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February 27, 2007

New Republic?

One of the odd but revealing bits of intra-Left agitprop in recent years has been the lefty blogger campaign against The New Republic, the venerable liberal magazine. Despite its very diverse product (including anti-Iraq War writers like Spencer Ackerman, and seriously lefty writers like John Judis and Rick Perlstein), TNR has often been demonized on the Left, and lumped into the Evil D.C. Democratic Establishment. Markos Moulitsas regularly refers to TNR as "dying," and when former TNR editor Peter Beinhart admitted he was wrong about the originial decision to invade Iraq, he was generally savaged in the blogosphere for having the temerity to do anything other than retreat, in sackloth and ashes, into perpetual silence.Last year Beinart was replaced as TNR editor by Franklin Foer, who immediately penned editorials supporting single-payer health coverage, and retracting any suggestion that TNR supported Bush's Iraq policies. And now the magazine has been bought by a Canadian media firm that presumably cannot be accused of neo-conservative views.It will be interesting to see if TNR's detractors give the magazine a break, or instead continue to attack it for allowing, not highlighting, unorthodox center-left arguments on Iraq and other issues. After all, there is a point of view in the progressive blogosphere that any dissent from the party line, as defined by themselves, reinforces "conservative memes" and cannot, cannot be tolerated. Free speech is limited to those who support the broader Cause, doncha know.When it comes to TNR specifically, one irritant to progressive blogospheric opinion is definitely going to be the continuing role of Marty Peretz as editor-in-chief. The big irony is that Marty's fantasy is an Al Gore candidacy in 2008, which also happens to be the fantasy of Markos and other netroots detractors of The New Republic. In the unlikely event that Gore decides to run, it will be fascinating to watch lefty bloggers make common cause with Peretz, as against the ostensibly more liberal cynics at TNR and elsewhere.UPDATE: A correspondent suggested I should have noted that Ackerman was actually fired by TNR last October (I may have at one point been aware of that, but if so, forgot it), though it's not entirely clear from his own account or Foer's what role his anti-war views played in that firing. If that was the only issue, they sure waited a long time to silence him. (Ackerman says his contributions to TNR's in-house blog, The Plank, were being heavily edited. If so, that truly is annoying. What's the point of calling something a blog if it comes with an editorial process?).The same correspondent also said that the new majority owners of TNR may have more in common with their predecessors than I realized, including a neo-con orientation on foreign policy. I honestly don't know a thing about them other than what I read in the link above.

February 26, 2007

The Roots of Hillary-Phobia

Another fine post at TNR Online today was Jonathan Chait's LA Times piece about the "Clinton Machine" in the imagination of the political Right. Chait goes through several aspects of the Right's vast investment in Hillary Clinton's inevitability as the Democratic nominee in 2008, and then nails it in terms of conservative fascination with the Clintons:

The bigger factor, I think, is that conservatives are spooked by the Clintons. They had Bill Clinton on the ropes when they took control of Congress after the 1994 elections. He beat back their revolution. They had him again a few years later when they caught him with his pants down and made his misbehavior a theme of the 1998 midterm elections. Instead, Democrats won seats.In the Republican mind, there must have been some sort of Clinton voodoo at work. The public was on their side, they believe, yet through some sort of nefarious dark political art, he turned the tables on them.The conservative hatred of the Clintons has always had around the edges a certain fear of the supernatural. A famous 1993 American Spectator cover story depicted Hillary Clinton as a witch. A witch is an object of hatred, of course, but also a creature with dark and frightening powers.
That's undeniably correct. Bill and Hill represent a political phenomenon with which conservatives have never been able to come to grips. They can't get at Bill anymore, so Hill is the last, best chance to redeem the lost Republican Revolution of 1994. The fact that many on the Left have the same, if more submerged, demons about Bill Clinton, which they are also taking out on his wife, makes her presidential candidacy a fascinating referendum on the 1990s, as well as the next four years.

Rudy and Abortion

This is likely to be New Republic Day here at NewDonkey, given some interesting new stuff up on its site, along with the news that the venerable mag has been bought by a Canadian media firm that is presumably disconnected from its previous owners' ideological shibboleths. More about all that later.But first up, I wanted to draw attention to a TNR Online debate over Rudy Giuliani's viability as a candidate and as a potential president, involving two friends of mine: former American Prospect editor Mike Tomasky, and the New York polymath Fred Siegel, who wrote an admiring but not uncritical book about Rudy a few years ago. Up first, Tomasky focuses his Rudy-skeptic case (which I share) on Giuliani's position on abortion, which is formally pro-choice but with lots of winks and nods indicating that he would make Supreme Court appointments guaranteed to doom Roe v. Wade.In passing, Tomasky says that Republicans have not "nominated a pro-choice candidate since Gerry Ford in 1976."That raises a very interesting and pertinent question: among Republicans, what passes for a "pro-choice" position, and what doesn't? Ford actually supported a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade, and return abortion policy to the states. He did not, however (unlike his primary challenger Ronald Reagan) support the Human Life Amendment, which would have leapfrogged both the Supreme Court and the 50 states to endow human embryos, from the moment of conception, with "personhood" under the 14th Amendment.More than thirty years later, while support for a Human Life Amendment remains formally the position of virtually all anti-abortion groups, and of the Republican Party as expressed in its national platforms, nobody's really serious about it. When Bob Dole said he didn't feel bound by that platform plank in 1996, it created a lot of controversy on the Right. When George W. Bush said much the same thing in 2000 and 2004, it was regarded as something of a truism. Aside from the political and practical impossibility of the HLA, what changed, of course, was a significant enhancement of a non-constitutional, non-legislative strategy for overturning Roe: simply stacking the Supreme Court with "strict constructionists" who would perform a constitutional counter-revolution.Thanks to Bush's SCOTUS appointments, right-to-lifers and their opponents think they may be one or two High Court appointments away from that fateful day. The big question now is whether the Bush message to social conservatives--I'm with you, but not vocally; and I'll get it done indirectly through Court appointments--can be successfully replaced by the Giuliani message--I'm not with you, but not vocally; and I'll also get it done indirectly through Court appointments.So for Rudy and his handlers, the big gamble is the hope that social conservatives have "matured" enough to accept a Republican nominee who will not even pay their formal positions the kind of lip-service they've grown to expect, in exchange for another GOP president who might give them what they actually, realistically want. And the X-factor here is that Rudy's rather spotted ideological history (at least from the point of view of the Right) may require more explicit assurances to social conservatives that will make this whole double game unsustainable in a general election campaign.I hope this particular issue--a critical subset of Giuliani's entire political case for nomination and election as president--continues to get serious attention in the Mike-versus-Fred debate as it rolls out.

February 24, 2007

The First Ex-Catholic President?

Speaking of Catholic discipline, and in light of a new national Q-poll showing Rudy Giuliani with a large lead over the rest of the GOP presidential field, I've gotten fascinated with a question that nobody seems able to answer: is Rudy, who is often described as a strong possibility to become the first Catholic Republican nominee for the presidency, actually still a Catholic?After all, the man has been married three times. His first marriage of fourteen years was annulled on grounds of a rather tardy discovery that he was married to his second cousin. I'm assuming this annullment was blessed by the Church. So his second marriage was technically his first. But what about his third? Did he somehow get a second annullment? Or was either his second or third (performed by none other than Mayor Bloomberg) marriage just a civil ceremony unblessed by the Church, which means Rudy was self-excommunicated by openly living in sin and/or pretending to be remarried?After reading Kate O'Beirne's New York Daily News piece discussing Rudy's unsettled but crucial relationship with Catholic voters, I sent a couple of emails around to conservative Catholic acquaintances, some of them not at all unfriendly to Giuliani, and found out nobody seems to know about Rudy's formal relationship with the Church, beyond his own assertion that he is Catholic.I'm not interested in personally throwing stones at Giuliani about his marriages or his Catholic status. I couldn't care less; politicians are not generally, much as we might wish otherwise, exactly moral, marital or religious role models. But given the suggestions of people like Bill Donohue in 2004 that John Kerry should be denied access to communion because he was pro-choice, it's obviously worth asking if a conservative politician who's not only pro-choice (despite his crab-like efforts to suggest otherwise) and perhaps, in the eyes of the Church, polygamous, can properly be described as "Catholic." Or is the GOP, or for that matter, America, ready for the first ex-Catholic presidential candidate?

