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March 27, 2007

Triumph of Corruption

Today's news brings a true blast from the past: Ronald Reagan's legendary budget director and former Congressman, David Stockman, has been indicted on charges of conspiracy, securities fraud and obstruction of justice in connection with his operation of an auto parts firm that went bankrupt in 2005. He faces up to thirty years in the hoosegow, along with fines that could reach over a billion dollars. Many younger readers may have never heard of Stockman, who masterminded the massive budget and tax bills that characterized the core of Reaganomics. But he was virtually a pop culture figure in the early 80s, before losing power and eventually being forced out of office after incautiously admitting to journalist William Greider that the Reagan budgets were creating a fiscal disaster, mainly because Republicans had caved in to special interest demands while lavishing unnecessary hundreds of billions of excess dollars on the Pentagon.Shortly after leaving the administration, Stockman published what still stands as one of the best political "insider" books ever written, The Triumph of Politics, which expanded on his Greider interviews in fascinating detail. As the title indicates, the book chronicled the abandonment of the lofty objectives of Reagan's initial budget blueprint thanks to an orgy of vote-buying and constituency-tending by GOP pols. Two sections of the book particularly stand out in my own memory: Stockman's angry account of then-Defense Secretary Cap Weinberger's exploitation of an accounting error to secure a vast increase in the Pentagon budget above and beyond what Reagan had originally proposed; and his graphic description of the bipartisan special-interest bidding war that made the first Reagan tax bill fiscally and morally ruinous, eventually requiring a big fix in the 1986 tax reform legislation. Aside from its historical value, Stockman's book remains relevant because he so clearly anticipated and analyzed the political dynamics that ultimately produced the systemic fiscal profligacy and corruption of the Bush/DeLay-era GOP. Indeed, it was Stockman who coined the phrase "starve the beast" for the cynical conservative argument that unfunded tax cuts and huge deficits could restrain big government down the road without the political pain associated with specific budget cuts. The Bush-DeLay era of corruption, which pervaded corporate as well as political circles, led among other things to enactment of the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation. In a special twist of fate, that's the law under which Stockman has been indicted. I have no idea whether Stockman is guilty as charged, but it would be highly ironic if the man who offered the first and best analysis (and confession) of the moral rot infecting latter-day conservatism succumbed to corruption himself.
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March 26, 2007

A Bad Anti-War Litmus Test

Earlier this year I tried, unsuccessfully, to spur some talk in the progressive blogosphere about the provisions made in most Iraq troop withdrawal plans for "residual" forces to fight terrorist cells, deter foreign intervention, and prevent wholesale communal "cleansing." I did so in the hopes of illustrating a progressive consensus, extending even into the ranks of Republicans, for a formula of eliminating our conventional combat presence in Iraq while acknowledging a continuing obligation to keep the country from going completely to hell in a handbasket--at a time when the obsession with withdrawal timetables and deadlines seemed to obscure this consensus.Well, the subject has finally come up in the blogosphere, but in the context of growing efforts to suggest a bright-line difference between Hillary Clinton and her main rivals. Today at MyDD, Matt Stoller seized on HRC's discussion of a residual commitment to Iraq to fight terrorists and deter foreign intervention to suggest that she's beyond the pale for anti-war Democrats:

There is just no way that she can say that she will end the war and that she will continue a military mission in Iraq to contain extremists and ward off Iran. Those are mutually exclusive.
There's one big problem with Matt's anathema: it would also apply to Barack Obama, John Edwards, and quite a few other Democrats generally considered to be unimpeachably anti-war.Obama's Iraq withdrawal plan explicity calls for a "residual force" to stay in the country to fight terrorists and deter foreign intervention. John Edwards, who has emphasized the need for immediately withdrawing half the current troop deployment, has also talked about a continuing if limited military commitment. And even such withdrawal hardliners as John Kerry, Russ Feingold and Jack Murtha have supported the same kind of commitment through an "over the horizon" force prepared to re-intervene at a moment's notice, and even a "minimal" force, presumably special ops counter-terrorism units, operating within Iraq.So if Matt Stoller or anyone else wants to make total withdrawal of every single boot on the ground, and a promise to foreswear any residual "military mission" in Iraq, the new litmus test, HRC is not the only candidate who would flunk. In fact, it would pretty much limit the "true progressive" choice to Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel.UPDATE: Matt Yglesias, an anti-Iraq war warrior of long standing, reacted to this post by generally agreeing with it, though he disputed my obiter dicta digression into the views of Kerry, Feingold and Murtha, whose "over the horizon" force proposal Matt considers "qualitatively different" from a true "residual force" in Iraq. (That may be true, but in terms of Stoller's litmus test, any military commitment to a future, hypothetical intervention in Iraq is unacceptable). But Matt Y. does concede that Obama and Edwards haven't made "ironclad" total withdrawal commitments, and that those Dems who basically want to forbid U.S. military force commitments in the Middle East ought to be supporting Denny the K.
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March 25, 2007

