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February 27, 2006

Young-uns and Political History

Via Amy Sullivan in a Political Animal post, Washington Monthly founder Charlie Peters drifts into the treacherous waters of wondering why people under 35 don't see to know or care much about political history, viz. the (anecdotal) lack of young-folk interest in his book on Wendell Willkie, Five Days In Philadelphia.Not surprisingly, the comment thread to that post is full of angry responses from people under 35 accusing Peters of old-guy-nostalgia, old-guy-arrogance and old-guy-overgeneralization, along with a few bitter comments about how young-uns are too busy fighting Bush and Rove to care anything about Wendell Willkie.Not having read Peters' book myself, I won't comment on his hypothesis that Willkie's upset nomination in 1940 made internationalism safe for FDR, and hence for America. (My own impression from other sources is that Willkie, or "our fat friend," as Thomas Dewey liked to call him, may have been a proud internationalist before and especially after 1940, but ran a fairly isolationist general election campaign against Roosevelt.)And I also won't associate with Peters' generationalizations (to coin a term) about the historical knowledge of people under 35 today as opposed to their predecessors. Hell, there are a million historical topics I know embarassingly little about, including the history of art and the history of science--two subjects on which my 19-year-old stepson could kick my ass on Jeopardy any old day.But I will say this: I am continuously struck, from personal experience, at how many very highly educated and politically obsessive young Americans don't know seem to know that much about U.S. or international political history.This is not an observation based on self-inflated Boomer Nostalgia for the Huge Events of my own lifetime, BTW.In the throes of the 2000 presidential psychodrama, I wrote a piece for the DLC that in passing compared Ralph Nader to Henry Wallace. A very smart 30ish colleague, who used to teach American history, admitted to me that he had no clue about the identity of Henry Wallace. After I enlightened him about the vice president and Progressive Party leader, he got a little defensive and said: "You have to remember that was before my time." "Believe it or not, it was before my time, too!" I replied rather heatedly. "And you know what? Andrew Jackson was before my time. Don't you read?"Knowing I was only half-serious, my colleague didn't deck me, but it did make me wonder, not for the first time, if there was something about my generation or his that made interest in political history so variable. The only common theory I've heard that makes sense is that today's politically active young adults have been told, or have experienced, that their world is radically discontinuous from much of the past--post-Cold-War, post-industrial, post-modern, and in a word, post-historical.The topic in political history that seems to have suffered the largest drop-off in interest is Marxism, despite the crypto-Marxist views lingering in academia so often alleged by whiners on the Right. That obviously makes sense after 1989, and I should probably grow up about it and stop making obscure references to Communist figures in blog posts, like the one I did last night calling Katherine Harris the "Pasionaria of the Palms" (an obscure reference to La Pasionaria, a cult figure of the Spanish Civil War).Not surprisingly, interest and perceived relevance go hand in hand in determining which of the vast avenues of political history one decides to explore, beyond the basics. For example, Rick Perlstein's fine book on the Goldwater Movement, Before the Storm, seems to have stimulated an enormous amount of interest among left-leaning young journalists and bloggers hungry to learn about the roots of their contemporary enemies on the Right. I expect a similar buzz to develop about Michael Kazin's new biography of William Jennings Bryan, A Godly Hero, among both neo-populists and those interested in a revivial of the Christian Left tradition.And for all I know, interest in the Trotskyist backgrounds of so many contempory neo-conservatives may have led to a subterranean trend towards renewed study of Marxism among young lefties, who as we speak may be reading up on the murderous relationship between the Trots and Stalinists like La Pasionaria in the Spanish Republican coalition.Assuming relevance really is the key, I have an answer to Charlie Peters' cri du coeur about declining knowledge of political history. Those of us who'd like to see the trend reversed need to make the case that our particular historical hobby-horses are immediately relevant. Peters obviously thinks that's true about Wendell Willkie, and he should keep making that case instead of fretting about why his audience doesn't automatically embrace it.UPDATE: I got an email from a very smart and very young blogger friend who suggested that his sub-generation had been trained in school to pay more attention to world history and social history than to memorizing the names and views of dead U.S. politicians. That might well explain a lack of interest in Wendell Willkie, if not in, say, Frantz Fanon or the manifold social issues surrounding the Cold War, but it's a point well-taken. For the record, I was writing less about what people read in college than in what they've read since. I sure as hell didn't learn about Henry Wallace or La Pasionaria in any college class.
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February 26, 2006