February 23, 2007

The Decline of Catholic Discipline

There's a fascinating article that appeared yesterday in the Washington Post about the Catholic Church's local efforts, via bus billboards and radio ads, among other public relations media, to get believers to go to confession. Timed to coincide with Lent, the Church's traditional period for penance, the campaign is fighting a vast dropoff in the number of Catholics going into the booth on Saturday afternoons, or any other time.Michelle Boorstein's piece on this subject tends to make it all about how Catholics seek psychological self-relief and self-fulfillment in and out of the confessional, but she doesn't get into the sticks, as opposed to the carrots, that the Church used to deploy to get people to go to confession. The Big Stick was the tenet that taking communion while in a state of mortal sin--which included a fairly broad array of sins, including defiance of church teachings and just about any sexual transgression--was truly horrendous, perhaps even representing the scriptural "sin against the Holy Spirit" that could not be forgiven. Indeed, this holy terror of communion without confession helped produce a long period of rank-and-file Catholic reluctance to take communion, which endured from the Fourth Century A.D. until very recent times.The failure of the Big Stick of discouraging communion for those not immediately fresh from the confessional led to an big post-Vatican-II effort to get Catholics to take communion as a basic obligation of the faith. But this healthy eucharistic revival wasn't accompanied by any enduring return to regular confession. And there's not much doubt that this particular aspect of "cafeteria Catholicism," in the U.S. at least, owed a lot to popular dissent against the Church's moral theology, especially in matters of sex. Aside from the widespread practice of contraception among U.S. Catholics, there has been an even more widespread defiance of the Church's ban on any sort of premarital sexual activity. Asked to choose between the injunction to take communion regularly and the warning to do so in a state of reconciliation with the Church, Catholics have largely taken the former route.It's interesting that in the Archdiocese of Washington, at least, the Church has chosen to accentuate the positive aspects of confession. But in the long run, the disconnect between Church teachings and Catholic practice cannot help but undermine Catholic discipline, and keep the lines outside the confessional short.

Dick Cheney and al Qaeda's "Strategy"

I'm sure no one was surprised to learn that Dick Cheney is refusing to retract his recent statement that Speaker Nancy Pelosi is playing into the hands of al Qaeda. After all, he's been peddling this "objectively working for the enemy" slur against antiwar Americans nonstop for years. But the lack of novelty of Cheney's position shouldn't keep anyone from noting its ever-increasing absurdity.Here's Cheney's latest iteration of his "logic" on Al Qaeda's "strategy" in Iraq:

What happens if we withdraw from Iraq?,'' he said. ''And the point I made and I'll make it again is that al-Qaida functions on the basis that they think they can break our will. That's their fundamental underlying strategy, that if they can kill enough Americans or cause enough havoc, create enough chaos in Iraq, then we'll quit and go home. And my statement was that if we adopt the Pelosi policy, that then we will validate the strategy of al-Qaida. I said it and I meant it.''
Okay, Mr. Vice President, according to your own administration's incessant claims, a savage civil war (as distinguished from the civil war already underway, which the administration still won't acknowledge) will break out if the U.S. withdraws any troops--indeed, if we don't add more troops. And what would that civil war produce? A truly vicious Shi'a crackdown on the Sunnis, for one thing. Is that part of al Qaeda's strategy, as well? The devastation of its own very fragile base in Iraq?Seems to me relatively obvious that the current situation in Iraq is what ideally suits al Qaeda: the U.S. being tied down in a draining and unsuccessful military engagement in Iraq that has limited the resources we can place into Afghanistan (the one undoubted al Qaeda sanctuary), decimated U.S. influence throughout the Muslim world, and at the same time enabled the Arab Sunni insurgents of Iraq to nourish fantasies of a return to power. What's not to like about that, if you're al Qaeda?The whole idea, of course, that U.S. policy in Iraq should be dictated by Al Qaeda's spin on it is in itself absurd, and to be honest, a bit craven. The terrorist organization is by all accounts a relatively small player in Iraq to begin with. It will obviously interpret any course of action by the U.S., in Iraq or elsewhere, as a "victory" for its cause. Cheney's suggestion that we should remain imprisoned forever in Iraq, hostages to his administration's bad judgment and incompetence, because al Qaeda will gloat over the consequences of those actions, projects an image of American weakness that is simply breathtaking. But not as breathtaking as Cheney's argument that the administration's critics, not the administration itself, is responsible for the enduring damage to U.S. interests we now face, particularly if we don't change course in Iraq.

Vilsack Bows Out

Today's major political story was former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack's decision to pull the plug on his presidential campaign. He made it clear money was the sole reason. Contra some snarky blog posts suggesting that blogger reaction to Vilsack's wonky if politically dangerous reference to the benefit structure for Social Security earlier this week somehow instantly did him in, it's clear his precarious financial position was the real problem.Vilsack had a complex if not irrational political strategy all along. Step one was to utilize his popularity and political base in Iowa, whose Caucuses are showing every indication of being even more important in 2008 than in the past, to separate himself from other "lower-tier" candidates. Step two was to employ an upset win in Iowa over the big boys and girls to elevate himself to the top tier, over the barely breathing political body of anyone croaked by a loss or poor showing Iowa (most likely the perceived current Iowa front-runner, John Edwards). And step three was to become a national alternative to whoever became the post-Iowa, post-New Hampshire front-runner.But the most complicated part of the Vilsack strategy was overcoming the legendary reluctance of Iowans to give up their king- or queen-making national status in the nominating process and support a favorite son. That meant showing the flag nationally to eliminate his "mere-favorite-son" status, and also building the best field organization in Iowa of any candidate. Both measures required a lot of money, and more money than his campaign could raise, particularly after Barack Obama jumped into the race and attracted most of the tactical, good-bet funds that hadn't already been hoovered up by HRC and others.The sad reality is that without vast personal wealth or access to powerful "bundlers" of campaign contributions, it's pretty much impossible to run a viable presidential campaign, particularly if you are not well-known or regarded as "top-tier." Raising tens of millions of dollars overnight at $2300 a pop (the legal limit for individual contributions) without big-time "bundlers" or a pre-established national fundraising base is pretty much impossible. Vilsack gave it a good try, beginning his official campaign before anyone else, and trying to distinguish himself from the front-runners with dramatic positions on Iraq and on energy policy. But it wasn't enough, and he was wise to fold his tent and maintain his influence over the presidential campaign in Iowa.Who knows: Vilsack's timing in getting out of the race may have been partially motivated by both the human and political considerations involved in letting his staff--including his small but much-praised policy staff--get on board with other campaigns. Particularly with Vilsack out, Iowa Democratic political experience, and Iowa Caucus experience, is worth its weight in gold to those campaigns who for offensive or defensive reasons need to do well in that state. And on down the road, Vilsack's own support--determined, I strongly suspect from my own dealings with him in the past at the DLC, by honorably wonky policy considerations as much as by politics--might mean everything to a candidate whose tongue is lolling out for victory in Iowa.So while we bid farewell to Tom Vilsack's candidacy for president, we almost certainly haven't seen the end of his impact on the 2008 presidential campaign.