Southern Non-Sequitur

South-bashing is definitely in fashion in progressive circles these days, but a recent Matt Stoller post at MyDD takes it to a whole new level. Turns out, according to Matt, that the South is responsible not only for what he considers to be the excesses of Cold War politics, but for the labor movement's support of same.Here's Stoller's tortured logic, at some length:

The roots of this [national security] state are traceable directly to an authoritarian South, a one-party unique region in America that has held the balance of power since the 1930s and that was and is dedicated above all to a race-based hierarchical society. Through shaping even progressive legislation, like the Wagner Act, Dixiecrats ensured that broad-based class movements failed. It's not widely-understood, but the reason the South flipped to an anti-labor stance in the 1940s is because the CIO had tremendous success in organizing multi-racial unions as World War II labor markets tightened. This was a direct threat to Jim Crow, and so Southern Democrats cooperated with Republicans to pass Taft-Hartley, a piece of legislation which basically made labor organizing impossible and turned unions into groups that can only advocate for their own survival. At the same time, there were massive pre-McCarthy purges of leftists and decertifications of leftists unions, leaving unions open to infiltration by the CIA, FBI, organized crime, and bureaucratic inertia. The biggest movement for social justice in American history - the labor movement of the 1930s - ran up against the South, and the South turned it into a pro-Vietnam reactionary force that rejected the New Left in the 1960s.
Wow. This is some serious logic-jumping. The anti-communist orientation of the U.S. labor movement from the 1950s on was in fact rooted in its own traditions, dating back to the rejection of socialism by the AFL before and after the turn of the twentieth century. And the CIO went to great lengths to disassociate itself from its few pro-Moscow affiliates, before, during and after the failure of its efforts to unionize Dixie. Taft-Hartley did indeed negatively affect the labor movement, but not that much initially: the rapid decline in union representation of the work force really started happening in the 1970s. As for the idea that a southern-dictated "reactionary" union posture led to the rejection of the New Left--well, that's just not true. Aside from the longstanding and principled anti-communism of the labor movement, there wasn't much about the New Left that was attractive to organized working folks. The cultural attitudes of most New Leftists were anethema to union members and activists. And the New Left's characteristic belief that upper- and middle-class students and intellectuals represented a new proletariat was offensive to almost all labor activists, including serious socialists. These are fundamental issues that have nothing much to do with the South. Indeed, if the South had never existed, the U.S. labor movement would have, for its own reasons, still been anti-communist and culturally moderate if not conservative. Attributing the distinctive positions of the labor movement to the region where it had almost no influence is a strange non-sequitur. And wrong.
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March 23, 2007

The Edwards Non-Suspension

The first thing many people heard about John and Elizabeth Edwards' dramatic press conference yesterday was a raft of "breaking news" bulletins suggesting that the former senator was going to suspend his campaign, or perhaps even drop out entirely, because his wife had been diagnosed with a recurrence of cancer. Turns out the whole wave of "reports" was based on a single blog post on the site of the new "insider" publication, The Politico, which in turn was based on a single source.Within about forty-five minutes of the "Edwards To Suspend Campaign" reports, the press conference happened, and it became clear John Edwards was going to keep campaigning full speed, with his wife keeping up her own fairly rigorous campaign schedule. So: no harm, no foul, right?Maybe not. What would have otherwise been a press conference disclosing and contextualizing a health condition not known to the public instead became a "surprise" announcement that the Edwards campaign would go on, exposing the candidate to accusations of insufficient concern for his wife's health, and/or to the suspicion that a suspension or abandonment of his campaign might come later. In other words, the Politico story was grossly unfair to John and Elizabeth Edwards.Leave it to Rush Limbaugh to pile on, first fatuously suggesting that the Edwards campaign leaked the suspension story to create a buzz, and then offensively attacking both John and Elizabeth Edwards for calling the press conference instead of "turning to God."Methinks it's Limbaugh who ought to "turn to God" and ask for forgiveness for this latest high-profile act of pure hatefulness.
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March 21, 2007

"Vote Different"

