriding the hypocrisy involved in such efforts, Democrats must focus on offering reforms that Republicans cannot afford to co-opt, such as making it a federal crime to offer lobbyists access to the legislative process in exchange for partisan affiliation or campaign contributions.Contra those Democratic commentators who say we should just forget about corruption and focus on the GOP's ideology and policy positions, I strongly believe the GOP three-pronged defense can and must be countered in ways that constantly connect corruption to the ideology and money-driven political strategy of the entire Republican Party from top to bottom. It may be the only way to batten on the powerful anti-Washington sentiment out there, while assuaging cynics that Democrats actually offer an alternative approach to governing.
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January 6, 2006

How Long, O Lord?

Commenting on Pat Robertson's latest outrage may seem like the blogospheric equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel, but I will try to add a bit of value by offering a theological perspective on the Rev's persistent habit of asserting that God Almighty will smite anyone who disagrees with Robertson's views on society and politics. Certainly every religious person of any faith tries to do God's will, and to humbly try to discern it in all public and private decisions. But it's a peculiarity of fundamentalists (again, of every faith), and of the Christian Right in particular, to embrace their own interpretations of God's Will as clear, certain and infallible, and to attribute a willful disobedience towards the divine order to anyone who might happen to hold a different interpretation. In the end, this tendency leads its practitioners dangerously close to the position that they literally speak for God on any matter they decide to talk about. In Pat Robertson's case, he's gone well over that line, and apparently thinks his judgments and God's are identical, which to my point of view is self-idolatrous and indeed blasphemous. I've speculated at length elsewhere that this fanatical certainty that God has a clear position on every secular matter--and that dissenters know this and are consciously in rebellion against God--reflects the dire spiritual danger today's cultural warriors have risked by providing religious sanction to the entirely secular conservative agenda they have chosen to emphasize over every task. After all, if they're wrong in thinking that the clear lesson of Holy Scripture for today's Christians is to criminalize abortion, demonize gay people, and reverse the changing gender roles of recent centuries, then they are the kind of "false prophets" that Holy Scripture warns us all to fear and reject, right? In that sense, Robertson stands out less for the breathtaking arrogance of his pronouncements, than for his remarkable lack of discretion in broadcasting them regularly.Still, you have to wish he'd finally retire and share his views less broadly, if only because of the scandal he so often brings to his faith and his country. (Wikipedia has an excellent summary of his fatuous fatwahs over the years).When I first heard that the Rev had breezily announced Ariel Sharon's stroke was a direct Act of God, like many Christians, and many Americans, my first thought was please shut up. Or, to quote one of the preachers in the repertoire of the late Richard Pryor: "How long? How long? How long--must this b---s--- go on?"
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January 5, 2006

The Truman Show

One of the most outrageous aspects of the recent Bush administration counter-offensive aimed at reversing the president's bad poll ratings has been an effort to recast him as a brave, tough and far-sighted Commander-in-Chief in the tradition of Harry S. Truman (Condi Rice, in particular, has been promoting this wildly revisionist argument).Over at TPMCafe, G. John Ikenberry demolishes this false analogy in considerable detail, mainly in terms of Truman's strategy for dealing with the post-World-War-II challenges facing America, which couldn't be much farther from Bush's strategy in the war on terror. Please read it all.I would, however, like to supplement Ikenberry's analysis by pointing to the radically different leadership styles of Truman and Bush.Truman famously said of the presidency that "the buck stops here." Bush's aversion to admitting mistakes or taking accountability for his administration's actions is so extreme and notorious that he actually gets praise for his occasional "mistakes were made" admissions, invariably abstract rather than specific, that perhaps he isn't infallible.Truman quickly and decisively fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur as military commander in Korea, at a time when MacArthur was far more popular than the president himself. Bush cannot bring himself to fire Donald Rumsfeld, whose departure would not cause a ripple in public opinion, and would be quietly celebrated throughout most of the armed forces.Truman was of course a fiery partisan, but he also cooperated with Republicans whenever possible, especially in foreign policy. Bush pretends to be "above party," while in practice (with the sole exception of the No Child Left Behind legislation) treating Democrats who don't simply surrender to him as nonentities to be ignored if not destroyed.I would have to guess that this campaign to make Bush "the new Truman" is based on the superficial identification of the two presidents as simple, resolute and non-reflective men who never worried much about criticism.Truman, of course, was a man from a very humble background, who did not attend college. Yet his administration built virtually the entire complex superstructure of multilateral organizations and policies, economic as well as diplomatic and military, that guided the West throughout the Cold War and beyond.Bush, the ultimate child of privilege, with a presidential father, a prep school education, and degrees from two Ivy League universities, has actively cultivated a non-reflexive attitude, and is "visionary" only in the imagination of his speechwriters.I obviously don't expect the Bushies to advertise their boss as the reincarnation of some more likely figure such as Warren G. Harding, but still, this Truman Show does not pass the laugh or smell tests.
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January 4, 2006