Pasionaria of the Palms

If you're feeling restless and vaguely disgruntled at the amount of fun you've had this weekend, treat yourself to quick read by Michael Crowley about the majestically doomed U.S. Senate candidacy of Katherine Harris, the Pasionaria of the Palms who played such a key role in shutting down recounts in Florida in 2000.The Harris campaign has been a particular embarassment for Karl Rove and the national Republican Party for reasons that go well beyond her disastrous standing in general election polls against incumbent Democratic Senator Bill Nelson. She wildly popular among hard-core Florida conservatives--and thus unbeatable in a Republican primary--precisely because her fans believe and don't mind saying they believe she personally and as a matter of partisan loyalty handed the presidency to George W. Bush (with a later assist, of course, from the U.S. Supreme Court). This is, of course, a story line the Bushies would like to bury forever, as Crowley notes:

Indeed, the GOP's preferred Bush creation myth really begins on September 11, when a great man's life intersected with world history. It's a far better story than the one about the butterfly ballot, the "Brooks Brothers riot," and a presidency claimed by a disputed 537-vote margin.But there will be no escaping all that now.
No, there won't, but this time, it's unlikely there will be a happy ending for Katherine Harris.
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By His Own Petard

Ron Brownstein certainly nails it today in explaining why George W. Bush is running into some serious resistance to his "Nothing To See Here" line on the Dubai port sale:

President Bush may not like the arguments that critics are raising against the Dubai company attempting to take over cargo and cruise operations at ports in six U.S. cities. But he should recognize them. The arguments marshaled against Bush closely echoed the ones he deployed to defend the Iraq war. The president, in other words, is stewing in a pot he brought to boil.At the core of Bush's case for invading Iraq was the contention that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks changed the burden of proof in evaluating potential threats. Bush justified the war, despite inconclusive intelligence about whether Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, largely on the grounds that after Sept. 11, waiting for definitive evidence of danger was itself too risky.
In other words, looks like the Bush may be guilty of a pre-9/11 mentality, eh? I bet Karl Rove will have the shelve that phrase for a bit.
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February 25, 2006

Bush: The Glass Is Nearly Full!

It didn't get much attention beyond a couple of vague statements urging Iraqis to stay calm and renounce violence, but the President of the United States did yet another of his series of Big Speeches about the War on Terror to the American Legion yesterday. I really urge you to slog your way through this long speech for what it says and leaves unsaid about the administration's basic concept of the War on Terror more than four years after 9/11. Remarkably, given the major controversy of last week, and Bush's extraordinary threat to use his first-ever presidential veto of any legislation that might interfere with a foreign government lease of major U.S. ports, there's not a word in the Legion speech about port security or anything even vaguely related to such crucial ancillary issues as U.S. efforts to keep nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists. Instead, the whole thrust of Bush's speech revolves around two propositions: (1) the familiar if bizarre claim that we've succeeded in bottling up every al Qaeda operative in the world in Iraq, guaranteeing our safety against another 9/11, even if it's at the expense of the agony of Iraqis; and (2) the March of Freedom and Democracy is irresistably destroying terrorism around the world, except for a few speed bumps like Hamas' election win in Palestine. I won't even bother to address the first claim, but the second is a fine example of Bush's tendency to harness entirely solid principles to the goal of spinning his administration's most obvious failures. I couldn't agree more than opening the Arab Middle East to political, civic and economic freedom is the long-term key to victory in the war against Jihadist terrorism. But the idea that this administration's policies in Iraq have given its people freedom and democracy, with the only residual question being whether they are willing to accept these gifts, is ludicrous and offensive. Iraq's agony right now is the direct result of a whole host of Bush administration mistakes. Indeed, just this week, Lawrence Kaplan of The New Republic suggested the most urgent reason for maintaining U.S. troop levels in Iraq is that the bungled "reconstruction" of the country has produced a failed or at least failing state in chaos. It would not only be refreshing if someone in the administration actually admitted this situation; it might even help convince Americans that an immediate withdrawal from Iraq could produce terrible results. But so long as the president himself acts as though the glass is not half-empty or even half-full, but nearly full, and that Americans should ignore the evidence before their eyes that Iraq is a mess, then no one should be surprised if support for further military engagement in Iraq continues to erode. Ultimately, people know when they're being cynically spun.
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February 23, 2006

The Real Deal on Ports

As Kevin Drum (generally a dissenter against the drumbeat on the Dubai port lease) rightly points out, the current brouhaha will be very useful to the country if it draws greater attention to the ongoing and potentially disastrous weaknesses in the security of our ports. In today's Washington Post, David Sanger explains the reality underneath the administration's trust-us talk:

The administration's core problem at the ports, most experts agree, is how long it has taken for the federal government to set and enforce new security standards — and to provide the technology to look inside millions of containers that flow through them.Only 4 percent or 5 percent of those containers are inspected. There is virtually no standard for how containers are sealed, or for certifying the identities of thousands of drivers who enter and leave the ports to pick them up. If a nuclear weapon is put inside a container — the real fear here — "it will probably happen when some truck driver is paid off to take a long lunch, before he even gets near a terminal," said Mr. [Stephen] Flynn, the ports security expert.
Some of you may recall that John Kerry talked about this a lot during the last presidential campaign, to little avail. But then he didn't have the kind of "news hook" supplied by the Dubai lease controversy, right? And that's why it's important right now that we move as quickly as possible from that hook to the underlying vulnerability of our ports to the most critical threat post by terrorists: a nuclear 9/11. Even, and perhaps especially, from a political point of view, showing that the president who proclaims himself the living embodiment of the War on Terror can't be bothered to budget the money necessary to secure our ports is a lot more powerful an argument than highlighting his soft spot for big corporate contracts.UPDATE: Turns out Matt Yglesias did a post at TAPPED this morning on the same subject, which also linked to an alarming study of security at the Port of Los Angeles published by the American Prospect last year. For dessert, Matt also pointed to an analysis of Sen. Rick Santorum's bad voting record on port security.
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February 21, 2006

Bush's Weird Counteroffensive on Ports

You'd think the administration would just conduct a strategic retreat, admit it didn't handle this too well, and agree to a more extended and less secret review of the security issues involved in the takeover of operations at six major U.S. ports by a company from Dubai. And maybe it will soon execute one of those classic Bush non-acknowledged flip-flops (see Department of Homeland Security, Intelligence Reform, Campaign Finance Reform, etc., etc.) and do just that.But for the moment, Bush is hanging tough, arguing that the criticism of this decision represents anti-Arab ethnic profiling, and actually threatening his first-ever presidential veto of any legislation that might overturn the Dubai port takeover.Aside from the rich irony of this line of argument from a president who has deliberately exploited stereotypes of Arabs in conflating the 9/11 attackers with Iraqis, there's the little problem that Bush is avoiding the actual arguments of his critics. Today the DLC weighed in with a statement that stressed the simple if characteristic refusal of the administration to explain the process that led to its decision about port operations, and also reminded readers of the blind spot the Bushies have always exhibited towards port security. Others, including Matt Yglesias, emphasized the fact that the Dubai company at issue is essentially owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates--a fact that has also led Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Robert Menendez to introduce legislation focusing on state sponsorship of port operators, not their ethnicity.But I think Josh Marshall best described the absurdity of this particular president making a key homeland security decision based on an exquisite sensitivity to overseas opinion:

Even if he's right on the merits, it just doesn't work from a president who makes his political coin of the realm not caring what anybody else thinks or even what the law might be so long as security is even conceivably at stake.
Selah.
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Disrespecting D

Another day--another very negative news story about the new Medicare "Part D" prescription drug benefit, this time from the Washington Post, where Ceci Connolly explains that even the very poor Americans targeted by the program are avoiding it like a cobra in a pill bottle. This finding is entirely in character with the benefit's terrible history. Even back when it was new and shiny, and basically involved handing out prescription discount cards without premiums or other costs to beneficiaries, seniors didn't like or trust the new program. The incredibly botched roll-out of the full Part D ball of twine has entrenched the perception of the program as a classic bureaucratic boondoggle, to the point that people who really need the benefit don't much want it. (Check out TPMCafe's subsite, Drug Bill Debacle, for ongoing lowlights).It takes a special breed of public officials to design and deliver a new entitlement program that nobody likes. Really, really special.
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February 19, 2006

A Real Test on Darfur

When I did my post yesterday welcoming the Bush administration's apparent decision to push for a greater international peacekeeping presence in Darfur, I had not, unfortunately, read Mark Goldberg's new article up at The American Prospect site. As Mark explains, there are all sort of signals that the U.S. is finally getting serious about Darfur, but the rest test of U.S. policy is whether the CIA goes along with efforts to bring to justice some of the worst perpetrators of the Darfur outrage, including at least one important "intelligence asset" in the Khartoum government.It's reasonably clear by now that the threshold you have to cross to understand the Darfur disaster is to recognize that all the talk about racial or tribal conflict in the region is a smokescreen for a deliberate effort by the government of Sudan to neutralize Darfur once and for all as a "problem" for Khartoum, by the worst means possible. And as long as the U.S. fails to cross that threshold and keeps acting as though Khartoum is a part of the solution, and not the main problem, a small bump in peacekeeping forces won't ultimately do much good.
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February 18, 2006

Movement on Darfur?