Well, I guess I'll lose my blogger license if I don't join the rest of the hep world and do a post on the YouTube pseudo-spot, "Vote Different." In case you somehow missed it, this is a short video produced by some so-far-anonymous Barack Obama fan appropriating images from an apparently legendary 1984 Apple ad introducing the Mac, and identifying Hillary Clinton with the Big Brother of the Orwell classic. When I finally looked at the thing earlier today, it had already obtained well over a million hits, having gone "viral" several days ago.But the buzz over the spot, which is spilling over into the MSM, is what's really big, with some commentators suggesting that this kind of political non-ad ad content may be the defining development of 2008, building on the infamous Swift Boat ads of 2004, which started with a modest buy and then went viral over the internet and other secondary media.It's obviously a blow for truth, justice and the American way if some obscure schmo can show up the Media Consultancy in this way; maybe it will even drive down the cost of political campaigns.There's only one problem: "Vote Different," for all its striking images, doesn't really provide much in the way of actual content. Some excited viewers seem to think it provides a brilliant intergenerational commentary on Obama's Too Cool For Details challenge to the boring, establishment HRC. But I can't see anyone changing their minds about either candidate based on staring at this spot: if you don't already pretty much hate Hillary, you're as likely as not to be annoyed by her depiction as Big Brother, entrancing an army of slaves with soporific talk.Indeed, I'm a bit amused that all the lefty bloggers who are praising "Vote Different" don't stop to note that the video arguably trades in the standard Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy "meme" about HRC as a dangerous totalitarian figure--a Red Queen who wants to take away our freedoms.As someone who likes both Clinton and Obama, I hope this sort of metaphorical differentiation between the two candidates is not the shape of things to come.UPDATE: Turns out Matt Yglesias made the same point yesterday about the Red Queen treatment of HRC. Sorry for the redundancy. But it is worth noting that quite a few of the commenters at Matt's site basically said they agreed with the Right's ridiculous take on HRC--for diametrically opposed reasons, of course.
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March 20, 2007

Towards a Post-Iraq Foreign Policy

E.J. Dionne's Washington Post column today takes stock of the effect of the Iraq disaster on the general drift of U.S. foreign policy:

To understand how much the Iraq war has transformed the way most Americans think about foreign policy, consider what passed for shrewd analysis four years ago.

The words on the "in" list included "unilateral," "bold," "robust," "transformative" and "sole remaining superpower." The words on the "out" list included "multilateral," "nuance," "patience," "diplomacy," "allies," "history" and "prudence."Today, the "in" and "out" lists would be almost exactly reversed. The new "out" list includes such additions as "reckless," "arrogant" and "incompetent."

That's all true, and salutory, but it just scratches the surface of the reevaluation that will ultimately play out as the Iraq engagement winds down. And that reevaluation will go well beyond the long-running debate (mainly on the Left but increasingly on the Right) as to whether the Iraq War was fundamentally and inherently misbegotten, or a theoretically justifiable action that was misplanned and misexecuted to an epic degree. Within the "inherently misbegotten" camp, there are those who stress the irrelevance of Iraq to the real security threats posed by Al Qaeda and other terrorist networks, and those who consider the Iraq invasion a reflection of the hubristic and imperial mentality that suffuses the whole idea of the war on terror. A good if somewhat extreme example of the latter tendency appeared in the Outlook section of the Post on March 11, in a piece by Tony Smith of Tufts University that lumped together liberal internationalists and neocons as indistinguishable imperialists, while less forthrightly forging an alliance with conservative "realists" who argue for restraint in foreign policy commitments while rejecting trifles like human rights concerns or collective security arrangements.Smith's article caught my attention because it fingered Will Marshall and the Progressive Policy Institute as Ground Zero for the "neoliberal" foreign policy thinking he luridly describes as identical to neoconservatism, and as dominating the Democratic Party. I found his breathless and alarmed revelation that many Democrats are "Wilsonians" in foreign policy a bit hilarious. And Smith's dismissal of the vast differences between neocons and "neoliberals" on such small subjects as the significance of international organizations, the equality of nations, civil liberties, and the self-imposition of common rules of behavior by the United States, is simply disingenuous. But Smith does illustrate the kind of broader questions that we must all get used to when this dreadful war finally ends, and should get used to right now.
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March 18, 2007

