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April 30, 2007

Three Perspectives On Globalization

Over at The Democratic Strategist, Will Marshall and Ed Gresser of the Progressive Policy Institute have published a provocative take on the taxonomy of progressive attitudes towards globalization. Two of their categories are well-known: the "neo-populists" who largely view globalization in its current form as a malevolent, corporate-driven phenomenon that must be resisted if not somehow overthrown; and "progressive modernizers" of the Clinton tradition who are unambiguously pro-trade but favor a stronger safety net for affected workers and communities.One of the most interesting things about the Marshall-Gresser essay is its treatment of a third perspective: "social democrats" who point to European models for policies and politics that might reconcile economic growth, a high standard of income and security for workers, and globalization itself. They conclude the "social democrats" have a lot more in common with "progressive modernizers" than with "neo-populists," which is not how this fault lines are usually drawn.Check it out.

Damage Control For Richardson

It took a few days, but now there are signs that Gov. Bill Richardson's hard-won status as a preferred or back-up presidential candidate for leading elements of the left blogosphere and/or netroots has been seriously endangered by his performance in last week's SC debates.Before wading into this subject, let me emphasize that I like Richardson, and that I have been and intend to remain studiously neutral in the presidential nominating contest, not that it much matters to anybody, other than those who think every blogger has a secret candidate-driven agenda. But the Richardson phenomenon does raise interesting questions about the instability of candidate preferences in the New Media age.Check out this post by Trapper John at DailyKos--previously a largely pro-Richardson site--for the case against Big Bill, which includes several things Richardson said just yesterday at the California Democratic Convention (more about all that later).To back up a bit, the netroots' special interest in Richardson is two-fold. First are those facets of his biography that attract people from all over the party: his golden resume which combines international and domestic credentials; his electoral record; his Latino ethnicity; his laid-back personality and communications style; and his lack of identification with any controversial faction in the party (though he was very much a Clintonian for much of his career, and has been quite friendly to the DLC).Second are things about Richardson that especially attract netroots support. These include his current status, unique in the field, as a governor and thus (despite his long prior federal service) non-Washingtonian; his Western background (attractive to many bloggers for a variety of personal, ideological and empirico-political reasons); his active engagement of the netroots; and recently, at least, his adoption of a fairly hard line on withdrawal from Iraq. One leading blogger--Markos of DailyKos--even likes Richardson's NRA-friendly record on guns as conducive to a "libertarian Democrat" movement that might expand the party base, especially in the West.And like all political junkies, netroots observers have largely concluded that past rumors about Richardson's behavior towards women must be mostly hot air, since the hordes of oppo researchers and journalists lusting for documentation of such rumors do not appear to have turned up anything of note.That was all before last Thursday. To begin with, Richardson drew two questions that underlined his affinity with the NRA, and his occasional strong words about the Democratic habit of supporting tax increases (the latter came directly after Edwards was challenged to defend his support of a tax increase, or more accurately a rollback of Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, to pay for his health care plan).And then came Richardson's immediate and startling citation of Byron "Whizzer" White as a model for the kind of person he'd like to name to the Supreme Court. It didn't take more than a few minutes for posts to pop up noting that White was not only one of the dissenters in the original abortion rights case, Roe v. Wade (abortion being the context of the SCOTUS question), but also the author of Bowers v. Hardwick, the 1986 decision upholding the constitutionality of state sodomy laws. In one fell swoop, and for no apparent reason, Richardson managed to offend at least some abortion rights and gay rights activists.Over the weekend, at the California event, Richardson happened to follow Edwards at the podium, and repeated his I'm-not-a-tax-raising-Democrat line. Trapper John took that as a direct shot at Edwards (who is the number one favorite candidate on sites like Daily Kos), and worse yet, as one of the progressive blogosphere's biggest no-noes: reinforcing Republican attack lines on Democrats generally while attacking another Democrat.Moreoever, while in California Richardson got asked to clarify his Whizzer White endorsement. There's a quote flying around the blogosphere (here and here, in addition to Trapper John's post), for which I have yet to see a primary source, wherein Big Bill allegedly responded: "White was in the 60s. Wasn't Roe v. Wade in the 80s?" Way wrong, of course, on both counts (White was on the Court until 1993, and Roe was decided in 1973.In other words, the growing progressive blogospheric grievance with Richardson is growing, not going away.The irony is that there are reasonably easy ways for him to put the dispute to sleep, if not to rest. Richardson ought to say now what he might have said last week before even addressing the SCOTUS question: "You know, unlike the other candidates, I'm not a lawyer." He could add: "I'll spot them at least one factual error on diplomatic issues to even things up," and then close off the subject by swearing his fealty to a constitutional right to privacy and non-discrimination in all matters involving abortion and gay rights.The tax issue should be even easier to clear up, assuming that Richardson agrees with virtually all Democrats that Bush tax cuts for the wealthy (the usual cutoff being individual taxpayers with over $200,000 in income) should be repealed. Interestingly enough, there's nothing specific on that topic at the Richardson campaign web page, though a recent New York Times roundup on tax policy listed Richardson as in accord with all the other candidates--including Edwards--as favoring preservation of tax cuts for those earning less than $200,000). Every single Democratic candidate in 2004 favored this sort of rollback, with the only argument being over total repeal of the Bush tax cuts, supported by Dean on general principles and by Gephardt to pay for his health plan. Assuming Richardson isn't staking out a truly unusual position on the subject, his only argument with Edwards might be over what to do with the proceeds of a rollback. He ought to just say so, and then go on to tout his record in New Mexico for cutting taxes there.I don't know where if anywhere this "story" is going next, but it is a good indicator of how the development of blogs and other new media have made gaffes much easier to make and more essential to correct than in the past.

