Yes, if you stumbled here by accident, or because you never took this site off your RSS reader, you'll notice that there is some new content here. After letting The Decembrist lapse about 15 months ago, because group blogging (at The American Prospect's TAPPED, and at TPMCafe) was more suited to my pace, I slowly realized that this blog did have an amazing core of loyal readers (I was blown away when a prominent DailyKos front page contributor told me a few months ago that this was the first political blog she ever read, and from here she found her way to others) and that I need a single repository, if only of links, to everything else I write.
For now, at least, everything here will be cross-posted, mostly from TAPPED, which is terrific these days, with a good mix of the Prospect's young writers and other contributors like Tom Schaller and Adele Stan. I'll also post by monthly column for the magazine, as soon as it's available to non-subscribers, and other writing for TPMCafe, The New Republic, The Washington Monthly, Democracy, and elsewhere. I'm also involved in a terrific project at the New America Foundation on The Next Social Contract, and I'll post some of the products of that initiative.
It's possible that there will be some content here that won't be posted elsewhere, if it doesn't fit. Over the next few weeks, I'll be backfilling the last few months of material, mostly from TAPPED.
Thanks for returning!
The Reform Group That Came In From the Cold
At last, one campaign finance reform organization has stepped up to its obligation to the public interest, with regard to Senator McCain's machinations. And it's a big one: Common Cause, under the welcome new leadership of Bob Edgar, formerly head of the National Council of Churches, and earlier a member of Congress from Pennsylvania, one of the best of the legendary class of 1974.
Common Cause sent letter to McCain that gets it exactly right:
[W]e are concerned that your recent actions in regard to public funding in the presidential primaries may undermine respect for the federal campaign finance laws, especially the presidential public financing system. Having opted into the system last summer – and having signed a binding certification agreement with the FEC – it is clear to us that you need an FEC vote to allow you to withdraw.
You can read the full letter here (pdf) and the press release here. Common Cause says it "is not prejudging the legal ins and outs of whether your campaign can still withdraw from the system after using the prospect of public matching funds as an active ingredient in a private $4 million loan agreement and to secure free ballot access in several states," which is appropriate -- it's all totally unprecedented, which is why the FEC has to decide. The letter goes on to strongly encourage McCain to support reform of the public financing system, and to support for full public financing for congressional elections and encourages him to return to it, and it asks him to do all he can to break the impassed on nominations to the Federal Election Commission, which are currently held up by Mitch McConnell's insistence on packaging four nominations together, including that of Hans von Spakovsky. My favorite thing about the letter is its straightforward declaration that "As a presidential candidate, you have set aside the reform mantle," and the absence of the fulsome, obsessive, you-still-love-us-don't-you praise of previous reform-group letters to McCain.
The phrase "your actions...may undermine respect for...the presidential public financing system" is particularly important. Right now, a number of candidates who honestly and earnestly opted to participate in the public financing system, such as Chris Dodd, Mike Huckabee, and Dennis Kucinich are still waiting for their checks. The reason they haven't received the funds yet is that the system doesn't have enough money. It doesn't have enough money because taxpayers don't have enough confidence in the system to check of the $3 box. And given McCain's manipulation of the system, why should they? So McCain's manipulation is not a victimless crime. The victims are those candidates in both parties who tried to use the public financing system as it was intended.
A few years ago, McCain and his allies made life very difficult for Common Cause, for not following their line on 527 committees and other regulations. So this letter cannot have been an easy.
I've often been critical of some of the campaign reform groups. But as the only group with a real sizable membership, with a history as "The People's Lobby" that goes back to its opposition to the Vietnam War, Common Cause is different. We need it to be strong, and unafraid. I've long been a supporter of Common Cause, today, I became a member.
Superdelegates and the "Responsible Parties" Tradition
Who would imagine that there was more to say on the subject of the Democratic Party's superdelegates? Yet two posts this week on The Democratic Strategist and on PolitickerNJ add some important context to the historical role of superdelegates, and make clear that their role amounts to a lot more than avoiding an unelectable candidate. On the New Jersey site, former Senator Robert Toricelli recalled the Hunt Commission, which devised the superdelegates, drawing on his role in his youth as Walter Mondale's representative to the commission:
Ed Kilgore puts it similarly:
The language of "accountability" and "responsibility" is an echo of the language of "responsible parties" -- a political tradition Matt Yglesias and I have been trying to revive. The idea that there were two Democratic Parties -- a congressional party which was somewhat more conservative and Southern, and a presidential party which was more liberal but also somewhat dominated by constituency groups was inherent in James McGregor Burns theory of four parties, although it took a different form by the 1980s. Even then, though, there were a lot of Democratic members of Congress who didn't have much interest in their presidential candidate, and didn't care much whether the president was a Democrat or not. Democratic House members in particular assumed that they would control the institution forever, while presidents would come and go. The contempt with which Bill Clinton was treated in 1992-93 was related to that attitude.