Nomination Abomination

When California formally enacted legislation last week moving its 2008 presidential primary to February 5, it took a big step towards making that day not only by far the earliest and most massive Super Tuesday in history, but perhaps a de facto national primary that would almost certainly end the nominating process for both parties.Today’s New York Times has a handy-dandy chart listing the 8 states already scheduled for a February 5 (AL, AR, AZ, CA, DE, MO, OK and UT), the 8 additional states considered likely to go there next (FL, IL, KS, NJ, NM, NY, NC, and TX), and 6 more that are thinking seriously about it (CO, GA, MI, MT, RI and TN). On the Democratic side, if all 22 states went on February 5, they would award 59% of all 2008 delegates, nearly double the prize for the end-it-all 2004 Super Tuesday, and also nearly a month earlier.This, folks, is simply crazy. February 5 is nine months before the general election, and roughly six months before the nominating conventions. The heavily front-loaded 2004 schedule was rationalized by some Democrats as necessary to give the nominee time to take on an incumbent; there’s no such excuse for the far more front-loaded 2008 calendar. It virtually guarantees that three factors—money, name ID, and success in the earliest states, especially Iowa—will determine the outcome. And it may well snuff any serious chance for the lower-tier candidates in both parties, who must now somehow simultaneously combine relentless campaigning in Iowa with the massive fundraising necessary to compete in the incredibly expensive February 5 landscape.Most importantly, the emerging calendar will provide zero opportunity for second thoughts after the early rush has anointed nominees. It could be a very long spring, summer and autumn if a nominee commits some major blunder, or some disabling skeleton jumps out of a closet.For Democrats, the only silver lining is that their top-tier candidates are probably closer to being bullet-proof than those on the other side. Giuliani and McCain are very weak front-runners at this point, but with no one else appearing in position to catch fire rapidly, GOPers may get stuck with one of them in much the same way that they shrugged and unenthusiastically nominated Bob Dole in 1996.But there’s no doubt that this crazy early national primary represents a failure of national Democratic leadership. A revolt against the Iowa/New Hampshire duopoly that emerged right after the 2004 elections led to a weak and ultimately counter-productive “solution”: allowing one state (NV) to move between IA and NH, and another (SC) to move up to right after NH. This had the effect of honking off NH, which could produce an even greater calamity by moving its primary ahead of IA (probably spurring an insane competition that could move the whole process into this year), while luring half the country into moving up to the “window” right after SC. Meanwhile, IA’s more important than ever.You can’t really blame the individual states for this happening; it’s a classic apes-on-a-treadmill situation. What could have happened, and what should happen before the next go-around, is a truly national approach. Whether it’s a lottery, or a carefully matched series of states around the country, or regional primaries, or just the kind of spread-out process that prevailed until recently, it could be imposed by the DNC through a combination of (a) strict rules against seating of delegates chosen outside the calendar guidelines, and (b) an aggressive effort to recruit all candidates in advance to support the decision, with ejection from DNC-sponsored debates, or if necessary, a ban on speaking opportunities at the Convention, being the stick.But if we don’t get seriously angry about this abomination right now, we’re going to find ourselves in the same situation four and eight years from now.
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March 13, 2007

Theocracy Without Faith?

In his long, compelling take on Dinesh D'Souza's The Enemy At Home in The New Republic, Andrew Sullian makes one point about D'Souza that I think may be characteristic of others on the Right:

Where he differs from the religious right is in his willingness to find the proper political authority, the proper models of political virtue, in Islam. Islam and Christianity together: that is D'Souza's dream. He does not seem especially interested in God. He writes nothing about his own faith, whatever it is. His interest is not in the metaphysics or the mysteries of religion, but in the uses of religion for social control. (Somewhere Machiavelli is smiling.) In the goal of maintaining patriarchy, banning divorce, outlawing homosexuality, and policing blasphemy, any orthodoxy will do. D'Souza's religion, in a sense, is social conservatism. He is not going to let a minor matter such as the meanings of God get in the way of his religion.
I'd go further and suggest that even some ostensibly religious conservatives have conflated faith with cultural conservatism, as though the moral and sexual practices, and gender roles, of the nineteenth century in Europe and America and of many developing countries today were the sum and substance of Christianity. D'Souza may not be the only spokesman for what might be described as theocracy without faith: the use of religious authority to impose a particular type of social order, with the actual observance of the underlying religion being a trifle.
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March 11, 2007

Evangelical Purge Denied

Yesterday Kevin Drum drew attention to a March 1 letter sent by a collection of Christian Right poohbahs to the chairman of the board of the National Association of Evangelicals calling for a repudiation and/or firing of NAE governmental affairs director Richard Cizik because of his high-profile advocacy of action on global warming. Signed by such political luminaries as James Dobston, Tony Perkins, Gary Bauer, and Paul Weyrich, the letter ostensibly objects to Cizik's (and the NAE's) firm position on the science and urgency of global climate change (in an unintentionally hilarious line, the letter says "the issue should be addressed scientifically, and not theologically.").But as Kevin notes, the real subtext is that Cizik and NAE are threatening the marriage of convenience between conservative evangelicals and the Republican Party, to which Dobson and company owe much of their influence.Kevin also pulls a paragraph from the letter that I find fascinating for a slightly different reason than he does:

Finally, Cizik's disturbing views seem to be contributing to growing confusion about the very term, "evangelical." As a recent USA Today article notes: "Evangelical was the label of choice of Christians with conservative views on politics, economics and biblical morality. Now the word may be losing its moorings, sliding towards the same linguistic demise that "fundamentalist" met decades ago because it has been misunderstood, misappropriated and maligned.
In other words, these Christian Right leaders are accusing Cizik of messing with their brand (or more specifically, with their claim to be able to deliver "evangelicals" to the GOP for its entire agenda). This is a rather audacious complaint, since the identification of the term "evangelical" with "conservative views on politics, economics and biblical morality" is of very recent vintage, and remains highly dubious. There's no universally recognized definition of "evangelical Christians," though most would suggest it refers to Protestants who stress personal conversion experiences, a responsibility to proselytize, and the ultimate authority of Scripture as opposed to church tradition or speculative theology. That being "evangelical" does not necessarily involve "conservative views on politics, economics and biblical morality" is illustrated by the name of the resolutely mainline, 4 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, not to mention the largely evangelical nature of most African-American churches. Moreoever, there is a robust tradition among even very conservative evangelicals to maintain a posture of independence from secular political parties, reflecting their unhappy collective experience with state churches in Europe. So in effect, some of the political counter-trends among evangelicals represent a rejection of a relatively recent coup effort by a Christian Right faction that appears to be losing influence on every front. And today's Washington Post brings the news that the effort to muzzle or fire Cizik has gone nowhere. The NAE board went out of its way last week to reaffirm a policy statement that included the "creation care" commitment to action on global climate change that so agitated the Christian Right leaders.This conspicuous declaration of independence from Dobson and company has to sting. More and more, it's clear that the leaders of the Christian Right effort to marry their ministries to the secular agenda of the GOP and the conservative movement truly have traded their birthrights for a mess of pottage.
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March 8, 2007

Frames Run Wild

One of my serious pet peeves about the blogosphere is the widespread abuse of a legitimate but limited principle: in intra-progressive debates, one should make some effort to avoid the use of language and lines of argument that reinforce "the other side's" attacks on progressives generally.Taken to an extreme, as it often is, all the fretting about "frames" and "memes" has a very chilling effect on political discourse, amounting on occasion to willful repression. Worse yet, it reflects the strange belief that politics is all about "noise" and "narratives;" whoever makes the most noise or gets the most Google hits is going to win, regardless of objective reality. And it also dangerously suggests that there are preset "conservative" and "progressive" points of view and language-sets for every conceivable issue, from which no one is allowed to dissent. This mindset was perhaps best illustrated during the recent Edwards Blogger kerfuffle, in which some bloggers were literally beside themselves with anger than anyone--even those "grassroots voices" of the comment threads--could reinforce the "enemy meme" by debating the merits of the case.I mention this subject in connection with a post yesterday by Nathan Newman at TPMCafe that upbraids Markos Moulitsas for use of the term "local union bosses" in excoriating the Nevada supporters of a Fox News-sponsored Democratic presidential candidates' forum, Kos' latest cause celebre:

I hate to the core when folks like Kos use the term "local union bosses", as if elected union leaders are the same as management bosses who get to tell their workers what to do. It's one of the most persistent rightwing frames, creating an equivalence between union representatives of working people and those who boss them around without democratic accountability. Criticizing union leaders is fine and even needed, but using rightwing frames like the phrase "union bosses" should be avoided.
Now it's tempting to just chuckle at the irony of Kos getting nailed on a "frame" charge in the course of his own crusade to accuse Nevada Democrats of reinforcing "conservative frames" by legitimizing Fox. But it's actually a serious issue.I wouldn't use the term "union bosses," because, as Nathan suggests, it implies a degree of power that unions themselves, much less their executives, do not, alas, in the real world, enjoy. But it's correspondence to actual facts, not correspondence to "conservative frames," that's the problem here. Remember when progressive bloggers liked to call themselves members of the "reality-based community?" We need to regain that attitude. Uttering words that the hated enemy utters, if justified by "reality," does not magically translate into Republican votes; in some circumstances, in can win votes by denying "the other side" a rare win on the merits. And tolerating free and fact-based debate is a lot more politically and morally valuable to progressives than any inquisitorial attempts to enforce "frames" or sniff out heresy.
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March 6, 2007