February 22, 2007

Kos, Vilsack, the War and the DLC

Maybe I'll get around to essaying a full rebuttal of Markos Moulitsas' gratuitous bashing of Tom Vilsack over the DLC's alleged "warmongering" during the Iowa Governor's chairmanship of the organization. But maybe not. I've learned over time that netroots folk tend to either share Kos' belief that the DLC exists to divide the Democratic Party, despite all its endless and interminable and redundant attacks on Bush and the Republican Party, or they don't, as a matter of political theology rather than empirical evidence.But if you've bothered to read Kos' jeremiad, you ought to read the comment thread it produced, wherein a few brave souls compare the DLC's occasional statements on how and when to get out of Iraq with those of other non-Satanic Democrats, most notably Wes Clark, who continues to oppose a fixed deadline, much less an immediate fixed deadline, for withdrawal from Iraq. And this doesn't even get into the inconvenient fact that some of the "out now" proposals (most notably Edwards' and Obama's) would probably leave as many troops in Iraq as anything the DLC has suggested.I do want to address one small issue that seems to be big for Kos: that the DLC was being "divisive" last year by disagreeing with John Murtha's proposal for a short deadline for withdrawal. Those of you who remember this particular debate probably remember that lots of Democrats, far beyond the ambit of the DLC, thought Murtha was being "divisive" in insisting on his position as opposed to one that would embrace nearly all Democrats this side of Lieberman, and even some Republicans. And indeed, the Senate version of the Murtha position, offered by Feingold and Kerry, got a total of seven votes. Retroactively calling this "the Democratic position" and singling out the DLC for dissenting from it is disingenuous.It is obviously true that since last year, the opinions of Democrats and the public as a whole have shifted in the direction of fixed and faster withdrawal timetables (though again, with loopholes for residual troop levels that nobody but me seems to want to talk about). There's a simple reason for this: Bush has responded to a national and even bipartisan consensus for a fundamental change of course in Iraq by proposing to escalate U.S. military engagement, leading lots of us to conclude that this administration is literally hopeless on this issue. It's moved everyone, the DLC included, towards a more "antiwar" position, not just because they are following polls or achieving satori on the past errors of their ways, but because the administration and the GOP seem determined to eradicate any middle ground. And it's obviously pushed Tom Vilsack all the way over to Kos' position, for which he gets nothing but abuse.Look, I don't personally mind antiwar Democrats pointing out again and again they were right and others, including the DLC, were wrong on the original decision to go into Iraq. But ever since the war started, Democrats have been in an agonized state over what to do next, mainly because we don't control the Pentagon, the National Security Council, the State Department, or any of the other levers of executive power. If we are going to go back and examine everyone's position at every stage of the nightmare in Iraq, it's not unfair to point out that Howard Dean, during his presidential campaign, said repeatedly that America had a responsibility to stay in Iraq, perhaps for a long time, given our unfortunate decision to go to war.All this endless recrimination over who said what when after the war started, and who moved as fast or faster than Murtha or Kos in the maximum antiwar direction, is IMHO a big waste of time, and far more divisive than anything emanating from the DLC, much less Tom Vilsack.

February 19, 2007

The Political Relevance of Religious Belief and Unbelief

Last week, playing off both the Edwards Blogger kerfuffle and Mitt Romney's presidential launch, Atrios spurred a bit of blogospheric controversy with a series of posts on religion in the public square.His basic argument, with which I basically agree, is that once "people of faith" inject their religious views into public discourse, the content of those views is fair game for commentary, dissent and even mockery, though mockery may be politically inadvisable if you are, say, involved in a presidential campaign.Romney's Mormon Problem provides the perfect foil for Atrios' secondary point, which is that the tendency of political observers to divide Americans into "believers" and "unbelievers," or on occasion, between "Christians" or "Judeo-Christians" and everybody else, is intellectually dishonest because it (a) obliterates the very meaningful differences in metaphysical, moral and political viewpoints within the broad "believers" category and virtually every subcategory, and (b) disrespects the metaphyiscal, moral and political viewpoints of people who subscribe to unconventional religions or no religion at all.On Atrios' first point--presumably motivated by the talk of Amanda Marcotte's "offensive" blog posts about the Virgin Birth and so forth--I would offer one important qualifier to his general take: mocking the religious underpinnings of some political position is one thing; denying their sincerity is another.Here's how the regression from mockery of politics to mockery of religion to mockery of religious sincerity tends to work: Some people hold abhorrent political positions that they justify with religious principles you happen to consider a bunch of atavistic Hooey. You attack the positions on their dubious merits. You then go over the brink and attack the underyling Hooey. But since you think it's Hooey, you go on to suggest that the Hooey, being Hooey, is just a mask for very different motives (e.g., misogyny) that can be deplored without discussion of religion. Not being a regular consumer of Amanda Marcotte's blogging at Pandagon, I can't say for sure this is her pattern, but it is common in criticisms of religious-based opposition to equal rights for women and/or gays and lesbians.Now this habit of dismissing the explicit underyling principles of political positions is hardly limited to irreligious people. Its mirror image is the belief of many "people of faith" that atheists and agnostics haven't reached their metaphysical stance through thoughtful reflection or observation, but are instead motivated by moral or intellectual laziness, or are simply slaves of some all-powerful Secular Zeitgeist.Moreover, claiming hidden motives is a regular stock-in-trade in intra-religious controversy. Lord knows I have on more than one occasion suggested that Christian Right leaders have sold out their ministries for a mess of secular pottage, and have wilfully and illegitimately conflated cultural conservatism with the Gospel.But maybe that's the lesson here: challenging the sincerity of religion- (or for that matter, atheist-) based political positions is work best left to those who share the ostensible world-view of the challengees. Or, to be more pointed about it, if you think Christianity (and/or its central tenet, the Incarnation) is Hooey, then you might want to defer to Hooeyites in making the claim that Hooeyite-based opposition to abortion, birth control, or equal rights reflects misogyny rather than sincere Hooey.And that, of course, leads me to Atrios' secondary and most politically relevant argument: the artificial suppression, at least in MSM discourse, of intra-Christian disagreements over doctrine and their political implications.There are plenty of historical reasons for the contemporary muting of doctrinal differences in this country. Most obviously, the constitutional and civic traditions--and the religious diversity--of the United States have forced a remission of the more Triumphalist claims of various Christian theologies. And there's been something of a convergence in theology itself, at least in terms of the controversies that used to lead Christians to repress and kill each other in Europe. Catholicism abandoned its no-salvation-outside-Rome position during Vatican II, and more recently, modified positions on Limbo-and-Purgatory, and on Justification-by-Faith-Alone, that were among the touchstones of the original Reformation. Actual, Sunday-to-Sunday, American Catholic worship is very difficult to distinguish from Episcopal or Lutheran worship, and in some cases, Methodist and Presbyterian worship.And among Protestants, theological (in the sense of formal and liturgical differences) have declined, with the sole and crucial exception of Biblical Infallibility (usually defined by Protestant Fundamentalists as demanding the subjugation of women and gays), and the cultural and political differences that divide dictates.To sum it all up, few Christians these days dissent from the Nicene Creed; or worry a lot about the pagan origins of church seasons; or fight about the precise nature of the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. But they do fight a lot about the cultural and political implications of their common faith, and particularly about the Bible, and these fights should be made explictly religious fights.So Atrios' call for an open season of everybody's religious or irreligious beliefs in politics is spot-on. And Mitt Romney's candidacy does indeed bring this issue to a head. Mitt would like to draw a line between "unbelievers" and "believers" in politics in order to avoid examination of the specific nature of his own beliefs, which many "believers" would find as abhorrent as those of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews or even atheists.But as Atrios suggests, you can't have it both ways. If you want credit for your "belief," you must let your "beliefs" stand the test of scrutiny.