April 26, 2007

South Cackalacki Debate

Don't know if you watched the Democratic presidential debate from South Carolina, but I did, and I'll get kicked out of the blogger union if I don't pass on some impressions.The format was unusual, with lots of questions demanding (unsuccessfully) short answers, with lots of jumping around on topics, and virtually no candidate interaction, other than that randomly forced by the questions. The two candidates that got occasionally annoying in defying the rules and talking too long were Bill Richardson and (this year's ultimate protest candidate) Mike Gravel.And speaking of questions, they were occasionally framed and followed-up in ways that betrayed even the "gotcha" instincts of debate moderators. Joe Biden got a question on the Supreme Court's decision on the congressional "Partial-Birth Abortion" ban that didn't mention he voted for the ban in the Senate. Bill Richardson offered Whizzer White as a model for the nominees he'd put on the Supreme Court, and nobody noted that (aside from White's status as something less than a constitutional giant) the Whizzer was a dissenter in the original abortion rights decision, Roe v. Wade. And John Edwards was asked about his attitude towards hedge funds (a subject that most viewers probably knew little or nothing about) without any reference to his own employment by a hedge fund between his presidential runs.The post-debate punditry on the sponsoring network, MSNBC, seemed to endorse the obvious impression that nobody really won or lost, but also suggested that Hillary Clinton did the best job of meeting her goals. She was calm, reasonable, relatively responsive, and occasionally self-deprecating. And on a question that will probably be replayed a lot tomorrow, involving how they'd react to a second 9/11 where al Qaeda's responsibility was clear, she used the muscle verbs "retaliate" and "destroy," satisfying those who somehow think female candidates aren't credible on the use of force (Richardson actually preceded her in immediately mentioning the use of force as a response, while Obama conspicuously omitted it).Obama had some of the most interesting moments. He initially flubbed a "gotcha" question about America's "three top allies," and didn't mention Israel, but nicely handled the follow-up. He was more specific about health care than in past debates. And he did a solid job of answering questions about his position on Iraq.Edwards was subdued and wonky (I personally consider the latter a compliment). He gamely dealt with the inevitable and impossible questions about his expensive haircut. Casual watchers might have been struck by his answer to the question on Iraq, and his implicit challenge to Hillary, but he used almost exactly the same language as in past debates, so pundits and activists probably weren't impressed.Biden had his classic sound-bite moment, answering a question about his ability to exercise verbal discipline with one word, "Yes." Dodd went with his counter-intuitive but what-the-hell pitch about his experience. And Dennis Kucinich, partly thanks to losing his protest role to Mike Gravel, was more relaxed and reasonable sounding than I've ever heard him, both in the debate and in the post-debate interview.A quick review of the reaction in the progressive blogosphere shows a subdued take on the event. At DailyKos, a reader poll about "who won" shows (as of this moment) Edwards at 20%, Obama at 17%, Clinton at 11%, Gravel at 9%, Richardson at 6%, and the rest scattered, with 11% saying "nobody." The main outliers here are HRC's double-digit showing (she inevitably finishes at around 3%, well below Denny the K., in assessments of actual support), and Richardson's pallid performance. I suspect the latter may have reflected the pub the debate gave to Richardson's NRA support, and his reluctance to call for Alberto Gonzales' resignation.So the debate probably moved few votes, but may slightly shift the future landscape. And I hope the formatters of future debates noticed what didn't work tonight, and try to elicit longer, more substantive, and more interactive answers next time the donkeys gather.UPDATE 1: Richardson's shout-out to the ghost of Byron White got noticed elsewhere. Scott Lemieux at TAPPED jumped on it before I did. And my buddy Armando at Talk Left went right out and said it disqualified Big Bill from the nomination. If this sort of buzz escalates, we'll probably see some statement from Richardson's campaign explaining where their candidate was going with that, before Brian Williamson told him to name someone actually still living. Maybe it was a Western Thing, since the Whizzer was from Colorado. But then William O. Douglas, a much safer liberal role model, was from Washington State. UPDATE 2: Matt Yglesias picked up on my reference to the question Obama got about our "three most important allies." So naturally, I got kicked around some in Matt's comment thread, based on the apparent belief that I was lecturing Obama about Israel's value to the U.S. Actually, all I was doing was pointing to the silly "gotcha" by Williamson, who was clearly hoping Obama would forget to mention Israel (a bad idea in Democratic politics), as evidenced by his immediate follow-up with an Obama quote about the suffering of the Palestinians. Obama turned that around by replying that he was talking about the folly of the Palestinian leadership, and then said the appropriate things about Israel as a U.S. ally. For the record, like Matt, I think this was a ridiculous question. Ranking allies--or, as reflected in yet another dumb question posed to Biden--enemies, is not something any potential president ought to be doing in public.