Origins and Consequences of Polarization

There's another interesting debate underway at the New Republic site between Boston College's Alan Wolfe and George Mason's Peter Berkowitz, continued from earlier essays by Wolfe at TNR and Berkowitz at The Weekly Standard. Its ostensible subject is whether Wolfe was engaging in Dinesh D'Souza-style tactics a few years back when he wrote about the tendency of some contemporary U.S. conservatives to echo the "friends and enemies" interpretation of politics by the German thinker Carl Schmitt (a charge made by Berkowitz in response to Wolfe's recent attack on D'Souza in The New York Times Book Review). Its more immediate significance is the light it casts on the origins of the current climate of polarization in American politics, and what those who deplore it can do about it.This is an important topic to Alan Wolfe (and to myself), as someone who has found himself, "in the last six years, shifting to the left" in response to the extremism and take-no-prisoners politics and policies of the reigning conservative GOP. Is the act of pointing out the dangerous recent tendencies of "the other side" in terms of their extraordinary violation of U.S. political traditions in any way morally equivalent to the violation itself? And if, as Wolfe does, you become convinced that alarmingly large segments of "the other side" have lost any interest whatsoever in rational discourse or fair competition, and are simply interested in power by any means, do you have any obligation to keep trying to engage them rationally?In his TNR essay, Wolfe responds to Berkowitz's lecture about improper attribution of illiberal (in the civic sense) habits to conservatives in words that many of us frustrated "centrists" would echo:

[Berkowitz] finds no reason to believe that Bush v. Gore was settled in a partisan manner, merely noting that it was a "hard case." He claims that the left "shamelessly misrepresented" Bush's national security policies without even mentioning the fact that the Bush administration misrepresented its reasons for going to war in Iraq. He views Bush as a moderate and judicious politician, ignoring the president's efforts--so discomforting to more principled conservatives--to concentrate unchecked power in the Oval Office. In the world according to Peter Berkowitz, there are no right-wing bloggers calling the president's critics traitors, no Swift-boating of Democratic candidates, no violations of civil liberty associated with our Republican president, no authorized leaks of the names of CIA agents, no dramatic increase in the use of presidential signing statements, no use of torture, no suspension of habeas corpus, no breaks with our historic allies over such methods, no biased editorial pages and networks, no Rush Limbaughs, no vigilantes patrolling our borders, no invented quotations from Abraham Lincoln, no manipulations of intelligence, no appeals to racial and religious bigotry. Instead there is just ugly venom manifested by, of all people, me.
Wolfe could just have easily been addressing the "plague-on-both-houses" journalists who view polarization as a joint project of left and right, and fail to assign any particular responsibility for it to anyone in particular. And he could just have easily gone back well beyond 2000 to the Cultural Right's accusations that "liberals" were destroying the family, murdering children by the millions, plotting the replacement of Christianity by paganism, and seeking the extinction of U.S. sovereignty; to the mammoth Clinton-hating industry of the 1990s; and to the impeachment effort against Clinton himself. And when it comes for culpability for the Center-Left's abandonment of the pacific rhetoric and habits of the past, Wolfe could also have mentioned the unmistakable determination of the Rove-DeLay leadership of the GOP to destroy "moderate" progressivism as a political option, as the only way for a base-conservative Republican party to win elections. There is, of course, a real underlying disagreement on the Left about how to deal with the "other side's" polarizing strategy and the delegitimization of rational discourse that has flowed from it. Some progressives no doubt love the current climate, think it's the natural, and indeed, the only "principled" way to conduct politics, tend to admire their conservative enemies far more than their own "centrist" allies, and would go henceforth from base-mobilizing election to base-mobilizing election, world without end. Some think the electorate will reward the Center-Left with a default victory so long as it does not counter-polarize. And still others (a group in which I count myself, and probably Alan Wolfe) think we have to get the current toxic brand of conservatives completely out of power and in a marginalized position in the GOP before we can return to a different and more rational brand of politics in which elections are largely won and lost on the basis of competing policies and their real-life consequences. For all the talk of the "Bush-hating Left" in the Democratic Party, it's us "centrists" who really have reason to loathe the Bush-Cheney administration and its conservative allies with a special intensity. They've ruined everything they've touched, including some previously "liberal" causes like democracy-promotion, open trade, education reform, and market-based approaches to solving public problems. They've made the very concept of bipartisanship suspect. And they've deliberately, aggressively, consciously poisoned the ground of the political center. Until the Right and the GOP pay a big price for that, they have no standing whatsoever to act aggrieved when someone like Alan Wolfe examines the roots of their betrayal of the politics of reason and civility.
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Tales of Dick and Spiggy