After the successive shocks of 1994, the complete alignment of the Southern white conservatives into the Republican Party, impeachment, the 2000 election and the Bush years it's pretty hard to recreate that mindset. Now every member of Congress is deeply invested in both who the next candidate is and who the president would be. That would probably be the case even without superdelegates, but bringing together a single, ideologically coherent, responsible party is still a worthy goal. With the elected officials who are superdelegates now split evenly between Obama and Clinton, it seems that there are now two congressional parties, defined not by ideology but by attitude: On one side, older liberals like Ted Kennedy joined with those elected more recently who have the combativeness necessary in the Bush years; on the other side, a middle-generation elected and brought up under the assumptions of the '80s and '90, very roughly speaking. But the gap they have to bridge is far smaller than between, say, Southern committee chairs in 1972 and candidate McGovern.
Toricelli (excuse his sleaziness for a minute) and Kilgore remind me why I don't think there's anything illegitimate about superdelegates (although the DNC members are a little more dubious), and why they should be free to vote as they please. It is part of the reconstruction of the kind of political party that can take concerted action. The next Democratic president will be able to govern with far greater support from congressional Democrats than Clinton or Carter ever had, and for anything that plays even a small role in making that happen, we should be grateful.
Public Justice for McCain, Thanks to Bloggers
Jane Hamsher at Firedoglake, along with Joe Sudbay of Americablog and the Rev. Lennox Yearwood have done a great service by putting together a well-argued complaint to the Federal Election Commission over John McCain's violation of the campaign finance law. While the Democratic National Committee filed a complaint earlier raising all the complex issues posed by McCain's loan and his promise to use public financing to pay off the loan while also avoiding the limits imposed by the public financing system, the Hamsher/bloggers' complaint is much simpler: It uses McCain's recent campaign filing to establish the simple fact that he is now over the spending limit for the primaries and therefore in violation. Since his last official action at the FEC was to apply for and receive certification for public funding, he is still in the system, a view reinforced by FEC Chair David Mason's letter to that effect to McCain.
Even at the best of times, FEC complaints take months to resolve, and a great many complaints that end in even the Commission's strongest resolution -- that there is "probable cause to believe" that a violation occurred -- go into a "conciliation" process that often end in little or no penalty. At the moment, of course, there isn't even an FEC to hear the complaint.
So the best thing we can do is ask for a public judgment on McCain's scam, which as Jane puts it, amounts to regulation "for thee but not for me." So far, almost 35,000 people have signed the complaint. I certainly have. You can join them here.
[cross-posted from TAPPED]
Opening the Box.
The news yesterday and today about a number of Democratic superdelegates moving toward Barack Obama or, even if ardent Clinton supporters like Joe Andrews of Indiana, admitting they would hesitate to be responsible for the superdelegates overruling the pledged delegates, reaffirms a point I've been making for weeks: All this talk about what the superdelegates "ought" to do is a distraction, part of the "fog of nonsense," to use Josh Marshall's phrase, that is keeping the illusion of a Clinton candidacy alive. The relevant question was always what they will do, and there was never a reason to think that they had any pressing desire to overturn the will of the pledged delegates.
As to the "ought" question, even though the historical record shows that superdelegates were created as a way to prevent nominees who would be abjectly unelectable (not that either George McGovern, Michael Dukakis, or Walter Mondale was thought to be unelectable at the moment of the convention), they were given free will and what they ought to do is, whatever they want. If a superdelegate decides to follow the national pledged delegates, the national popular vote, the popular vote in his or her district, some assessment about electability, or his or her own deep preference about who would make a better president, all those are legitimate reasons. And chances are that various superdelegates will make their choices on any and all of those reasons. As a result, the movement of the superdelegates as a bloc in the direction of Clinton was always unlikely; the qualms expressed by even strong Clinton supporters like Andrews make it impossible.
The Clinton campaign now kind of reminds me of the physics metaphor of Schroedinger's Cat. If you recall, this is a thought-experiment that is supposed to help explain transitional sub-atomic states: imagine a cat in a closed box with a vial of poisonous gas and a geiger counter. If an atomic particle decays, the gas is released and the cat dies; if not, the cat lives. Until you open the box, you have a cat that is maybe dead/maybe not.