April 25, 2007

Life in the Green Zone

This last weekend I finally got around to reading Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life In the Emerald City, a remarkable eyewitness account by a Washington Post reporter of the disastrous history of the Coalition Provisional Authority, which ruled Iraq from shortly after the U.S. invasion until the establishment of an interim Iraqi government in June of 2004.The book (published last fall) is a rich lode of infuriating but at times amusing (in a Keystone Kops kind of way) anecdotes about the CPA's self-doomed efforts to fulfill the Bush administration's fantasies of rebuilding post-invasion Iraq into an economically viable and stable secular democracy--without, unfortunately, much input from the Iraqis themselves, or any significant expertise. Like George Packer's Assassin's Gate and Larry Diamond's Squandered Victory, it examines the huge consequences of letting the country fall apart after the invasion, and then undertaking an occupation staffed by well-meaning but largely unqualified people without the time or resources they needed to get much of anything right. But Chandrasekaran does a superior job capturing particular moments that epitomized the whole mess, such as the appointment of a 24-year-old with no serious financial background to run the Baghdad Stock Exchange; a large grant made to set up partnerships between U.S. and and Iraqi universities, at a time when the Iraqis schools couldn't get funds for basic lab equipment, computers, or even electrical wiring; and on the very eve of the end of the occupation, a sudden transfer of nearly two billion dollars in Iraqi oil revenues to Halliburton to transport oil into the country from Kuwait. And as the title indicates, there's lots about the deeply isolated and somewhat surreal life the CPA built for itself within the Green Zone, barracaded inside one of Saddam's palaces, mostly knowing little about the country they ruled, unable to speak the language, and engaging in behaviors like the heavy and conspicuous consumption of pork and beer that were guaranteed to alienate Iraqis. Like other authors, Chandrasekaran traces the origins of the CPA fiasco to a series of huge mistakes (aside from the decision to invade Iraq in the first place), aggravated by the Bush administration's general, underlying arrogance, and extensive bureaucratic infighting. The oddest remains the abrupt reversal of the original administration decision to quickly hand over the keys to Iraq to its pet assortment of exile politicians, which suddenly made a completely unplanned and inherently counter-productive occupation necessary. This about-face placed Paul Bremer, supported by a hastily assembled and untrained staff heavily composed of ideologues and political hacks, in a position to make a variety of other mistakes, ranging from the disbanding of the Iraqi Army and the denuding of the Iraqi government, to the pursuit of conservative hobbyhorses such as privatization while the country ground to a halt and Iraqis turned anti-American. We'll never know if Iraq would be in any better shape today if the administration had stuck to the original scheme and handed off power to the first Iraqi exile who arrived in Baghdad with an autographed photo of Dick Cheney, or just asked Grand Ayatollah Sistani to pick a transitional government. But it's unlikely it could have turned out much worse.

The Incredible Iraq Pushback

This week's frantic administration pushback against congressional efforts to rein in Bush on Iraq has certainly had its weird features.For one thing, whose brilliant idea was it to once again deploy Dick Cheney to make the case for the administration? Harry Reid nicely captured the question with this obsevation after Cheney went after him very personally: “I’m not going to get into a name-calling match with somebody who has a 9 percent approval rating."Indeed.Now I can understand why the White House doesn't want to rely for its defense on one of those congressional bitter-enders like Sam Johnson, whose argument for staying perpetually in Iraq rests on his own belief that the U.S. should have stayed perpetually in Vietnam during the 1970s. But Cheney's threadbare Iraq-Is-The-War-On-Terror number isn't a lot more convincing. So it appears the administration is once again simply trying to bump up support from the GOP's conservative base, where Cheney, while not wildly popular, is at least not viewed as an ogre.That interpretation, however, is at odds with a startling new line of "reasoning" adopted by Bush himself this week (via Greg Sargent at TPMCafe) in a press availability:

Last November the American people said they were frustrated and wanted change in our strategy in Iraq. I listened. Today General David Petraeus is carrying out a strategy that is dramatically different from our previous course. But the American people did not vote for failure, and that is precisely what the Democratic leadership’s bill would guarantee.
Up until now, Bush's line has been that he and he alone is in charge of Iraq policy, and elections and polls be damned, he's sticking to his guns until the day he's finally dragged out of the Oval Office. That tack did help with with his "base," still sullenly angry about the election results. But now Bush claims he did bend to the results, which leaves two possibilities: (1) he's engaged in a particularly cruel and dark attempt at humor here--you want some change, eh? Okay, I'll give you change, hahahahaha--or (2) he thinks he can actually convince people that voters in November thought an escalation of the war was as good an option as a de-escalation.None of this adds up to a coherent public relations strategy, which leads me to the strong possibility that the Bushies are just flailing around hoping their attacks on Democrats either stick or produce some over-reaction they can exploit.

April 19, 2007

SCOTUS' Abortion Decision

After reading yesterday's 5-4 Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of Congress' so-called "partial-birth abortion" ban, I did a post over at TPMCafe suggesting, among other things, that the majority's excrutiating effort to reconcile the decision with SCOTUS precendents on abortion might slow down the inevitable conservative drive to overturn those precedents and eliminate any constitutional right to choose.Unsurprisingly, most published reactions to the decision have avoided such nuances, and treat it as an unambiguous victory for the effort to definitively roll back abortion rights. Both sides in the abortion wars have perfectly legitimate reasons (the sub rosa criticism of basic abortion rights in the majority opinion) and less legitimate but understandable reasons (the desire to view any SCOTUS abortion decision as potentially apocalyptic) for taking this position. But they should all at least read the opinions and consider the future possibilities.Of all the criticisms I got for suggesting a less than clear victory for anti-abortionists, the most interesting was from National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru (one of my few remaining conservative friends these days), who said this at The Corner:

He [Kilgore] argues that "the failure of Alito and Roberts to join the concurring opinion by Thomas and Scalia calling for a reversal of all these precedents [Stenberg, Casey, and Roe] means that a further change in the Court will probably be necessary to produce a more fundamental shift in the constitutional law of abortion rights." Well of course a further change in the Court is necessary, since Justice Kennedy has given no indication that he has rethought Roe or Casey. Alito, Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas do not a majority make. But are we warranted in concluding that Alito and Roberts aren't for reversing those cases when a case that presents the issue comes up? I don't see why we would conclude that. And whatever their reasons for not making a judgment of the issue now, their silence actually makes it easier to confirm another conservative justice in the future.
Ramesh clearly thinks the status-quo structure of the majority opinion is just a function of Justice Kennedy's position, and that Roberts' and Alito's "silence" on the underlying issues represents a neutrality on Roe that they will abandon once a fifth vote materializes to overturn it. This is an impressively honest assertion of the dishonesty of the two Bush Justices' current attitude towards this most important constitutional issue--a dishonesty that many abortion rights advocates also assert.I continue to think that the more Kennedy, Alito and Roberts say in published opinions that they respect Roe and its successor decisions, the harder it will be for them to overturn these precedents. But I'm clearly in a minority on that, at least now.