Last week I ran across a discarded advance "review" copy of an uncoming book by Jules Whitcover entitled Very Strange Bedfellows: The Short and Unhappy Marriage of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. I couldn't resist a stroll down a distant memory lane to a period of scandal, official mendacity, polarization and an unpopular war not entirely unlike our own. I was particularly entranced by Whitcover's tick-tock account of Agnew's forced resignation as vice president, likely drawn from the 1974 book he wrote with Richard Cohen (now out of print) about that particular incident.Unlike Nixon's undoing by Watergate, which rolled out slowly over many months, Agnew's resignation, at the time at least, seemed like a bolt from the blue. But its genesis was in a state contractor kickback scheme in Baltimore County, Maryland, which probably predated Agnew's tenure as County Executive and certainly continued afterwards. Indeed, federal prosecutors were targeting Agnew's Democratic successor as County Executive when one of their key witnesses alleged he had continued to pay off Agnew during his two-year governorship, and briefly, during his vice-presidency, with the final payment being ten large in cash stuffed into a brown paper bag, delivered personally to the Veep in his White House office. After repeated and futile efforts to get Nixon to quash the investigation, Agnew negotiated a deal in which he admitted to a single tax evasion charge and resigned his office, while obtaining assurances he would not go to the hoosegow. The deal enabled Agnew to spend the rest of his life claiming he did nothing wrong beyond accepting campaign contributions from the contractors. He was, he said often, the victim of a dual conspiracy between those who wanted to remove him from the presidential succession in order to make Nixon's removal politically possible, and Nixon himself, who mistakenly thought throwing his Veep to the wolves might save his own hide. But as Whitcover (all too summarily) explains, the real smoking gun in the Agnew case was an IRS investigation of his finances that resulted in a State of Maryland demand for two hundred thousand bucks in back taxes on his illegal income--a demand Agnew satisfied via loans from his maximum buddy, Frank Sinatra. I don't know why the Agnew saga hasn't been the subject of a big movie. It certainly has all the drama you'd ever want: the unlikely rise of an obscure local Baltimore pol who gets elected county executive and then governor thanks to Democratic splits; his selection by Nixon as a compromise Veep choice mainly because of his combined "moderate" record and his late-career race-baiting; his startling emergence as a right-wing superstar, thanks in part to the skills of Nixon speechwriters Bill Safire and Pat Buchanan; Nixon's constant, never-consummated efforts to replace him with Democratic apostate John Connally; his gradual development into a complete loose cannon isolated from Nixon but becoming his likely successor; his Vegas-based celebrity posse, including Sinatra; and then the whole disaster of his ouster, ultimately derived from his hunger for a degree of wealth he saw all around him but never enjoyed. There's even a love interest, in the form of allegations (oddly echoed in Agnew's own novel about a disgraced Veep, The Canfield Decision) that he was carrying on an expensive affair with someone in the administration. At some point, you'd expect that the parlor game of judging whether George W. Bush or Richard Nixon is the Worst President Ever would extend to a comparison of Dick Cheney and Spiro Agnew as contenders for the title of Worst Vice President Ever. Maybe then Spiggy will get his posthumous Hollywood tribute.
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March 5, 2007

Has Coulter Finally Gone Too Far?

In case you somehow missed it, the execreble Ann Coulter really outdid herself over the weekend at the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference in Washington, essentially calling John Edwards a "faggot." She was duly denounced by (s0 far) three Republican presidential campaigns, though the audience that was actually listening to her apparently gave her a big round of applause. With almost anyone else, I'd assume this was an amazingly stupid and revealing slip of the tongue, but with Coulter, you have to consider the strong possibility that she was deliberately increasing her buzz factor, or even setting herself up to pose as some sort of victim of political correctness. Looks like she may have finally crossed whatever ultimate line of decency or propriety which still exists on the Right these days when it comes to homophobia and/or insults to "liberals.". But I dunno: if you look at some of the crap she's said in the past, before going on to sell more books and get more air time on Fox, it's not clear just yet that she's finally self-destructed.
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March 2, 2007