This may be premature, but today's news suggesting that the president is placing the U.S. behind a move to expand the international peacekeeping presence in Darfur is very welcome, and perhaps the first thing the man has done in, oh, a couple of years that I personally feel I can say something positive about.The proposal, according to Jim VandeHei and Colum Lynch of the Washington Post, is to match the current African Union force of 7,000 with 7,000 more troops under United Nations command, with NATO supplying logistical support for both. This kind of force can hardly stop the killing or starvation in Darfur, but it would save many lives, help provide international aid agencies with the security they need to stay involved, and perhaps ratchet up international pressure on the criminal government in Khartoum.Is this a flip-flop by Bush on Darfur? Here's what the Posties says:

Bush brushed aside the resistance of some senior policymakers and sided with White House adviser Michael J. Gerson and others who have been lobbying for more assistance to Darfur. Bush this week also proposed $500 million for Darfur as part of a larger special budget request to Congress.There is some bipartisan support for intervening in the troubled region. Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) plan to introduce a resolution in Congress calling for NATO troops to help the African Union "stop the genocide" in the Darfur region.
In his remarkable book on Darfur, which I reviewed in the latest issue of Blueprint magazine, Gerard Prunier notes with some contempt that the Bush administration's early interest in Darfur seemed to abruptly end once the 2004 elections ended. Maybe this is another election-year phenomenon, fed by Christian conservative interest in the subject. But if it leads to tangible help for the crucified people of Darfur, then I'm grateful for it.
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February 17, 2006

Climate Change: Not So Glacial Anymore

Need something to get yourself really wide awake this morning? Check out Shankar Vedantam's front-page story in today's Washington Post about new scientific data on the melting of glaciers in Greenland, and the implications for sea levels and weather patterns. It's like plunging an electric cattle prod into your morning bathwater.Here's the lead:

Greenland's glaciers are melting into the sea twice as fast as previously believed, the result of a warming trend that renders obsolete predictions of how quickly Earth's oceans will rise over the next century, scientists said yesterday.The new data come from satellite imagery and give fresh urgency to worries about the role of human activity in global warming. The Greenland data are mirrored by findings from Bolivia to the Himalayas, scientists said, noting that rising sea levels threaten widespread flooding and severe storm damage in low-lying areas worldwide.
Some of you may recall that the break-up of the Greenland ice cap was the hypothetical cause of all the calamaties depicted by Hollywood in The Day After Tomorrow. While that movie exaggerated and telescoped the potential impact of a big meltdown in Greenland, flooding of low-lying coastal areas all around the world and an accelerated increase in crazy, violent weather are real possibilities.You might think this ever-growing risk would be a very big deal to national policymakers, eh? But of course, the GOP Congress and the Bush administration have systematially rejected any course of actionthat might do some good, from participation in the Kyoto climate change negotiations, to a cap on carbon dioxide emissions, to action to improve automobile fuel efficiency.In particular, Bush's "progress" on coming to grips with climate change has been, well, glacial. Early in his presidency, he denied there was any real evidence of human contribution to climate change. Towards the end of his first term, he grudgingly admitted something might be going on, but that doing anything about it was simply too expensive. Most recently, he's embraced voluntary industry action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. At this rate of response, we won't get a serious national climate change policy until Pennsylvania has oceanfront property.The Post piece concludes with a nice quote about the new data on Greenland, from an eminently respectable source:

"This study underscores the need to take swift, meaningful actions at home and abroad to address climate change," said Vicki Arroyo, director of policy analysis at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

The data highlight the lack of meaningful U.S. policy, she added: "This is the kind of study that should make people stay awake at night wondering what we're doing to the climate, how we're shaping the planet for future generations and, especially, what we can do about it."

If this news doesn't make people in Washington stay "awake at night," it should at least jolt them into attention in the morning.
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February 15, 2006

Katrina Redux

There's little doubt the Bush administration has long hoped that Americans would forget the word "Katrina" and all it connotes about a federal government asleep at the wheel, a president more interested in photo ops than action, the terrible human cost of incompetent government, the consequences of the "starve the beast" ideology, and the unkept promises made by the president himself on national television from Jackson Square. A report about to be released by a House Republican task force on the Katrina response--nicely amplified by a Senate Homeland Security Committee interrogation of a feckless Michael Chertoff--shows that even the most partisan GOP inquiry into the disaster produces stomach-churning revulsion and serious fears about the federal government's ability to deal with a future terrorist attack. You can read about it in today's New Dem Dispatch. If the Bushies were praying for a distraction from the vice president's Lethal Weapon '06 drama, the Good Lord answered them quite righteously.
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February 13, 2006