April 17, 2007

Tax Simplification

Were you exposed to any of the annual Tax Day shriekathon by conservatives about the horrendous tax burden of wealthy Americans? Jared Bernstein has a post up at TPMCafe that nicely simplifies the games played by those who try to make this case:

[I]f you want to make our tax system sound unfair, you do two things. First, you talk only about income taxes, ignoring payroll and other sources, and second, you talk about the share of taxes paid by each income class.
The first gambit excludes the highly regressive Social Security and Medicare taxes, largely paid by the middle class. And the second avoids all sorts of alternative and better measurements of the tax burden, most especially effective tax rates and after-tax income. The one good thing that's come out of the Bush tax agenda is that progressives, who used to avoid saying much of anything on Tax Day, now have lots to say.

Money and Morality

Some of you may have been offended or amused by GOP presidential candidate Tommy Thompson's gaffe before a Jewish audience the other day, wherein he allowed as how:"I'm in the private sector and for the first time in my life I'm earning money. You know that's sort of part of the Jewish tradition."Thompson's hilariously counterproductive efforts to dig himself out of his use of Jewish stereotypes are one thing. As Mark Schmitt usefully noted over at TAPPED, his remarks were also offensive insofar as they implied he wasn't actually earning his pay during his many years of public service, as compared to his recent "private sector" gigs at places like Akin, Gump, where he is presumably pulling down big bucks to show the company flag while actually running for president.But let's take this up another notch. The other planted axiom in Thompson's riff is an even more invidious and important one: the idea that the ability to pull down large sums of money constitutes "earning"--in the moral, not the mechanical sense--that income, implying an identity between wealth and virtue.This is indeed an attitude that's deeply engrained in the American psyche, and that does help explain our relatively high tolerance for economic inequality. But it doesn't survive much genuine reflection.Since we have created the largest upper class in human history, is one to deduce that the current generation of wealthy Americans is the most moral, the hardest working, the most responsible group of people to grace the planet? Does anyone really think that, say, the millions of unfortunate people who couldn't find jobs during the Great Depression were morally inferior to, or lazier than, today's millionaires? Probably not, yet the self-congratulation that so often accompanies such wealth accumulation, particularly when accompanied by the belief that taxation is virtually theft, seems to reflect that point of view.There's no question that any capitalist economy is going to reward some skills and assets more than others, and create some level of inequality, and much of the western world's economic policy debates over the last couple of centuries have revolved around prudential questions about the degree to which such inequality is necessary or incidental to the efficiency of markets.But that's economics, not ethics, and it's more than a little important to keep them straight. The kind of inequality this country has today may or may not be a byproduct of economic forces that we must at least respect, even if we decide to override them in the interests of a more decent society, or in the pursuit of a more stable and long-term prosperity. But there's nothing "natural" or "moral" about vast inequality, and its tribunes must be challenged every time they try to pretend otherwise, even through the sloppy use of words like "earned."

Tragedy and "Breaking News"

I wound up watching hours of the television coverage of the Blacksburg massacre yesterday, probably because I know a whole lot more about Virginia Tech than about the sites of similiar tragedies in the past. And two aspects of the "story" jumped out, particularly during and immediately after the university's evening press conference.First was the firm stonewalling by university spokesmen on the salient facts of the tragedy, to the point of telling reporters they knew "facts" that they were unwilling to disclose for unspecified reasons. It was painfully obvious that no one before the cameras in Blacksburg had any training in crisis communications; they appeared uniformly defensive and, well, uncommunicative. I obviously don't know what university officials were telling thousands of anxious parents at this point, but if it was no more than what they were putting out publicly, it probably wasn't very helpful or comforting.Second, and closely related to the first, was the speed with which the media shifted the "story" from the massacre itself to suspicions that Virginia Tech horribly mishandled the situation after the initial shootings, quite possibly missing a chance to prevent or at least mitigate the subsequent shootings. This storyline clearly fed and fed on the school's refusal to talk. And the media also jumped quickly on state officials, implicitly suggesting they should have instantly materialized in Blacksburg to take charge of the situation. (One of the realities of public higher education in this country is the carefully constructed absence of direct, hierarchical lines of authority between state officials and university operations, compounded in cases like this by fuzzy and often informal relationships among state, local and university law enforcement personnel). None of this much matters in the long run, or is of any significance as compared with the underlying tragedy. But the interactive dance of defensive, stonewalling public officials and aggressive, competition-obsessed reporters has become a depressingly regular feature of "breaking news."

April 13, 2007

Message, Partisanship, and "Fighting"

I'm doing this post because my old friend Armando at TalkLeft has cited me twice in the past week for opposing partisanship, "contrast," and "fighting" as elements of a Democratic political strategy, once quoting, slightly (but not unfairly) out of context, something I said back in 2005.His latest post selectively quotes from an analysis I did the other day of the Democratic presidential field, noting in passing that Gore and Kerry lacked an overarching message, but had plenty of policy proposals and lots of Shrumian "fighting" rhetoric. This somehow translates, in Armando's view, into me saying that I said Gore and Kerry's candidacies lost because they "fought" or were too partisan. Not true. All I said is that both candidacies (and yes, I understand that Gore won the popular vote and Kerry clame close) would have benefitted from a consistent, overarching message that complemented their vast policy agendas and their "fighting" spirit. No, I do not think wanting to "fight" Republicans represents a sufficient message for any Democrat; but that doesn't mean I'm opposed, then or now, to a strong contrast in campaign messages, so long as there is a message other than "I oppose the bad guys." As it happens, I was as unhappy as anybody with the weird, poll-driven reluctance of the Kerry campaign during the 2004 convention to attack the opposition; I was in the convention speechwriting operation, and chafed against the High Command's edict that speeches barely mention Bush and rarely mention the GOP. As Armando suggests, the Kerry campaign got out of that mindset later in the campaign, and I'm glad they did. As for the "politics of contrast," which Armando has repeatedly used me as a foil to promote, yes, of course, absolutely, if you don't explain to voters why you're different from the opposition, you can't expect to win many elections. But just as obviously, there are legitimate questions about where to draw contrasts, and how much contrast is necessary. If contrast is the only thing that matters, then Democrats should just distance themselves as far from Republicans as possible, regardless of public opinion, principles, actual consequences, or common sense, and I doubt Armando or anyone else really thinks that makes any sense. He has his point of view about how far Democrats need to go to "contrast" themselves with the GOP on Iraq, but that point of view, however passionately and articulately advanced, is just a debating point between people who agree on the basics, not a self-evident position held by anyone who wants "contrast." So don't count me among the (largely imaginary) ranks of Democrats who never want to be partisan, don't want to draw contrasts, and don't want to fight. I continue to think we need a broader message that appeals to people who aren't reflexively ideological or partisan, and I reject the idea that Bill Clinton (for example), wasn't acting as a partisan politician when he talked about "progress not partisanship" in 1996 and 1998. Partisanship, contrast and "fighting" do need to be connected to a broader national agenda and a rationale for Democratic candidacies that transcends these tactics, and that's all I've tried to say.