The Right's Second Look At McCain

With his non-announcement announcement of candidacy on Letterman Wednesday night, John McCain's getting some fresh media attention today, most notably Peggy Noonan's typically frothy take in the (subscription-only) Wall Street Journal. But a far more significant example of the Right's reevaluation of the McCain candidacy will soon appear in a National Review cover story penned by Ramesh Ponnuru (I got it via email, so I can't link to this one, either).His bottom line is that McCain's doing a lot better in his nomination candidacy than the polls indicate, because the big news is that Mitt Romney has failed to become the "true conservative" candidate, leaving McCain to duke it out with Giuliani, whose standing is bound to take a dive when conservatives really focus on his views:

McCain's apostasies from conservatism, unlike Giuliani's, are well known. The mayor's polls form a ceiling. McCain's could be a floor, if conservatives are willing to reconsider their view of him. If they do, then the current Giuliani moment will be succeeded by a McCain moment. I think conservatives will give him a second look--as they should.
After briskly noting Rudy's "apostasies" on abortion, immigration and guns (you could add gay rights to the list), and summarily rejecting Romney as unelectable because of his Mormonism, Ponnuru then engages in a systematic "second look" at McCain, issue by issue.Did he oppose Bush's tax cuts? Yeah, but now that they are in place, he's willing to take the pledge against any tax increases. Has he engaged in a little corporate-exec bashing? Sure, but that's yesterday's issue. Campaign finance reform? Yes, McCain was definitely a villain on an issue that resonates as intensely with conservative activists as net neutrality does with progressive bloggers, but hey, he's said he won't promote any new reforms. Global warming? Well, at least he's now hyping nuclear power, and perhaps (in an interesting admission by Ponnuru) McCain "was more prescient than most conservatives" on this issue. The McCain-Kennedy immigration bill? Bad politically, no doubt, but McCain seems "open to the concept" of concessions to the fence-builders and deporters. Gay marriage? Don't forget McCain has said he'd support a constitutional amendment if federal courts tried to impose gay marriage on the states.In the end, it's clear Ponnuru thinks McCain's "rock-solid" record opposing legalized abortion--marred by "one foolish remark" in 1999 about the political inadvisability of overturning Roe v. Wade, could be the real clincher for conservatives, along with the Arizonan's support for the Iraq War and his strident advocacy of an escalation of the war up to and beyond what Bush is attempting. But even though Ponnuru rather defensively rejects the idea that GOPers are suffering from a weak presidential field, the tone and structure of his case for McCain strongly suggests a defense attorney negotiating a plea bargain.I'm not one to place as much stock in "energy" and "activism" and other psychological factors in politics as many in the progressive blogosphere, since in the end, it's all about votes. Nobody gets more than one vote, and unless the "energy" is communicable, its power is limited to what it produces in the way of money and shoe-leather. These are important assets, but not the ball game. Still, it's not a good sign for Republicans that their "movement conservative" activist wing is so clearly unenthused about its most viable presidential candidates, including Giuliani, Romney and McCain.At the very end of his piece, Ponnuru offers one particularly interesting hint at why conservatives may wind up deciding on McCain as the best of an unexciting batch:
Conservatives may need to reach some understandings with McCain before throwing their support to him: on the vice presidential nominee, on immigration, maybe even on the number of terms McCain will serve as president. (He is 70).
Maybe that's McCain's secret weapon with the activist Right: he'd probably be done after one term of keeping the White House in Republican hands and keeping key conservative policies and appointees in place, yielding the helm in 2012 to a "real conservative." Perhaps that would be Vice President Brownback or Vice President Huckabee, or even a guy named Jeb Bush.
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March 1, 2007

Card Check Clears House

It's a small step towards a modest goal, but nonetheless important: the U.S. House of Representatives approved the Employee Free Choice Act by a margin of 241-185 today, with 13 Republicans joining all but two Democrats to pass the measure. The bill will probably get filibustered to death in the Senate, and Bush has promised to veto it, but still, House passage represents an opportunity to start reversing decades of never-accurate and certainly-anachronistic conservative propaganda about the right to organize unions. Usually referred to as "Card Check," what the bill provides is that when a majority of workers sign verifiable "cards" indicating a desire to organize a union, employers must recognizing that union, without going through the vastly expensive, complicated, and employer-tilted process for an official National Labor Relations Board election. It essentially restores the "majority-rules" principle for collective bargaining that has been eroded so dramatically in recent years. I'm proud that virtually all Democrats, including, BTW, the DLC, have supported this legislation, and its passage and short-term demise will help illustrate the need for continued Democratic control of Congress, and a Democratic president in 2008. This type of legislation is particularly significant for those Democrats who haven't completely succumbed to despair over economic globalization. Vibrant, growing unions are essential to the progressive goal of a national economic policy aimed at shaping economic change in the common, national interest. Making the EFCA the law of the land is a minimal first step in that direction.
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