February 17, 2007

Dissent and Wars of Choice

There's been a lot of buzz around the blogosphere about a phony Abraham Lincoln quote that Bush Iraq War supporters keep throwing out there (most recently senior House GOPer Don Young of Alaska), suggesting that dissenters in Congress during wartime are "saboteurs" who might well be "arrested, exiled or hanged."Lincoln never said that, but the more important issue is the underlying suggestion that there's something unprecdented and un-American about dissent, in Congress and elsewhere, in wartime. Nothing could be further from the truth.Many southerners opposed the War of 1812 as a New England conspiracy to seize Canada and enhance its regional power. Most northern Whigs--including, most notably, a young Congressman named Abraham Lincoln--opposed the Mexican War as a southern conspiracy to seize Mexican lands and enhance its own regional power. During the Civil War, much of the Democratic Party in the North officially opposed the government's war aims. There were open and large and vibrant antiwar movements as well prior to and during the Spanish-American War, World War I, and Vietnam. And there's no question that most Republicans openly challenged the Truman administration's policies during the Korean War, and the Clinton administration's intervention in Kosovo.The only real exceptions to the normal pattern of dissent were World War II and Afghanistan. And it's no accident that in both cases, war began through a direct attack on the United States.The other wars were, like Iraq, wars of choice, waged not as a matter of immediate national self-defense, but in response to debatable and rebuttable arguments of national interest.Nearly two years after the Mexican War commenced, a Member of Congress penned a letter challenging the war's original justification, and commencing with a demand for its termination, with these words:"[It] is a singular omission in this message [by President James K. Polk], that it, no where intimates when the President expects the war to terminate. At it's beginning, Genl. Scott was, by this same President, driven into disfavor, if not disgrace, for intimating that peace could not be conquered in less than three or four months. But now, at the end of about twenty months, during which time our arms have given us the most splendid successes--every department, and every part, land and water, officers and privates, regulars and volunteers, doing all that men could do, and hundreds of things which it had ever before been thought men could not do,--after all this, this same President gives us a long message, without showing us, that, as to the end, he himself, has, even an imaginary conception. As I have before said, he knows not where he is. He is a bewildered, confounded, and miserably perplexed man. God grant he may be able to show, there is not something about his conscious [sic], more painful than all his mental perplexity!"The author of this missive, which any Member of Congress could equally address to George W. Bush, was one Abraham Lincoln.UPDATE: Oops. As I was nicely reminded via an email from a history professor, I got the regional background of the War of 1812 wrong. Most New Englanders, especially those in the traditionally pro-British Federalist Party, opposed the war, some even proposing secession. My general point about opposition to wars of choice holds, but sorry for the embarassing lapse of historical knowledge.

The War On Blogospheric Terror

In case you somehow missed it, the Edwards Blogger pseudo-story reached its denouement this last week, when Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwen resigned their new campaign jobs, citing vast quantities of hate email, including death threats. Anyone who puts his or her name out there in the public square is going to get hateful and abusive communications; I certainly do from time to time. But nobody should have to put up with threats of bodily harm, much less murder. In most jurisdictions in this country, conveying such "terroristic threats," regardless of the medium, is a crime punishable with fines or even imprisonment. I hope Marcotte and McEwan let some of their worst tormenters know their emails have been referred to the appropriate authorities for investigation and prosecution. Maybe a few of these creeps will get a sense of what it feels like to be hunted.

February 16, 2007

Country Politics

There's a brief but interesting article up on the American Prospect site by music historian J. Lester Feder that plays off the Dixie Chicks "controversy" to remind people that country music's famous political conservatism was yet another legacy of Richard M. Nixon's Southern Strategy.Feder's right that country music got politicized in the Nixon Years, and I can add a few examples to his account, from personal memory.He rightly tags Merle Haggard's "Okie From Muscogee" as the apotheosis of country conservatism, and reports ol' Merle's claim that the song was a parody. He doesn't mention Merle's follow-up superpatriot hit, "The Fightin' Side of Me", that was clearly beyond parody:I read about some squirrely guy who claims that he just don't believe in fightingAnd I wonder just how long the rest of us can count on being freeThey love our milk and honey but they preach about some other way of livingBut when you're running down my country, hossYou're walkin' on the fightin' side of me.This tune anchored a live album, recorded in Philadelphia, that was a red-white-and-blue extravaganza. I remember it vividly. My parents, huge Haggard fans (they actually got to hang out with him a bit at an Atlanta country music venue called the Playroom, in those innocent, pre-arena days of the genre), naturally had a copy, and made sure I heard the cut that included his spot-on impressions of other country stars, most notably fellow Bakersfield legend and country-rock pioneer Buck Owens (whose ex-wife Bonnie was Merle's then-wife and backup singer).Haggard did, a couple of years earlier, turn down a request from George Wallace to endorse his 1968 presidential candidacy. But other country stars--if I remember correctly, they included both Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn--did sing for George. And one of my favorite memories from the 1968 campaign was an ad featuring Grand Ol' Opry fixture Roy Acuff, who did a soulful musical intro about the nation's many problems, and then the camera pulled back to show Roy standing next to a gigantic, hideous photo of Richard Nixon (Acuff himself ran for Governor of Tennessee as a Republican back in 1948, and in 1970, campaigned for fellow country singer Tex Ritter in 1970, running for the same office with the same futile result).Perhaps the best example of the abrupt transition from populism to conservatism that Leder talks about was Whisperin' Bill Anderson, a Georgia country crooner whose band, the Po' Boys, was rooted in the Depression populist tradition. But in the early 70s, he did a song, "Where Have All Our Heroes Gone?" that arguably captured the rightward, nostalgic trend in country music more presicely than Haggard's pugilistic odes (though Loretta Lynn's "God Bless American Again," co-written with Conway Twitty, which she typically delivered against a backdrop that featured a spotlighted Old Glory, did so as well in a less explicitly political vein).The omission in Leder's piece that surprised me the most was the obvious antecedent to the Dixie Chicks' liberal heresy: Earl Scruggs. An alumnus of Bill Monroe's band, co-founder of the vastly popular Flatt and Scruggs duo, and basically, the inventor of bluegrass banjo pickin', Scruggs scandalized much of his following by performing at the big 1969 anti-Vietnam War rally in Washington.And Earl's still around, probably chuckling a bit at the Chicks' successful notoriety and multiple Grammies. Scruggs picked up his first Grammy the same year as his anti-war appearance, for Foggy Mountain Breakdown, and won a second Grammy for a re-recording of the same piece, in 2002.

February 15, 2007

Iraq and Iran

As the U.S. House moves inexorably towards a non-binding resolution rejecting the Bush escalation plan for Iraq, I hope the widespread progressive mockery of this step will subside. It's the first step towards a strategic withdrawal from combat operations in Iraq, not the last.And speaking of next steps, some bloggers who are citing the latest Gallup numbers showing tepid 51% support for a non-binding resolution against the Bush "surge"' aren't exactly playing up the same poll's 58% opposition to cutting off funds for the escalation. The big anti-Bush majority (63%) is for setting a deadline for withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of 2008, which, given the poll's options, probably means "as soon as possible without disaster."The simplest way to interpret this and other recent polls is to say that serious majorities of Americans want Congress rather than the Bush administration to take control of Iraq policy, but not, if possible, by cutting off funds. And that probably means that the Democratic Congressional leadership's strategy of gradually marginalizing Bush on Iraq makes sense.On another but related front, Democrats are beginning to make serious noises about the administration's saber-rattling towards Iran. Over at TPMCafe, I've responded and dissented from my good friend and fellow Clintonian Kenny Baer's post suggesting that the netroots are putting too much pressure on Dems to go pacifist with respect to Iran. For those of you who think such issues are cut and dried and follow the predictable patterns of the usual intra-Democratic debate on Iraq: give it all a look.