GOP 2008: Big Mess or Desperate Measures?

As a follow-up to my recent post on the Democratic presidential race, I would say there really isn't any dominant conventional wisdom about the Republican contest at this point.Some observers think the field is a big mess, with the Big Three candidates (Giuliani, McCain and Romney) all sporting gigantic liabilities that could theoretically take them down before Iowa, but with no one else emerging or likely to emerge from the weak second-tier pack to win the nomination and unite the GOP.Yet some observers (in both parties) think the biggest of the Big Three, Rudy Giuliani, can pull off a miracle by winning the nomination despite his rich history of ideological heresies and marital issues, and then win the general election based on his personal charisma and his reputation and "America's Mayor" on and after 9/11. And a few think a dark horse--most recently Fred Thompson--can snuff all the front-runners.The Giuliani issue is indeed fascinating. He's totally kicking butt in the polls. Real Clear Politics' average of GOP polls since March 21 shows Rudy up in the 30s, while McCain has collapsed into the teens, with Romney (the other member of the Big Three) stuck in the single digits, actually trailing Thompson and barely ahead of Newt Gingrich.But Giuliani's manifold liabilities, especially on cultural issues, seem to be multiplying, given his recent reiteration of support for public funding of abortions (his lame-o follow-up pledge that he wouldn't try to repeal "current law" radically restricting such funding was cold comfort to Right-to-Lifers, whose main raison d'etre is to overturn the "current law" making abortion legal in the first place). Now some analysts seem to think that cultural conservatives will look at Rudy's overall record and platform and give him a pass on issues like abortion and gay marriage and immigration. But as I never tire of pointing out, these aren't negotiable issues to culturally conservative voters, many of whom think legalized abortion is a second Holocaust; that gay marriage is a fundamental threat to the institution of the family; and that current immigration policies threaten the basic cultural integrity of the nation. At a minimum, Giuliani is going to face a nasty, scorched-earth demonization effort far more intense than the one that brought down John McCain in 2000, while providing a lot more raw material to work with than McCain ever did. You can count on it.An alternative argument, made most persuasively by Mike Tomasky, is that Rudy's mastered dog-whistle politics, and might well, in office, give the Cultural Right whatever they want, despite his public positions. That may be true, but I doubt it will do him much good in running for the nomination, since (a) Rudy built a long record of untrustworthy behavior towards conservatives in New York, and (b) the Cultural Right has repeatedly been gamed by past Republican presidents, including those who publicly agreed with their demands, making conservatives vastly less likely to accept bare promises, much less dog whistles.The final argument you hear is more basic: today's Republicans, like Democrats accepting Bill Clinton in 1992 or even GOPers Liking Ike in 1952, are simply so desperate to hang onto the White House that they'll plunk for Rudy simply because he might win the general election.The analogy to Clinton is reasonable in one respect: like Clinton, Rudy faces a very weak field. Many people may have forgotten the grand irony of the 1992 nominating process: the same New Hampshire primary that threatened Clinton's campaign and ultimately made him "the Comeback Kid" also croaked the candidacies of Tom Harkin and Bob Kerrey, leaving Clinton to face two underwhelming rivals, Paul Tsongas and (later) Jerry Brown. It's possible that Giuliani could win the nomination in 2008 simply because no one is strong enough to beat him, though this outcome would run a high risk of creating a conservative third-party candidacy. Indeed, as Tomasky pointed out in his (above-cited) article, there's no way that Clinton was as far from the Democratic mainstream on major issues in 1992 as Giuliani is today. As for Ike--well, aside from the fact that the GOP was far less ideologically conservative in 1952 than it is today, there's this small matter that Eisenhower, having supervised the defeat of Nazi Germany, was vastly more popular than anyone in public life in this day and age, definitely including "America's Mayor."Meanwhile, Rudy's strength in the polls has fed the other boom, the otherwise unlikely effort to catapult Fred Thompson into the role of the "true conservative" in the race. The Thompson proto-candidacy really does make you wonder if George Allen might be headed towards the nomination if he hadn't disgraced himself en route to losing his Senate seat last year. He was a lot more acceptable to conservatives than Thompson has ever been, and had at least an arguable record of accomplishment as governor of Virginia, whereas ol' Fred warmed a chair in the Senate between stints as a mediocre character actor and a lobbyist. Maybe he'll manage to run a campaign that strikes a chord stronger than "I'm not those other guys," but until then, it appears his sudden double-digit position in the polls is simply a sad reflection on the field.There is a pretty firm CW about two other candidates: Romney and McCain. Despite his powerful fundraising numbers, it's almost universally accepted in GOP circles that the Mittster has flunked his first audition as "the true conservative candidate," mainly thanks to those toxic videotapes of his earlier protestations of cultural liberalism, along with exceptional hostility in conservative evangelical circles towards his Mormon faith. He may get a second audition before it's over, but he's so far shown no reason to believe it will go better than the first. Unlike Giuliani, he doesn't have the positive national image that makes him look good in general election trial heats. He's actually afraid to talk about his main policy achievement, his role in Massachusetts' health care plan. So it's hard to see what, exactly, would convert his money and on-paper strengths into actual votes.And there's also general agreement that John McCain is in deep trouble. He's lost about half his early GOP support in the horse-race polls; he's actually running behind Thompson in at least one. And his one big gambit to regain conservative support, his increasingly visible support for the "Bush surge" in Iraq and his abrasive slurs on the patriotism of Democrats who are opposing it, may help him with the GOP base, but only at the price of all but eliminating his already-decimated positive image among independents and Democrats. And given just about any alternative, few conservatives really want to support McCain if he looks like a weak general election candidate harnessed to the GOP's worst issue.Little needs to be said about the GOP's other candidates. Tancredo will continue his bid to become the new Pat Buchanan of presidential politics, probably forcing other candidates to get shrill on immigration, which will help solidify the Democratic advantage among Latinos in the general election. Sam Brownback will serve a similar destructive function on abortion and gay marriage. Gingrich, if he runs despite a very late start, will be the ultimate fallback candidate, sort of Bob Dole with a lot of baggage, offering the party the option of just taking a dive in 2008. And Mike Huckabee doesn't have two nickels to rub together. Nor does Tommy Thompson. Hagel shouldn't be mentioned until he acts like he's running.And don't forget this: Republicans don't have some Ultimate Savior out there who could run a credible campaign if push came to shove. In the extremely unlikely event that all of the Democratic Big Three crashed and burned, the party still has Al Gore, who would probably accept a real draft. The only person on the GOP side that could theoretically offer that is Jeb Bush, whose last name is almost certainly a disqualifier.So count me as a member of the "big mess" faction when it comes to an analysis of the GOP field. Rudy makes no sense; Fred's got no game; Mitt's stuck in neutral; John's mired in a lose-lose relationship with the conservative base; and the rest of the candidates seem to be going nowhere fast.