Guns and Poses

I first heard about Vice President Cheney's hunting accident via a scratchy A.M. radio transmission last night, and no kidding, my first thought was: Dick Cheney shoots a lawyer.... I didn't know the Onion had a radio show.Now I don't want to make light of an incident that nearly cost someone his life, but it did remind me that Master Hunter Cheney took the lead back in 2004 in mocking John Kerry for hunting geese on the campaign trail:

"My fellow sportsmen, this cover-up isn't going to work," Cheney said, speaking to supporters in an upscale Toledo suburb that borders the Ohio-Michigan state line. "The Second Amendment is more than just a photo opportunity."The National Rifle Association has endorsed the Bush-Cheney ticket.Kerry has a camouflage jacket but bought a new one for the outing because he was on the campaign trail. Cheney seized on the fact that the jacket was new."Which did make me wonder how regularly he does go goose hunting," the vice president said.
You can only imagine what Cheney would have said if Kerry had splattered a bystander with buckshot. But more to the point, maybe the NRA should offer its lifelong ally one of those Eddie Eagle gun safety courses before he's allowed to return to the woods with shooting irons.
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February 12, 2006

Snowed In With a Book

This weekend the mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states got clobbered with a major snow storm. I was luckily down in Central Virginia, and got to see the Blue Ridge beautifully dusted with powdered snow. And with most chores beyond feeding apples to the horses and seed to the birds snowed out, I read a lot. On Sunday morning, unable to get across the mountains to Grace Episcopal Church, I did penance by finishing Stephen Bates' fascinating if painful study of the Anglican Communion's rendering over the ordination of gay priests and bishops, A Church At War. Bates, a religion correspondent for The Guardian, does not pretent to be an impartial arbiter of the politico-sexual agony of Anglicans in recent years. He clearly views the whole crisis as having been engineered by conservative evangelical Anglicans, especially in England, who chose sexual issues as just another weapon with which to promote their quasi-fundamentalist drive for power in a faith community that has for centuries balanced Protestant and Catholic traditions and habits. Indeed, Bates almost certainly goes too far in suggesting that the African and Asian bishops who insisted on a condemnation of homosexuality at the Lambeth Conference of 1998 were just instruments of an intra-British ecclesiastical fight. But he knows the Anglican landscape well, and his profiles of the two unintentional protaganists of the current war over sexuality--the unsuccessful candidate for Bishop of Reading, Jeffrey John, and the successfully confirmed Bishop of New Hamphsire, Gene Robinson--are exquisitely wrought. As an Episcopalian, I also took pride in Bates' argument that Americans handled the subject of gay and lesbian ordinations more honestly, and with greater theological depth, than their British counterparts. At a time when both the religious and secular conventional wisdom holds that conservative movements are the only vibrant and authentic trends in all the great faith traditions, Bates makes a strong case that the conservative ascendancy in Anglicanism is temporary, opportunistic, and ultimately incompatible with the future of the Communion. From what I know of Anglican Episcopalians, even those deep in the heart of Protestant Virginia, I think he's right.
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February 10, 2006

Darfur Drags On

My ears perked up this morning when I heard on NPR that the president would be discussing the situation in Darfur today with Rebecca Garang, widow of the southern Sudanese leader John Garang, and a government official in her own right.So far as I can tell, the meeting produced no news or public statements. The White House web page showed a photo of Bush and Garang's meeting, but provided nothing else. And in yesterday's White House press briefing, there was this depressing exchange:

Q: On another subject, Kofi Annan says that he wants to ask the President next week for troops and equipment for Darfur. Has the administration's views on that changed at all? Are you more willing to consider that?MR. McCLELLAN: Let me check and see if there's an additional update on that. Obviously, Sudan and the Darfur region is a high priority for this administration. It's something that we have led the way on and pushed the international community to address. And Secretary General Annan is someone who is committed to addressing it, as well. That's why we supported helping get the African Union forces in there, and I think we've continued to work with the international community on how best to address the situation moving forward. And I'll just see if there's any additional update. I don't have it at this point.
"I don't have it at this point" is a nice summary of the Bush administration's entire approach to Darfur for the last three years.If you're interested in Darfur but don't know much about the background, you can check out my review of Gerard Prunier's book on the subject, which came out yesterday in Blueprint magazine. Prunier's pessimistic predictions about Western attitudes towards Darfur have so far been sadly spot on.
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Gorgeous George and Brownie