February 12, 2007

The Crime No One Is Willing To Stop

Props to Ezra Klein at TAPPED for once again posting on the unsavory but important issue of prison rape, which doesn't appear to have abated despite Congress' unanimous 2003 legislation (signed by Bush) called the Prison Rape Elimination Act.As Robert Weisberg and David Mills pointed out in Slate shortly after the 2003 legislation was signed:

[D]espite its grand words and its sponsors' passionate expressions of concern, the main thing the law aims to do is collect data, and that may be, paradoxically, both quixotic and redundant.It is quixotic because the obvious problems of unreliable observations and underreporting inherent in prison assault make highly refined objective data a fantasy. It is redundant because the relevant facts are already clear: A recent report by Human Rights Watch synthesized data and various perception surveys from around the United States and conservatively concluded that approximately 20 percent of all inmates are sexually assaulted in some way and at least 7 percent raped. A cautious inference is that nearly 200,000 current inmates have been raped and nearly 1 million have been sexually assaulted over the past 20 years.
A look at the web page of the primary product of the 2003 act, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, does not indicate what anyone would call a blizzard of activity. It's held some hearings, and offers links to studies of prison rape, some of which were conducted prior to 2003. There is a link to an interesting 2006 Urban Institute report on state implementation of the NPREA. Despite lots of examples of new state programs, the report poses several "questions" that still need to be answered through "research." Here are three of them that tell you everything you need to know:
Do the programs described in this report matter? Are incidents of PSV [Prison Sexual Violence] being eliminated in DOCs [state Departments of Corrections] implementing prevention efforts?.... Are perpetrators of PSV, both staff and inmates, being held accountable, through DOC sanctions and administrative penalties as well as criminally?
So we are definitely not as a society racing towards what the 2003 federal legislation described as a "zero-tolerance" position on prison rape. And thus we continue to accept the cruel irony of making prisons one of the most common arenas for the commission of one of the most violent felony crimes.Simple indifference aside, there are two obvious barriers to eliminating prison rape. The first is that most of the remedies are controversial (incarcerating far fewer non-violent offenders) or very expensive (building less crowded prisons, providing much higher pay and better training and supervision of prison staff, or radically improving monitoring of inmates).And the second barrier to change is the really dirty little non-secret underlying tolerance of prison rape: the idea that it's an effective deterrent to criminal behavior.This "walk the line or get raped" attitude has undeniably been prevalent on the political Right, where for years politicians have railed against so-called "country-club prisons" and suggested that inmates deserve the most barbarous conditions imaginable. (There has to be a special place in hell for conservatives who want to criminalize loving, consensual gay and lesbian relationships, while smiling upon prison rape.) But it's also found implicit currency elsewhere, among virtually every advocacy group that wants to deter some anti-social behavior, from drunk driving to white collar crime, by raising the specter of getting sent off to Oz and maybe being raped. As Ezra noted uncomfortably in a post last year:
When we were hoping to put Ken Lay behind bars, Bill Lockyer explained his grand desire "to personally escort Lay to an 8-by-10 cell that he could share with a tattooed dude who says, Hi, my name is Spike, honey."'
One of the most pervasive indicators of the keep-prisons-barbarous temptation has been the widespread deployment of "scared straight" programs which shuttle school kids through prisons to give them a taste of the consequences of straying into criminal behavior. No one has quite, yet, suggested staging a prison gang-rape for the edification of touring students. But that would in fact represent an act of clarifying honesty for those who continue to tolerate, for whatever reason, sexual violence in prisons.

February 11, 2007

Way Outside the Beltway

It appears that Australian Prime Minister John Howard has finally figured out he should distance himself somewhat from Washington, DC. There's only one problem. He didn't take a shot at his buddy George W. Bush, who is profoundly unpopular Down Under as well as Up Here. No, Howard went after that real American political hot commodity, Barack Obama, and the Democratic Party.In a press interview, Howard said of proposals from Obama and other Democrats to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq:

"I think that would just encourage those who wanted completely to destabilise and destroy Iraq, and create chaos and victory for the terrorists to hang on and hope for (an) Obama victory," Mr Howard told the Nine Network."If I was running al-Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008, and pray, as many times as possible, for a victory not only for Obama, but also for the Democrats."
Wow. This isn't Bushism; it's Cheneyism gone publicly rampant. And in a country whose people (a) like the Iraq War even less than Americans do, if that's possible, and (b) have a strong interest in maintaining good relations with both political parties in the U.S.The Obama campaign's quick response was rather direct:
"If Prime Minister Howard truly believes what he says, perhaps his country should find its way to contribute more than just 1,400 troops so some American troops can come home," [Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs] said. "It's easy to talk tough when it's not your country or your troops making the sacrifices."
Indeed. Gibbs might have gone on to point out that even the very limited Australian troop commitment is deeply controversial in that country. Howard's naming of Obama was perhaps not as weird as it would first appear to Americans. During my own recent visit to Australia, I was inundated with questions about the junior senator from Illinois; Aussies are extraordinarily well informed about U.S. politics. Moreover, Howard has been trying to make immigration a big wedge issue in the upcoming Australian elections, with the terrorist threat supposedly represented by Muslim immigrants being the public theme, and all sorts of racial fears lying just under the surface. Maybe an African-American politician with an Islamic-sounding name was just too tempting a target. Or maybe Howard's just watching too much Fox News.

February 9, 2007

Front Load

Why is the Democratic presidential nominating contest heating up earlier than ever? There are plenty of explanations, including an impressive field and the sense that this could be an especially momentous election. But the overriding reason is simply that despite widely-held complaints about the "front-loading" of the selection process in 2004, it's going to be much, much more front-loaded in 2008.Jerome Armstrong of MyDD has a good summary of what he calls "the biggest mess ever," and focuses on the maneuvering of some states to break into the DNC-dictated four-state (IA, NV, NH, SC) early calendar. And to be sure, all hell could break loose if NH and IA get into a crazy move-things-up-perpetually competition with other states to maintain their traditional first-caucus, first-primary status.But the bigger problem is the number and size of states that have moved up to dates just after SC. As Armstrong points out:

In 2004, seven states held primaries within a couple of weeks of New Hampshire, and already for 2008, sixteen states are in that window. Unlike the 2004, in 2008 there are mega-states like California, New Jersey, Michigan and Florida in that mix.
Some Democrats rationalized front-loading in 2004 on grounds that taking on an incumbent Republican president required an early start for the challenger. That's obviously not a factor in 2008; yet the front-loading proceeds apace, basically because we don't really have a national presidential nominating system.There are various theories about how front-loading will affect the 2008 contest. One is that it will actually magnify the importance of Iowa, where all indications are that there will be a close four-way race among Clinton, Edwards, Obama and Vilsack. Another is that the candidates with the most money and national support will "go long" and husband resources for delegate-rich post-SC states like CA and FL. But one thing's for certain: when a grind-it-out attrition campaign means waiting to throw your real weight into states voting on February 5, roughly nine months before the General Election, it's a very different nominating process than we've ever seen. And that makes me nervous.