Returning to the Scene of the Crime

As Kevin Drum and the L.A. Times have both pointed out today, the Abramoff scandal is pointing big red arrows at a much broader and more politically significant scandal: the conscious, deliberate GOP effort to make corporate lobbyists a cog in the Republican political machine through a crude pay-for-play arrangement known as the K Street Project. The K Street Project, which was basically the product of the evil genius of Grover Norquist (one of Abramoff's deputies, along with Ralph Reed, in Casino Jack's salad days with the College Republicans, and a key figure, also along with Reed, in Abramoff's efforts to launder his tribal-shakedown dollars), has been operationally under the control of Roy Blunt--also known as the Acting Majority Leader of the U.S. House--and Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. That's why I was fascinated to learn today (in a Byron York report via Matt Yglesias) that Senate Republicans decided a couple of months ago to anticipate the Abramoff fallout by developing a lobbying reform initiative of their own, and delegated this task to none other than Rick Santorum.Now I can certainly understand why Ricky, who's in an uphill fight for re-election this year against Bob Casey, would want to burnish his non-existent "reform" credentials. But Lord-a-mighty, for this guy to pose as the champion of lobbying reform would be a classic example of a bad guy returning to the scene of the crime. So I say, bring it on, Ricky. Your identification with Republican "lobbying reform" will do wonders for the Democratic effort to connect the dots and explain why the Abramoff scandal is but the tip of the iceburg in the ongoing scandal of the GOP's descent into corruption and influence-peddling as a way of life.
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January 3, 2006

Books Received

Looking back at my holiday posts, I realize I did nothing but whine for two weeks (Eeyore was, after all, a donkey). So enough of that. Like many of you, no doubt, I caught up a bit on my reading, and also got a few new books for Christmas. By far the most enjoyable holiday read was an advance copy of Michael Kazin's new biography of William Jennings Bryan, A Godly Hero. I've written an extensive review of the book for The Washington Monthly's next issue. But suffice it to say that I recommend it highly, especially to those self-styled populists of the Left and Right who claim parts of Bryan's heritage while ignoring aspects of the Commoner's thinking that don't fit into their own ideologies. Like a lot of sports junkies, I asked for and received the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia under the Christmas tree. And I suspect a lot of said junkies shared my reaction to the tome: it's fun at first, but gets boring pretty fast. Sure, it's a handy reference book for resolving arguments, but who really wants to sit around reading box scores of every bowl game in history; statistical summaries of every season; or team schedules from time immemorial? The essays that begin and end the book are pretty sketchy, and the individual team histories generally read like they were written by Sports Information Directors for the schools involved. Probably the most interesting general tidbit is the section in each team history about how they acquired their nicknames and mascots. In other words, it's a fine book to keep in the W.C. I always get at least one theological book for Christmas, and this year's selection was Kevin Irwin's May 2005 offering, Models of the Eucharist. It's a useful if somewhat frustrating study: useful because Irwin exhaustively examines the truth underlying a variety of historical and contemporary understandings of the central ritual of (non-evangelical) Christianity; frustrating because the book's design as an official Roman Catholic textbook gives it a didactic tone that undercuts its scope of inquiry. Still, if you're interested in this topic, Irwin's book belongs on the same shelf with Dom Gregory Dix's seminal The Shape of the Liturgy, and the playful post-Vatican II classic, Thomas Day's Why Catholics Can't Sing.In an earlier post I lifted a quote from another book I finished reading over the holidays: Eamon Duffy's Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes. Duffy manages to pull off a credible and readable history of two thousand years of papal development in just 317 pages, and is particularly good on the tangled legacy of the Renaissance Popes and the internal Church tensions that produced the First Vatican Council and the doctrine of papal infallibility. Given his unhappiness with the authoritarian strain of Pope John Paul II's reign (the book was published in 1997), you have to wonder if Duffy will produce a revised edition assessing the significance of Joseph Ratzinger's election as Benedict XVI. (Disclosure: I'm a big fan of Duffy's work on the Tudor Reformation, especially The Stripping of the Altars. And one of my favorite memories was the opportunity I had a couple of years ago to sit next to Duffy at High Table at Cambridge's Magdalen College, while I was there to participate in a panel discussion of neoconservatism). The last book I undertook as 2005 waned was a golden oldie which I retrieved from a dusty bookshelf at home: Gore Vidal's 1973 novel, Burr.Anyone who just thinks of Vidal as a cranky conspiracy theorist, a media hound, or the purveyor of tawdry novels like Myra Breckinridge, should definitely read Burr and its equally delightful sequel, 1876. These books stand alone as historical fiction of the highest order.
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Bloodied But Unbowed

Well, since my last post I've experienced(1) a chipped front tooth;(2) the news that Independence Air, which my family depends on for direct air travel from Washington to Savannah, where my disabled father-in-law lives, is shutting down;(3) the possible death of my car, which lost power on I-95 just north of Fredericksburg, and was loudly sounding an apocalyptic blooga-blooga-blooga by the time I reached Arlington.(4) the Sugar Bowl (I refuse to use the corporate adjective), wherein my Georgia Bulldogs came back from a 28-0 deficit early in the first half and then lost 38-35 after West Virginia pulled off a fake punt late in the game. All in all, my holiday season has been a rolling fiasco, but like the Dawgs, I am determined to make a comeback, and if things keep going wrong, I will remain bloodied but unbowed.
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January 2, 2006

Two Thousand Sicks

I fully intended to do a year-end thumbsucker post reviewing the baleful consequences of George W. Bush's re-election, and the increasingly obvious dysfunction of his Republican Party. But it's hard to blog when you're wheezing and coughing and subsisting on NyQuil and antibiotics. I rang in the New Year sound asleep, and today I am hiding from a cold, rainy day in Central Virginia (as is the fog-shrouded Blue Ridge a few miles from here) and awaiting tonight's Sugar Bowl.In this state of mind, any thoughts I have about the upcoming year are dominated by the depressing realization that Bush's second term has three more years to run, accompanied by my Eeyore-like fears about Democrats' ability to walk (make major gains next November) and chew gum (set the table for victory in 2008) at the same time.I can only hope that in a day or two I will feel better, the mountains will reappear, the world will look more promising, and the Donkey Party will kick off this new year with an intelligent strategy for reclaiming power.
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