The quote of the day comes from Ezra Klein over at TAPPED, linking to Josh Marshall's account of the unlikely success of former FEMA director Michael Brown in facing down Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN):

Reports have Senator Norm Coleman being bested by disgraced FEMA chief Michael Brown in this morning's hearings. Brown joins George Galloway on the list of contemptible public figures who've publicly humbled Mr. Coleman. Quite a shame to see the legendary Paul Wellstone's seat pass to an empty suit most notable for making the odious look better in comparison to himself.
Let's please don't let any Iranian government officials get close to an encounter with Coleman, eh?
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February 9, 2006

Another Shot At the Budget Bill

Via DKos, I just read an article from The Hill that warms the cockles of my heart: a technical screwup in the budget reconciliation bill recently rammed through Congress by the GOP and signed by Bush could theoretically force a re-vote. All Congressional Dems have to do is object to a unanimous consent motion to fix the problem. They should.Just before the hurry-up House vote on the obnoxious measure, Mark Schmitt provided a good analysis of why it was important to defeat it. Those reasons have been strengthened by the subsequent, aggressive Republican effort to push more tax cuts--far offsetting the "savings" in the budget measure--and by Bush's new budget proposal for next year, which continues the let's-cut-taxes-and-let-the-military-fight-it-out-with-every-other-national-priority-for-what's-left fiscal philosophy of this administration. Democrats have one more shot at some really bad and important legislation. They should lock and load on this one.
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Good Political News

A new issue of Blueprint magazine came out today, and it's chock full of good political news. Mark Gersh (the congressional number-cruncher supreme) and I did a forecast of how U.S. House races are beginning to shape up, and concluded a Democratic takeover is no longer a big reach. As a sidebar to Gov. Tom Vilsack's cover story on the successes of Democratic red-state governors, I did a brief and even more optimistic evaluation of this fall's gubernatorial contests. And you might also want to check out Gov. Tim Kaine's first-hand report on how he won Virginia in 2005.
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February 7, 2006

A Small But Important Point About "Cartoongate"

The continuing saga of "Cartoongate"--the publication and republication in European newspapers of cartoons maligning the Prophet Muhammad, and the spasm of anger and violence that greeted it across the Muslim world--is obviously exposing a lot of misperceptions on both sides of the battle-lines. I am hardly an expert on Islam, but do think one important point about the reaction to the cartoons, and the reaction to the reaction in the West, is worth emphasizing: the basic nature of the offense to Muslim sensibilities.About half the stories in the U.S. press solemnly inform readers that the cartoons are considered "blasphemous" by Muslims, on pretty much the same grounds that Christians would consider cartoons mocking Jesus might be considered "blasphemous." And that's got it exactly backwards. The Prophet Muhammad warned against physical representations of human beings generally, and of himself in particular, in order to avoid temptations to idolatry, the worship of anything other than Almighty God. That reinforced the radically transcendent nature of Muslim theology--the insistence on strict submission to the sovereign will of God without the kind of human or quasi-divine intermediaries common to both pagan and Christian traditions. Now I don't think anyone is under the misapprehension that the authors and publishers of these cartoons were trying to promote an idolatrous worship of the Prophet. So while the cartoons did violate a deeply embedded Muslim antipathy towards physical representations of Muhammad, that's not the source of the offense: it's the contemptuous misrepresentation of what the Prophet taught in terms of legitimate Western concerns about Islamic Jihadism. And that's why non-Jihadist Muslims are if anything more offended by the cartoons than anyone else. Maybe this point is of less importance than the free-speech aspects of this saga, but it's worth keeping in mind, particularly among those who constantly look for Christian or Judiaic parallels to poorly-understood Islamic beliefs.
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February 6, 2006

A Godly Hero

For anyone interested in political history generally, or in contemporary debates about "populism," Michael Kazin's new biography of William Jennings Bryan, A Godly Hero, is essential reading. It's being officially released tomorrow, and if this plenary endorsement doesn't encourage you to check it out, here's a sneak preview of my review of the book, which appears in the March issue of The Washington Monthly. If you're smart enough to be a subscriber to TWM, you probably got this issue in the mail today, or will momentarily, with lots of stuff you can't get online.
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February 5, 2006