February 8, 2007

Israel, Iran and Deterrence

There's a fascinating and important exchange underway on the New Republic site between Yossi Klein Halevi of the Shalem Center and Larry Derfner of the Jerusalem Post about Israel's options towards a potentially nuclear Iran.This debate was spurred by a widely quoted TNR article last week by Halevi along with Michael Oren that suggested Israelis have largely concluded that they cannot live with a nuclear Iran, and will probably soon launch some sort of attack on Iran's nuclear facilities even if that spurs retaliation or a large-scale Middle Eastern meltdown.You should read the entire exchange (Halevi's second rejoinder will appear tomorrow), but the central points in the dispute have to do with Halevi's belief that the Iran regime's peculiar theological nature will make it intolerably tempted to attack Israel with nuclear weapons regardless of the disastrous consequences to its own people, giving Israel little choice but to preempt that possibility or risk extinction.Derfner's latest post nails the central problem with Halevi's argument: it rejects the entire and completely successful history of nuclear deterrence:

You say it's "facile" of me to use Stalin and Mao to argue that even crazy, bloodthirsty leaders aren't likely to use nukes, because I'm disregarding the new element of apocalyptic Iranian religion. But, when I'm trying to anticipate what somebody's going to do in the future, I put a lot more store in his deeds than in his texts. I think Stalin's and Mao's purges of tens of millions of innocents augur much more for nuclear insanity than the Shia doctrine of the Hidden Imam. For all its violent repression at home and aid to Islamic terrorism abroad, post-revolutionary Iran has never started a war with another country. It has never used its WMD on anybody, either. It has never trafficked in genocide.The reason, I believe, is the power of deterrence. It has worked on Iran, too. It has worked on everybody--no exceptions. And, while there is, of course, a theoretical possibility that it won't work on a nuclear Iran, I think Israelis have to weigh the results of nuclear-age deterrence against the predictable and unpredictable results of a war against Iran--and to choose hopeful moderation over its fear-induced opposite.
There are, of course, considerable grounds for Israelis to believe that its nuclear deterrent won't stop conventional military attacks on their country; after all, during the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Egypt and Syria concluded (inaccurately, according to most accounts) that Israel would not launch a nuclear attack to keep Arab armies out of Tel Aviv. But the conventional threat to Israel is only marginally increased by Tehran's nuclear program, even if it's far more advanced and successful than most observers think it is. So the question remains: what's riskier for Israel? Relying on the 100% success rate of nuclear deterrence against nuclear attacks since Hiroshima? Or unleashing a regional war at a time when the furies that would unleash are undoubtedly horrifying, not least for Israel?

February 7, 2007

Campaign Staffers' Offensive Opinions

If you are a regular reader of political blogs, you are probably aware of the burgeoning kerfuffle over certain remarks about the Catholic Church expressed in the past by two bloggers recently hired by the John Edwards presidential campaign. The story has been percolating for a while, but blew up yesterday when National Review's Kathyrn Jean Lopez served up some choice quotes from one of the staffers, Amanda Marcotte (formerly of the Pandagon blog), suggesting that women's rights might be safer if the Virgin Mary had been able to get hold of Plan B contraceptives.As of this writing, it's not clear whether reports that the Edwards campaign was about to fire the duo are accurate or not. It is clear the campaign is a bit between a rock and a hard place, the rock being fear of association with anti-Catholic opinions, and the hard place being the progressive blogosphere's increasingly angry demands that Edwards stand up to right-wing intimidation or forfeit his previously strong Left Netroots support.Complicating the story is the fact that the notorious right-wing political operative Bill Donahue of the conservative factional Catholic League (best known for his demands that the Church excommunicate pro-choice politicians like John Kerry) has massively piled onto the dispute, running around the MSM today expressing outrage at the bloggers' offensive opinions. Thus, any Edwards effort to discipline or dismiss the bloggers is inevitably being interpreted as a cave-in to the Right-Wing Noise Machine on the order of Kerry's alleged refusal to counter the Swift Boat Veterans' smear of 2004.The person being most obviously victimized in the furor is the second Edwards staffer in question, Melissa McEwan (a.k.a. Shakespeare's Sister), who apparently did nothing more than use some profanity in rejecting anti-abortionist efforts to control women's reproductive systems. Big deal; I feel the same way myself on occasion, and I'm so Anglo-Catholic that I tend to catch a cold when the Pope sneezes.The underlying question, nicely framed by Ezra Klein at TAPPED, is whether we are henceforth going to be treated to endless oppo-research examinations of the published utterances of campaign staffers on topics other than, well, campaign staffing. Ezra thinks this would set a terrible precedent, and I tend to agree, though it's hardly a novelty; way back in 1972, George McGovern got flack for a pro-Palestinian manifesto that a campaign staffer, Rick Stearns, had signed years earlier as a college student (leading Hunter Thompson to facetiously refer to Stearns as "that devious Arab bastard" in his famous book on the campaign).Since Edwards' bloggers were not exactly hired to be back-room operators, perhaps the press release on their hiring should have included a disclaimer that read: "All our previously expressed opinions have now been subsumed in the transcendent cause of electing John Edwards president, to which we henceforth slavishly submit." That might have headed off a world of trouble.The deeper question, when it comes to Marcotte's more provocative quotes, is whether Catholics specifically, or Christians generally, ought to take offense at this sort of blasphemous nonsense, and play the victim. The simple reality is that the central mystery of Christianity, the Incarnation, is inevitably, to unbelievers, a standing invitation to sophomoric jibes about the Virgin Birth and the whole idea of God Made Human. That's hardly news, and hardly grounds for believers to get self-righteously huffy, particularly if some of their co-religionists insist on politicizing their faith as hacks like Donohue perpetually do.The whole dispute reminds me of the forgotten incident in 1971, when Patricia Buckley Bozell (yes, that Buckley's sister, and that Bozell's wife) assaulted feminist icon Ti-Grace Atkinson at a Catholic University podium after Atkinson made some smarmy remarks about the Virgin Mary "getting knocked up."Soon after, this letter appeared in Time Magazine:

As a Roman Catholic, as a supporter of the free expression of ideas, and as a believer in the virginity of Mary, I offer Ti-Grace Atkinson my apologies for the outlandish behavior of Patricia Buckley Bozell [March 22]. Never before has the Virgin Mary required the use of arms—or hands—to defend her. Mrs. Bozell was rather presumptuous to think that Mary now needed her intercession.
That's as true today as it was more than thirty-five years ago.

February 6, 2007

Rudy Up, Rudy Down

Even as Rudy Giuiliani continues to lead in many GOP presidential polls, there's a raging debate as to whether he could actually be nominated.Just today, Glenn Greenwald did a long, adamant post arguing that social conservatives care more about waging religio-ideological wars than about Rudy's deficiencies on abortion or gay rights. Meanwhile, TPMCafe's Election Central reports that one of the Christian Right's big poohbahs, Tony Perkins, went on Pat Robertson's network and dismissed Giuliani as an acceptable presidential candidate because of his views on abortion and gay rights, which place him "far outside the mainstream of conservative thought."Somebody's obviously right and somebody's obviously wrong here. I've been in the "Rudy Can Fail" camp all along, and though Greenwald's a persuasive guy, I think he's a bit too pre-persuaded that social conservatives don''t really believe what they say or say what they believe.

February 5, 2007

Which Troops Withdrawn When?

Yesterday's Washington Post had an article comparing and contrasting Democratic presidential candidates' positions, as reflected in their DNC Winter Meeting speeches, about exactly how rapidly (assuming they endorse any sort of withdrawal "timetable") they want to get U.S. troops out of Iraq. And over at DKos, Trapper John provided a handy-dandy list with the number of months before withdrawal for each candidate's plan, followed up by a poll of Kossacks on their preference.This is all nice and neat, but there's one problem that I tried to draw attention to last week: it's not at all clear which troops would be withdrawn under some of the various proposals. Barack Obama's plan sets a "goal" for withdrawal of "combat brigades" by the end of March, 2008, but also says: "A residual U.S. presence may remain in Iraq for force protection, training of Iraqi security forces, and pursuit of international terrorists." And even the Kerry-Feingold resolution of last summer, generally thought of as the gold standard of "fixed withdrawal deadline" proposals, exempted from its entire withdrawal timetable "the minimal number of forces that are critical to completing the mission of standing up Iraqi security forces, conducting targeted and specialized counterterrorism operations, and protecting United States facilities and personnel."Words like "residual" and "minimal" suggest we're not talking about a lot of troops, but who really knows? And who will make that determination if not the Bush administration? I raise this point not to annoy people with details, but because the growing obsession of many antiwar folks--and for that matter, of their critics-- with calendar dates may miss the more fundamental question that needs to be raised about Iraq: which missions would we be turning over to the Iraqis, and which missions would be continued, and for how long? Isn't that at least as important as how many months a given proposal would provide for withdrawal of an ill-defined number of troops?