April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut RIP

The novelist Kurt Vonnegut died yesterday at 84. Like a lot of baby boomers, no doubt, the news made me feel sad and very old, and perhaps wondering what Vonnegut had been up to during the decades after we all read his early stuff like Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat's Cradle, and Breakfast of Champions. I'm sure a lot of people who grew up in the 60s and 70s remember Vonnegut as part of a group of fiction writers who were considered de rigour at the time-- a group that at least for my classmates at Emory University included Richard Brautigan, Thomas Pynchon, Tom Robbins, Joseph Heller, and probably many others whose names and works I have completely forgotten. (Their non-fiction counterparts included radical writers like Herbert Marcuse, Norman O. Brown, R.D. Laing, and Emory's own Thomas J.J. Altizer).Vonnegut was already an "old guy" back then, and it was his distinctive contribution to connect the cultural, political and literary preoccupations of the day with older traditions of pacifism, anti-authoritarianism, science fiction, and sheer anarchic whimsy. With the possible exception of Slaughterhouse-Five, which audaciously challenged (like Heller's Catch-22) the morality of "The Good War," Vonnegut's work probably hasn't aged as well as he did. But as he might have himself put it, "So it goes."As it happens, I owe a small personal debt to the man: he made my surname cool, via his strange science-fiction-writer character Kilgore Trout. So I pray that Vonnegut may rest in peace, in whatever dimension he now occupies.

April 11, 2007

Early Democratic Presidential CW

It's become a commonplace observation to note that the 2008 presidential race, particularly on the Democratic side, is already achieving an unusually frantic pace. And perhaps the best evidence of that hypothesis is the fact that each of the Big Three Democratic candidates, Clinton, Obama and Edwards, has already been described, by the Conventional Wisdom of the Washington chattering classes and key elements of the blogosphere, as undergoing a potentially fatal "swoon."HRC was the first to be thusly described, especially when Barack Obama entered the race and predictably started building support among the African-American voters who had previously tilted heavily to Clinton, erasing much of her early, big lead in the polls. The fact that this trend coincided with a MSM and blogospheric obsession with her refusal to apologize about her vote for the Iraq War resolution, compounded by her lukewarm appeal to independent voters, led some smart people to predict her early demise.Just a few weeks ago, of course, John Edwards had to put up, however briefly, with reports that he was actually about to drop out of the race, and/or would be capsized by public concerns about his wife's health, and/or couldn't raise any money.And now Barack Obama is suffering from a bit of a drop in support in the polls, explained by many as the result of his refusal to get specific on policy ideas, and/or to give Democratic audiences the red meat they expect. As a new and relatively balanced New Republic article by Noam Scheiber reflects, the emerging CW is that Obama's buzz factor is fading (just as many Obama-skeptics in the punditocracy had long predicted), leaving him in a downward trajectory unless he changes course.Taking all these "trends" together, the lesson is that you shouldn't pay much attention to the early CW on any of these three candidates. The best bet is that the Big Three are all viable and tightly bunched, which is mainly bad news for the Little Three (Richardson, Dodd and Biden) who need some oxygen to get taken seriously by the media, the activists, and the money folk.What's more interesting to me is the extent to which the Big Three have taken varying courses in laying out a rationale for their candidacy.When you boil it all down, our last two presidential nominees, Al Gore and John Kerry, were rich in policy proposals and Shrumian "fighting" rhetoric, but largely bereft of any overarching message (Gore, to be more precise, had several messages, but couldn't settle on one for any length of time).Nobody needs Bob Shrum any more to convey an intention to "fight" Republicans. Obama is all message (the same message of beyond-polarization and reform that John Kerry rejected and Wesley Clark botched in 2004), and part of his early appeal is that he scratches a long-standing itch among message-starved Democratic and independent voters. It also enables him to simultaneously run to the left and right of his main rivals.HRC, so far, stands in the Gore-Kerry all-policy, no-message tradition, assuming that "I'm in it to win!" is a short-term, tactical slogan designed to deal with doubts about her electability.Edwards is the one candidate so far to put together both a clear message (an updated version of his "Two Americas" theme from 2004) and a lot of policy detail. But I strongly suspect that Obama and Clinton will soon catch up on that front, and then we'll begin to see some real and congruent competition. The other thing that's likely to happen is that George W. Bush will find a way to make moot the current tactical arguments among the Democratic presidential candidates over Iraq, which will make their opinions on other topics more visible and politically relevant.Each of the Big Three has a distinctive set of strategic issues to navigate.HRC is clearly the least vulnerable to mood swings, media narratives, or gaffes; she's already suffered the most important setback, the loss of her overwhelming African-American support. She'll be fine if none of her rivals, Big or Little, catch fire.Obama needs to overcome the current negative buzz about his campaign; continue, through heavy and broad-based fundraising and competitive poll numbers, to solidify his status as a national candidate who doesn't have to win early; and unfold a policy agenda that satisfies the critics without pigeon-holing him ideologically.And Edwards, aside from getting past the rumors about the impact of his wife's health on his candidacy, needs to continue his interesting tandem strategy of becoming the preferred choice of the activist Left, while maintaining his appeal as a regional Southern candidate, which could be very important after New Hampshire. So far, he seems to be pulling it off, as evidenced by his recently unveiled and impressive endorsement list in South Carolina (no, endorsements aren't all that important in themselves, but in this case they do show he hasn't in any way become toxic in his home region. He should say a prayer every night in thanks for Mark Warner's noncandidacy). Unlike HRC and Obama, Edwards really does need to win or at worst finish a strong second in Iowa, but if he does, he could be in very good shape.This post does obviously reflect the CW in focusing on the Big Three, as opposed to Richardson, Dodd and Biden. But in this case, the CW may well be accurate, given the front-loaded caucus and primary schedule, the strength of the Big Three in the early states, the Little Three's money disadvantage, and the absence of any issue on which the Little Three--with the possible exception of Biden's relative hawkishness, which doesn't look like a winner among Democratic voters in 2008--could distinguish themselves.The most likely dark horse is Bill Richardson. The good news for Richardson is that all the rumors over the decades about his alleged "zipper problem" are probably just bunk; we'd have almost certainly learned otherwise by now if it were otherwise. The bad news for Richardson is that he almost has to win in Nevada to have a prayer, and even then, he's not well-positioned to win in Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina.So: get used to the idea that the Democratic nominee will likely be named (to list them alphabetically) Barack, Hillary or John, and that you can ignore a lot of the daily buzz about the Big Three until people start voting, which will be soon enough.