Avoiding Super-Hype XL

I generally don't pay attention to the Super Bowl, especially when, as has generally been the occasion in recent years, I have no particular attachment to either team. The vast and endless hype over the game does provide an excellent opportunity to do things, like grocery shopping, in pleasantly uncrowded circumstances (if only the DMV were open on Super Sundays!).This particular year, as it happens, I was on the road during the entire game, driving from Amherst, Virginia, to Richmond, to Arlington. As a result, I actually listened to the Super Bowl on a variety of AM radio stations, beamed at me from Lynchburg, Charlottesville, St. Louis, New York and Cincinnati. That means I was able to follow the football game, qua football game, while avoiding the ridiculous spectacle of the Big Commercials that are invariably premiered during the most expensive network television segment of the year. Indeed, I got to hear Dr. John, Aaron Neville and Aretha Franklin do the National Anthem, and even heard a bit of the Rolling Stones halftime show, but without the attendant hype, since the radio commentators were relentlessly focused on football. From the privacy of my car, I was able to assess the game itself as a comedy of crucial errors, with the one real star, to my delight, being Georgia Bulldog Hines Ward.So when it comes to Super Bowl XLI, I recommend getting on the road and disrespecting the television sponsors of the Big Show. It becomes obvious in the light traffic of Super Sunday that it's really just a football game.
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Two Iconic Women

During one week, we've lost two of the most influential, and even iconic, American women of the 20th century, Coretta Scott King and Betty Friedan. Both had long and complicated careers in public life, and together represented the drive for the equality of all human beings that redeemed the last century from its horrific and bloodstained legacy of totalitarianism--a legacy for which women, it is important to note, bear virtually no blame.I'll try to offer additional thoughts on Coretta Scott King on Tuesday, on the occasion of her funeral in Atlanta, and on Betty Friedan later in the week. But for now, may they both rest in peace.
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February 2, 2006

Know-It-Alls

For pure fun, I recommend you read an article by conservative foreign policy pundit Robert Kagan on the Weekly Standard site entitled "I Am Not A Straussian." Pleading that he could not be a disciple of Leo Strauss because "I have never understood a word the political philospher wrote," Kagan notes that's not what you'd think from reading his clips:

I feel the need to set the record straight because I am routinely called a Straussian by students of what is known as neoconservatism, and at the very least this is an insult to true Straussians, who presumably do understand what they're talking about. There isn't room here to list all the places where I have been called a Straussian--a Google search for "Robert Kagan" and "Leo Strauss" turns up 16,500 hits. Suffice to say that the immensely erudite Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has referred to me as a "student" of Strauss and Bloom, as has the columnist William Pfaff, and a half dozen other equally learned folk. A professor somewhere named Anne Norton has written a whole book assuming that I am a Straussian. You may ask why didn't she call me, just to confirm. But that would have been journalism, not scholarship.