February 3, 2007

Iran: Red Herring Or Real Deal?

There's a bit of interesting confusion breaking out in the progressive blogosphere about how to react to persistent reports (freshly denied, of course, by the White House) that the administration is planning military operations against Iran on grounds of its meddling in Iraq.Armando at Talk Left did an impassioned post accusing Matt Yglesias and James Fallows of arguing for a shift of progressive attention from Iraq to Iran. His main arguments are (1) Iran war talk is "bait" from the Bushies aimed at dissipating congressional efforts to end the war in Iraq; and (2) because Bush and Cheney have no legal authority to start a war with Iran, taking military action based on Iran's role in Iraq is how they are going to get there. I get dragooned into the argument as someone who doesn't "get" this latter point, based on a post that expressed incredulity at an Iraqi rationale for an attack on Iran.McJoan at DailyKos picks up on Armando's post, and clarifies his argument, especially on Point II, suggesting that the only way Bush gets to wage war on Iran is by citing the Iraq War Resolution.What's confusing to me about both posts is a pretty simple point: is the Iran war talk really a "red herring?" Or is the administration really lusting for immediate war with Iran?In terms of the "red herring" claim, you have to remember that most of the reports of administration war planning against Iran have been relatively under-the-radar, and have been talked about far more by administration critics than by official or unofficial Bush supporters. I see no particular evidence that congressional Dems are folding their tents on Iraq. And with all due respect to the blogosphere, I don't think the Bushies think they can avoid getting repudiated on Iraq just because some bloggers are arguing about the relative importance of Iran.If the White House really wanted to throw sand in the eyes of Iraq War critics, including a sizable majority of the American people, they'd be doing some very high-profile Iran scaremongering, not focused on Tehran's role in Iraq, but on the nuclear program, which has indeed gotten significant public and MSM attention.That brings me to the second prong of the Armando-McJoan argument: the Bushies have to make Iraq the pretext for an attack on Iran because they'd otherwise have to get a fresh war resolution from Congress, which ain't happening. So they are stuck with a transparently stupid and specious rationale for a new war, which would be explicitly described as an expansion of an existing, and overwhelmingly unpopular war. If, that is, they really want to attack Iran, and aren't just creating a "red herring."You can see how this argument gets to be a bit circular. The administration either wants war with Iran, or it doesn't, and if it does, it needs a plausible rationale a hell of a lot more than it needs congressional authority (remember its continuing claims of all sorts of inherent presidential national security powers?). And there's an obvious scenario where that could happen: the U.S. strongly encourages the Israelis to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, and then intervenes to help our ally as a matter of emergency military action, subject only to after-the-fact congressional endorsement under the War Powers Act, if the need for any authority was admitted.As for the initial question of how progressive bloggers should think about these tangled questions, I don't quite see how worrying about a new war keeps anyone from stopping the old one, unless you're really into an extreme version of the Noise Machine theory and think any dissent or distraction from the Message of the Day somehow adds strength to Bush's rapidly collapsing support on Iraq.So let a few bloggers try to walk and chew gum at the same time.

February 2, 2007

War With Iran: Bad Craziness

Although I'm not as convinced as a lot of progressive bloggers that Bush is about to launch a military campaign against Iran, there's certainly enough smoke out there to legitimately worry about fire.There are actually two separate reasons to worry.On the one hand, you've got renewed saber-rattling in Israel about the intolerability of a nuclear Iran. Israeli fears about Iran were nicely summarized last week in a New Republic piece by Yossi Klein Halevi and Michael Oren. I'm not about to tell Israelis what they should think or do about defending their own country, but still, the apparent conviction of 66% of Israelis that Ahmadinejad would happily sacrifice half his population (a realistic assessment, given Israel's own massive nuclear arsenal) in order to hit Israel with a nuclear strike is, well, a bit counter-intuitive. Missing from this scary calculus is the virtual certainty that Ahmadinejad would be strangled in his bed if he made a single move in the direction of wiping out his own people.I'm not one to dismiss Ahmadinejad's anti-semitic ravings as just some sort of "populist" claptrap, but we might as well remember that the very model of anti-semitic madmen, Adolph Hitler (who unlike the Iranian really did enjoy total personal power over his state) refrained from using chemical weapons during World War II out of fear of Allied retaliation.Even if Israelis are in fact losing faith in the power of their nuclear deterrent, you do have to wonder if some of the war talk is in fact aimed at psychological deterrence. A quick Google search produced reliable-sounding articles from 2005 and 2006 (here and here) reporting that an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities was imminent. Perhaps Israelis are trying to convince Iranians that if they are unwilling to halt their nuclear program, they'd better find a leader who doesn't threaten the destruction of Israel every other day.If indeed Israel is on the edge of attacking Iran, you could understand why the Bush administration might be looking at what it would do in that contingency. But that's the really weird thing: reports are now coming out that Bush and Cheney are considering a military confrontation with Iran that has nothing to do with its nuclear program.Check out this report yesterday from U.S. News:

The US News Political Bulletin has learned Democrats on Capitol Hill are increasingly concerned that President Bush will order air strikes against targets in Iran in the next few months or even weeks. They cite as evidence the tough warnings from senior Administration officials, including the Commander in Chief, that Iranian help for insurgents in Iraq is leading to the deaths of US troops and Iraqi civilians. Democratic insiders tell the Political Bulletin that they suspect Bush will order the bombing of Iranian supply routes, camps, training facilities, and other sites that Administration officials say contribute to American losses in Iraq. Under this scenario, Bush would not invade Iran with ground forces or zero in on Iranian nuclear facilities.
If true, this is a much crazier idea than anything being contemplated in Israel. Whatever Iran is up to in Iraq, the reality is that its primary agents in Iraq are SCIRI and its Badr Corps militia, which the Bush administration has called the great hope for marginalizing the Mahdi Army and building a "unity" government. And for that matter, the Maliki government is unmistakably pro-Iran as well. It's hard to overestimate the extent to which a shooting war with Iran could destroy what little influence the U.S. still has in Iraq, unless we're going to make the Sunni insurgency our new base of support. To risk all that, and not even make Iran's nuclear facilities the target, makes absolutely no sense.Moreover, and this is the factor that neither Israeli nor American anti-Iranian saber-rattlers seem to want to talk about, any military confrontation with Iran would almost certaintly unite the Iranian people behind their government. While hardly a perfect democracy, Iran does have elections; that's how Ahmadinejad gained power in the first place. His party recently got waxed in local elections, a fact that seems to elude those who view Iran as a theocracy where elections are entirely rigged. The simplest and least dangerous path to a less dangerous Iran is to encourage its people to get rid of Ahmadinejad. An attack on Iran would likely take this option off the table, perhaps forever.There's already growing paranoia among progressive bloggers that "cowardly" DC Democrats would go along with the above-described plan for military strikes against Iran over its role in Iraq. I guess I would qualify as a "liberal hawk"' by the standards of many such bloggers, and when it comes to this crazy plan, let me say: not me, buddy. It would be a strategic disaster, and Democrats along with sane Republicans ought to fight it tooth and nail.