April 10, 2007

Motes and Beams

Maybe some people think that mocking Tom DeLay is a matter of shooting fish in a barrel, but insofar as The Hammer has fantasies of becoming the Big Fish of the right-wing blogosphere, it's worth the effort to fire a few rounds when he lifts his gills from the water.Via Jonathan Schwartz, we have this snippet transcribed from a recent DeLay radio interview, wherein he compares himself to Holocaust victims:

I am so outraged by this whole criminalization of politics. It’s not good enough to defeat somebody politically. It’s not even good enough to vilify somebody publicly. They have to carpet bomb you with lies and made up scandals and false charges and indicting you on laws that don’t exist. … It’s the same thing as I say in my book, that the Nazis used. When you use the big lie in order to gain and maintain power, it is immoral and it is outrageous…It’s the same process. It’s the same criminalization of politics. it’s the same oppression of people. It’s the same destroy people in order to gain power. It may be six million Jews. it may be indicting somebody on laws that don’t exist. But, it’s the same philosophy and it’s the same world view.
It's breathtaking, eh? I mean, really, is there anyone in American politics who has done more to demonize political opponents, and encourage--big hint: the endless investigation of, followed by the impeachment of, Bill Clinton for "high crimes and misdeameanors"--the criminalization of politics? And while I know people like DeLay consider any legal restrictions on campaign financing some sort of totalitarian assault on the power of money, is it possible he really believes he's been indicted on "laws that don't exist"? Given his amazing inability to see the beam in his own eye, it's probably not that surprising that DeLay is willing to go right over the brink and commit an offense that ranks right up there with Don Imus', not only cheapening the Holocaust by comparing it to his battles with the Texas justice system, but judging his loss of power as equivalent to the sufferings of those in the death camps. Imus has, at least, apologized repeatedly. DeLay seems determined to compound his disgusting behavior, and confirming its premeditated nature, by reiterating it on every available occasion.

April 4, 2007

Rudy's Abortion Funding Shocker

The much-commented-upon willingness of conservatives to overlook Rudy Giuliani's heretical views on social issues is about to get the acid test. In an interview today with CNN's Dana Bash, Rudy reiterated his past support for using public funds to pay for abortions in every case where abortion itself is legal. He also, incidentally, reiterated his support for a constitutional right to choose as well.Bash was apparently trying to get Giuliani to admit a flip-flop by showing him a 1989 tape where he told a women's group he supported public funding of abortions. Asked directly if this was still his position, he said "Yes," and elaborated:

"Ultimately, it's a constitutional right, and therefore if it's a constitutional right, ultimately, even if you do it on a state by state basis, you have to make sure people are protected," Giuliani said in an interview with CNN's Dana Bash in Florida's capital city.
Wow. This means Giuliani supports repealing the Hyde Amendment, the law that currently prohibits use of Medicaid dollars for abortions in all cases except those involving rape, incest, or endangerment of the life of the woman. First enacted in 1977, the Hyde Amendment is one of the anti-abortion movement's few genuine trophies. And unlike such contrived issues as bans on so-called "partial-birth abortions," the Hyde Amendment has a very significant effect. The National Abortion Federation web site quotes a Guttmacher Insitute study suggesting that "20-35% of Medicaid-eligible women who would choose abortion carry their pregnancies to term when public funds are not available." This is a very big deal. I'll be amazed if Rudy's conservative critics, and his rivals for the GOP presidential nomination, don't jump on this issue powerfully and immediately. What interests me is whether Giuliani fully understood the political implications of his interview with Bash. If he did, I guess you have to admire his suicidal chutzpah.