The whole piece, which gets into all sorts of anecdotes involving Kagan's father and Allan Bloom, is hilarious, but it raises a serious point about the tendency of an awful lot of people to think they intimately know the inner motivations and backgrounds of complete strangers they've read or read about, or typecasted for some reason.I first encountered this phenomenon personally back in the days when I used to occasionally agree to be the Token Democrat on conservative talk radio shows. Invariably, I'd have to deal with callers who, instead of responding to my cogent and witty representation of the Progressive Cause, would authoritatively announce and denounce my true intentions of imposing socialism, atheism, baby-killing, and general mayhem on an unsuspecting populace. Their general perspective, reinforced by the power of semi- and selective education, was: I'm on to you, bucko.You get the same weird and self-confident omniscience pretty often in the blogosphere. For example, there's one particular twisted dude (I won't dignify his ravings by naming him) who pops up in comment threads all over the left and center-left who is certain that the DLC basically exists in order to serve as a front for the American Israel Public Affairs Committte (AIPAC). As it happens, the DLC comments on Israeli-Palestinian issues about once a year, and I'm almost always the guy who writes these comments. I don't know anybody at AIPAC and have never once read their talking points, so it's really kind of odd that somebody out there knows that I go to work everyday determined to serve AIPAC's will.Along the same lines, I cannot tell you how often I get emails and even phone calls from people earnestly informing me of the nefarious activities and actual motives of Al From, Bruce Reed, Will Marshall, and Marshall Wittmann, all of whom work right down the hall from me. I mean, thanks for the tips and all, but I'm not stupid, and probably have pretty good sources of my own for what my colleagues are up to, right?Lest I be accused of elitism, let me make it clear that this kind of I'm on to you, bucko stuff is not confined to comment threads or emails from regular folks; it's often retailed by bloggers running sites that get a lot more traffic than this one; by diarists on those same sites; and sometimes even by Mainstream Media types who can't be bothered with real research. They're all opinion leaders, in their own communities. For example, everybody at the DLC gets a big laugh out of the regular assertions by bloggers, occasionally reflected by print or online journalists, that we spend our evenings at Washington cocktail parties conspiring with the DC Democratic Establishment to maintain control of the Party and keep the outside-the-beltway rabble out. Aside from the fact that the DLC's political base is largely outside-the-beltway, we ain't exactly A-list society people here, and are about as likely to frequent Georgetown Salons as Michael Moore. Actually, a lot less likely, and vastly less likely than presumed anti-Establishment figures such as Arianna Huffington or George Lackoff.To be clear, and fair, the tendency to think we know people and institutions we don't really know is universal. I did a post a while back that in passing mentioned the reputation of The New Republic as a preserve for Ivy League grads, and was immediately informed by someone there that I didn't know what I was talking about. I posted a correction, but still felt bad for promoting a stereotype of an institution that I thought I knew pretty well.More recently, I entered the moral hazard zone by getting into a colloquoy over at TPMCafe wherein I criticized a trend among some progressives focused on the NSA surveillance story to speak fondly of people like Grover Norquist and Paul Weyrich. In responding to Matt Yglesias' suggestion that Norquist's position against the NSA program indicated that Grover wasn't all bad, I said: "Matt, Grover Norquist is all bad; if you look up 'bad' in the dictionary, you see his photo."Now I'm perfectly willing to stand by the argument that Norquist's politics are all bad, and indeed, that his opposition to NSA surveillance is based on well-articulated Norquistian positions that are bad as well. But I probably implied that I knew Norquist was an evil person, and that's a judgment that should be consigned to his actual friends and associates, and to the Almighty. I've met the guy exactly once, when I debated him on CSPAN after writing a very hostile profile of him in Blueprint magazine, which now seems more accurate than ever. Up close, I did observe that he looked remarkably average physically, given his self-identification as a macho guy who likes gunplay, uses violent language in attacking his enemies, and once spent a lot of time hanging out with guerillas in Angola and Mozambique. But I didn't smell the brimstone, see the horns, or hear anything that made me certain I knew the dark depths of his soul.Some bloggers, if they bothered to read this long post, would probably think I'm exhibiting weakness here--an unwillingness to smite the foe, whoever it is, with every weapon of abuse at hand, reflecting a Moderate Milquetoast reasonableness that invites contempt from The Enemy, and that leads down the road to the moral equivalency and "both sides are wrong" perspective of the David Broders of the political world. I plead innocent to the charge. My allegiances are clear; my conviction of the moral superiority of progressivism and the Democratic Party is unequivocal. But if we are, to use the overworn but useful phrase, the "reality-based community," it's important that we stick to what we actually know, and let the other side become the party of know-it-alls who really are know-nothings.
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February 1, 2006

Bush Phones It In

I haven't read any blogs this morning, so I wouldn't be surprised if plenty of other people have already used the above title to describe George W. Bush's State of the Union Address last night. You don't have to be a Democrat to realize how strangely empty and disjointed this speech truly was: twenty minutes of abstract uplift; another twenty minutes or so restating his 2004 Fear Offensive on national security and using it to justify everything he's doing in Iraq and at home; and then a fifteen-minute drive-by on everything else. I have no clue why the White House spent so much time over the last couple of weeks, and especially yesterday, signalling that Bush would do some heavy lifting on health care and energy. The former got one completely unoriginal graph; and the latter, which could have been lifted directly from a very brief summary of a 2004 John Kerry speech on energy independence, was a joke when you look at the administration's actual energy policies.Corruption? An "everybody does it" sentence that seemed to suggest Bush was still a newcomer to Washington who's not responsible for anything that happens there (oh yeah, there was that other sentence where Bush lumped together influence-peddlers and "activist judges"). Katrina? Just a spending number. The economy? Everything's coming up roses, so long as Bush can keep "isolationists" at bay. Like a lot of people, I was wrong in anticipating the content of this speech. I figured it would be a vast exercise in damage control on all those issues the admininstration and the GOP has either screwed up or ignored. But the White House has apparently decided not to bother with anything beyond the barest kind of lip service to any topic other than national security, in the belief that this one issue trumps everything else combined. At an early morning breakfast meeting today, I heard Gov. Tom Vilsack compare Bush to a football coach who is so convinced the opposition is incapable of stopping a particular play that he's arrogantly announcing it in advance. That play, which is sort of the Single Wing of latter-day GOP politics, is "terrorism" right up the gut. And so it should be abundantly clear to Democrats looking forward to the midterm elections that this is the play the Republicans are going to run, until we learn how to stop it.
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