February 1, 2007

Identity Voting

Mark Schmitt, whom I hold in great esteem, has a long post up at TAPPED on the question of whether Hillary Clinton's ace card in the 2008 presidential race is her hidden support among women, even those who don't agree with her on major issues.Mark's actually responding to a blogospheric exchange with one Linda Hershman, who published a Washington Post op-ed piece basically arguing that women are too apolitical, and too politically irrational, to get the job done for HRC. Mark effectively demolishes Hershman's condescending and anectdotal take on female political engagment, but also, perhaps overcompensating, disputes the Mark Penn/James Carville hypothesis that women will go for HRC more than for any other candidate with similar policy views. Indeed, he suggests Penn and Carville are playing into the same gender stereotypes as Hershman.I just can't agree with Mark here, and not because I think women are more inclined than anyone else to indulge, on the margins, in identity voting, but because I don't think they, unlike everyone else, are entirely immune to it.My empirical evidence here is less about HRC's polling numbers than about history.Anyone who's looked at Catholic voting trends over the decades recognizes that Al Smith, and more spectacularly, John F. Kennedy, benefitted from massive and disproportiate support from Catholic voters who had no other apparent reason for voting for them. Jimmy Carter would not have been elected president in 1976 without huge southern identity support in states that went heavily Republican before and after his presidency. Bill Clinton won less overwhelming, but still crucial support in the South for the same reasons. And if you compare voting levels and margins in South Florida between 2000 and 2004, it's pretty apparent that the Gore-Lieberman ticket got into overtime in no small part because of Lieberman's ethnic appeal to Jews.I understand that HRC arouses intense opposition from some outspoken women who view her as a feminist archetype they reject, or inversely, in some cases, as too subordinate or forgiving towards her husband. But JFK was also controvesial among Catholics; many clergy deplored him as too secular. It didn't much matter when it came to the ballot box.The bottom line is that you don't have to get into invidious gender stereotypes to understand that yes, HRC, as the first really viable female candidate for president, is likely to get votes from women that aren't just a function of policy agreements or political alignment. And since unlike JFK or Carter or Lieberman, she represents a category of Americans that is a majority, not a minority in the electorate, I wouldn't personally be too quick to underestimate the impact of identity voting in her case.

Anti-Bush Iraq Consensus: Key Questions

You could almost hear the whirring of emails flying around on Capitol Hill and in the blogosphere after the news this morning that Carl Levin, Joe Biden, and most importantly Harry Reid had signed onto a revised version of John Warner's non-binding resolution opposing the Bush escalation plan for Iraq. " Sources" indicated that Reid would make the Warner resolution the centerpiece of the planned Senate debate on Iraq next week, in an effort to get a filibuster-proof 60-plus votes for a repudiation of Bush's plan. And the same story provided a somewhat confused report that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had instructed staff to come up with an identical version of the Warner resolution, and/or that she was aiming at something quite different.Adding to the confusion were reports that the Warner resolution would foreswear any effort to cut off funding for troops in Iraq; since the language hasn't been publicly released, it's not clear at all what that means. (No effort to cut or condition troop funding at all? No effort to cut funding for new troops? No effort to deny supplemental funding for an escalated troop level later on? Who knows?).While the early stories on the Warner resolution emphasize the difficulty of getting sufficient Republicans on board, it's equally clear that some more aggressively antiwar Democrats might throw sand into the works. And indeed, Sen. Chris Dodd, a presidential candidate, has already announced his opposition.Meanwhile, as of this writing, there's a bit of an eerie silence on the latest maneuver in the progressive blogosphere. Scanning some of the big sites, I saw one post at DailyKos that rather tentatively worries that congressional Dems are caving. Everywhere else, folks seem to be holding their powder or waiting for details.I hope this means there's at least some agreement that a maximum congressional repudiation of the Bush escalation plan, so long as it does not completely foreclose additional steps if Bush continues to stubbornly plug ahead with an approach almost nobody thinks can work, has some real political value. As I guess we all know, the Pentagon already has sufficient existing funds to do what Bush wants it to do. And as Matt Yglesias pointed out earlier today, the real opportunity to restrict or condition funding will occur a few months down the road, when Bush has to come back to Congress and request new money.But there is another, and perhaps more fundamental, question raised by the Warner resolution, and by a host of other proposals. According to the Post:

The Warner and Biden resolutions reach almost identical conclusions, in that they oppose the president's deployment of 21,500 additional troops and call for existing troops to be reassigned to guard Iraq's borders, combat terrorism and train Iraqi security forces. Both measures call for regional diplomacy to draw Iraq's neighbors into a peace process.
Note the "reassignment" language. This basically means rejecting the idea of any continued combat role for U.S. troops, especially in places like Baghdad. That's also what the Iraq Study Group called for. And it's hard to avoid the implication that this "reassignment," or "redeployment" if you prefer, would make immediate and substantial troop withdrawals not only possible but necessary, right?I draw attention to this rather simple point because so many commentators have made troop levels and withdrawal deadlines the key dividing issue on Iraq, especially among Democrats. Yet at least some of the "deadline" proposals, most notably Barack Obama's latest plan, only talk about a deadline for withdrawing combat brigades, and explicitly provides for an apparently indefinite deployment of an undefined number of other troops. Since Obama's (and for that matter, the Kerry-Feingold resolution that was supposed to be the toughest get-out-soon approach) plan explicitly talks about maintaining "counter-terrorism" operations within Iraq, I assume "non-combat troops" includes special ops units.This matters, of course, because if supporters of the Warner resolution are calling for a change of mission that means "withdraw combat troops," then maybe the allegedly vast gulf among Democrats and even some Republicans on Iraq isn't as vast as it seems.There are plenty of Democrats, in Congress, and on the blogs, and plenty of Americans, who literally think we should get every single U.S. soldier and marine out of Iraq almost immediately, including special ops forces and training personnel. But the real issues aren't often resolved by the obsession with "deadlines." The real choices aren't necessarily "escalate," "stay the course," or "out now." And even if you are in the "out now" camp, it's not quite honest to say that proposals that would mean withdrawal of combat forces and elimination of any U.S. intention to "resolve" the civil war or control the country are just "status quo" approaches. And moreover, since public opinion is clearly demanding a change of course, it's undeniable that the polls are not offering Americans anything like the full range of options on the table in Washington (How, for example, would you fit Obama's proposal into the "more troops, same troops, or withdraw all troops?" questions typically posed?).Speaking of public opinion, a number of bloggers, in pressing congressional Dems to move forward quickly with a funding cutoff for the war, keep citing poll numbers indicating that 64% of Americans don't think Congress has been sufficiently assertive in challenging Bush on the war. This is from a recent Newsweek poll, and the exact wording begins, "Since the Iraq war began...." Based on a question that clearly asks respondents to think back for nearly four years, I don't think this finding can be credibly used to suggest that Americans have already decided the new Democratic Congress is being too timid.UPDATE: Well, the Silence of the Blogs on the Warner resolution has ended, apparently led by Sen. Russ Feingold's description of the resolution as an endorsement of every aspect of Bush's strategy other than the escalation plan. Markos weighs in with a blast at Harry Reid. My buddy Armando at TalkLeft hammers me and Matt Yglesias for simply suggesting that Dems shouldn't reject the Warner resolution out of hand, and goes on to say we're once again exhibiting the fatal timidity that led us to support the war resolution back in 2002, etc., etc. (Don't know how Armando knows that about me, since I wasn't blogging back then, and since there was actually internal dissent on Iraq at the DLC, but that's a subject for a different post on a different day, if anyone actually cares what I thought in 2002). Armando's jeremiad is a bit off-target, since as I noted above, I hadn't gotten hold of the actual language of the Warner resolution, and also didn't know exactly what Harry Reid's strategy entailed. Having now read the resolution, I can't quite agree with Feingold that it represents an endorsement of the status quo, since it pretty clearly says we should get out of operations in Baghdad, which we are in currently, even without the surge. But I see his point that it doesn't very clearly articulate a completely new mission that will involve withdrawal of most if not all conventional combat troops, and the language on funding "for the troops in the field," ambiguous as it is, will undoubtedly be quoted back to Democrats if they move in the direction of action on funding in the future.But the basic political reality is that none of this much matters if the Warner resolution winds up attracting only a few Republicans and if a significant number of Democrats oppose it, as now appears likely. Then it really does become a pointless exercise, and Dems might as well go back to embracing something like the Biden-Hagel resolution (which Feingold supported), which will probably get as many votes as the Warner resolution would. I don't understand why Reid signed onto Warner's resolution without making sure he could bring just about every Democrat along, but it's not looking like a smooth move today.