April 2, 2007

Thompson Gets the Imprimitur

For decades now, columnist Robert Novak has served as the unofficial but very real loudspeaker in national politics for the serious conservative activists of both the economic and cultural variety. Throughout the Reagan and G.H.W. Bush years, Novak was the guy who could be counted on to express the unhappiness of the Right with any deviation from its agenda by Repubican leaders. And most famously, it was Novak who, back in 1998, did George W. Bush the giant favor of a column calling him the ideological son of Ronald Reagan rather than his own father.That's why it's noteworthy that the Prince of Darkness today placed his imprimatur on the all-but-official candidacy of Fred Thompson, in no uncertain terms:

In just three weeks, Fred Thompson has transformed the contest for the Republican presidential nomination. It is not merely that he has come from nowhere to double digits in polls. He is the talk of GOP political circles because he is filling the conservative void in the field.
The Dark One briskly dismisses Thompson's rivals:
Sophisticated social conservative activists tell me they cannot vote for Giuliani under any conditions and have no rapport with McCain or Romney. They do not view Sen. Sam Brownback, representing the social right, as a viable candidate. They are coming to see Thompson as the only conservative who can be nominated.
But here's my favorite part of the column: Novak's explanation of Thompson's specific appeal to the Right:
Their appreciation of him stems not from his eight years as a U.S. senator from Tennessee but from his role as Manhattan district attorney on the TV series " Law & Order." The part was molded to Thompson's specifications as a tough prosecutor, lending him political star power.
So that's how Thompson gets to be the Heir of Reagan, eh? He's pretended to be an ideal conservative on the screen. If Fred's bandwagon gets to rolling, expect Rudy Giuliani--who actually was a successful prosecutor in Manhattan--to have great sport with Thompson as his Mini-Me.

Mo' Money

The first quarter fundraising numbers for the Republican presidential candidates are trickling out now, and their Big Three money men have demolished all past records as well. It was certainly being rumored that the Mittster would have a great quarter to offset his recently dismal poll ratings, but his $23 million haul was pretty amazing. Giuliani reported $15 million, and John McCain came in at about $12-and-a-half million. The McCain numbers are bad news for the some-time front-runner, given his Establishment Candidate status, although, as Markos points out, McCain's dollar-to-donor ratio is quite low, meaning he's raising smaller contributions from benefactors who haven't hit the legal limit. But the bigger news is that Romney, Giuliani and McCain--all of whom have serious vulnerabilities as candidates--or going to be hard to catch by the rest of the field.

Inventing Intra-Democratic Fights

Last Thursday, in the wake of Harold Ford's kickoff speech as chairman of the DLC, the Washington Times published a toxic little article entitled "Ford Splits With Democrats On Iraq," by Brian DeBose. It somehow interpreted a comment by Ford warning against too precipitious a withdrawal from Iraq as meaning he opposed the withdrawal language in the supplemental appropriations bills passed by both Houses of Congress. The article--surprise, surprise--led to fiery posts at DailyKos and at MyDD suggesting that Ford and the DLC were supporting Bush, dissing all Dems, etc., etc.Ford put out a statement on Friday disputing the WaTimes piece and making it clear he supported the supplemental, withdrawal language and all. I'm not holding my breath in anticipation of an acknowledgement of the statement by the WaTimes, Kos, or Matt Stoller. And none of the three are likely to pay any more attention than they already have to the main point of Ford's speech last Wednesday, which was to deplore the obsessive focus almost everywhere on fundraising by presidential candidates in lieu of a discussion of policy and ideas.The main progressive blogospheric rap on the DLC has been the organization's "divisiveness" in failing to tow the party line (except on those occasions when progressive bloggers don't want to tow the party line, either). Fine; make that case if you wish, though it would be nice if everyone accepted that there's a debate that must precede the definition of the party line in any given circumstance. But when a right-wing reporter just invents an "intra-party fight," it would be prudent to check with the source before immediately piling on. To the extent that many folks on the Left think the DLC exercises vast influence in the Democratic Party, you'd think they would be a little less eager to assume the organization or its chairman will always go in the wrong direction, on the evidence of the Washington Times.UPDATE: Contra my cynical expectation, Matt Stoller of MyDD promptly and graciously noted the Ford repudiation of the Washington Times story, and even praised him for it.

April 1, 2007

Money Money

We won't get the official numbers for a few days, but on the Democratic side at least, presidential campaigns are beginning to informally release their first quarter fundraising totals, and as expected, the amounts are staggering.According to Jerome Armstrong at MyDD, Clinton will lead the pack with $26 million in the quarter, followed by $21-22 million by Obama, $14 million by Edwards, $6 million by Richardson, $4 million by Dodd, and $3 million by Biden. The previous record for off-year fundraising in a quarter was $8.9 million by Al Gore, in 1999. And to place this in even sharper perspective, John Edwards turned heads four years ago with first-quarter fundraising of just over $7 million. Looks like he may double that haul this time around, while significantly trailing two other candidates, who will triple it.There's less information available thus far on GOP fundraising, though the buzz is that Romney will do quite well, and McCain may (on the evidence of a last-minute fundraising appeal) fail to meet expectations. But one number that is interesting comes from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who says he raised about $500,000 in the quarter. Huckabee has consistently been rated as a viable darkhorse candidate by a lot of pundits in both parties. Yet he only raised a sixth of the cash brought in by Democrat Joe Biden, who has largely been written off by the commentariat.This pattern suggests that the front-loaded primary schedule for 2008 may actually have a greater impact on the GOP field than on Democrats, despite some very serious vulnerabilities shared by GOP frontrunners Giuliani and McCain. Raising money a half-mil a quarter ain't going to get close to the price of admission to the early states, much less the massive Feb. 5 sweepstakes.