I have to admit, I've never really understood this metaphor. It seems like it might be simpler to just explain the physics. There's a box with a cat in it and the cat is either dead or alive. So what? It's not both dead and alive. And that seems to be the state of the Clinton campaign now. As long as they can keep spinning -- e.g. Bill Clinton's new line that it's the delegates elected in primaries that count, not caucuses -- they can keep the box closed. The campaign is both dead and alive. But eventually someone will open the box. I suspect it will happen sooner than we think.
[cross-posted at TAPPED]
(Cross-posted from TAPPED.)
My first reaction to reading the text of Obama's speech on race and Rev. Wright was that it was too long and defensive. And echoing in my ears was still the insistence of a colleague on the subway this morning that "white people don't want to hear a long lecture about the complexities of race. They want to feel good about themselves." (In other words, they want to "purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap.")
But it was a very good speech, in part because it was delivered in such a relatively flat and straightforward way, and because just when you thought he would dodge a point (even having read the text), he stepped up and dealt with it. I've really appreciated that each Obama speech has become slightly more mundane, workmanlike, and thus presidential, because you can't build a long campaign and a presidency on incandescent moments.
Like Ed Kilgore, I'm continually fascinated not by the content of Obama's religious experience but by how he got there. Most politicians talk about religion from the perspective of having been raised in families that are somewhat more observant than they are as adults, so they are elevating religion from their childhood and their parents or grandparents. Others, like George W. Bush, found in religion a private salvation. Obama's experience is unlike either one, and frankly unlike anyone's I know: His work as an organizer led him to the church, the church was the heart of the community in which he was working, he became religious because of his commitment to social change. It was neither personal, nor familial, but part of his forming an identity, but not just as an individual, as a member of a community. And thus, race, his public life, and religion are intertwined in a way that they are not for most people, even people whose social values and work originates in their faith.
Kilgore comments that this "won't make a lot of sense to those Americans who view church membership as an expression of consumer choice, and ultimately, of the spiritual discrimination and good taste of the religious consumer." Indeed, this was the viewpoint of my colleague this morning -- if you don't agree with what you hear in a church, go to another church. But Obama's analogy to family answered that about as well as could be answered -- the church wasn't serving just a personal function for him, it was situating him in a community in which he had chosen to live and work -- and work on behalf of.
I'm mystified when people talk about Obama as if he were pure ego, as if he believes that the "Barack Obama brand" itself delivers change. He is in fact the most deeply communitarian politician (in the sense of Michael Sandel or Charles Taylor's point that our identities cannot exist outside of our of social interactions and networks) I have ever seen. His identity -- as African-American, as Christian -- is chosen and it is chosen because it situated him within a community.
For Sandel and others, "communitarianism" was a critique within liberalism to the overly "atomistic" and legalistic view of identity of rights-oriented liberalism and particularly John Rawls. There was an attempt in the 1990s to build a kind of political movement around the idea, and Bill Clinton adopted some of the language, but it didn't really go very far, partly because, as Paul Starr writes in Freedom's Power, "it has at best been a supplement or corrective to tendencies within liberalism." But in Obama that supplement or corrective can be quite substantive, as I thought was shown in Alec McGillis's comparison of Obama and Edwards in their approaches to poverty -- for Edwards poverty is about not having enough money, and the solutions are economic, including helping people move to where jobs are, where Obama was attracted to comprehensive efforts to rebuild community, including the non-economic aspects of life.
In today's speech, community played a role of lifting the question out of the stale argument about identity politics, and remind us that it's about much more than who's black, who's a woman, who said something that might be considered racist, who has an advantage because of their identity. One's identity is indeed the sum of your experiences and social interactions and where you situate yourself in a community. I thought Obama basically did that for everyone in his speech: himself, Rev. Wright, his own white grandmother, and even Geraldine Ferraro.
I guess I liked the speech a lot more than I thought I was going to on first read.
-- Mark Schmitt
Why Clinton Doesn't Want a Revote.
(Cross-posted from TAPPED.)
There aren't many windows into a strongly pro-Clinton/anti-Obama view in the blogosphere, making TalkLeft invaluable, where "Big Tent Democrat" (the former Armando of DailyKos) has been focused like a laser on the issue of how to deal with the Michigan and Florida Democratic delegations. The claim made there, and on some of the other pro-Clinton blogs like Taylor Marsh, has been that it is Obama who is blocking re-votes in Michigan and Florida, raising legalisms or obstructing agreement, but that the Clinton campaign should be more aggressive in pushing for revotes. Big Tent Democrat puts it in the context of the argument about the popular vote:
[T]he problem with the Clinton campaign's refusal to fight for revotes in Florida and Michigan [is that] to be perceived as the popular vote winner, Clinton needs revote wins in Florida and Michigan. I do not understand the Clinton campaign strategy at all on Florida and Michigan.
But it's actually easy to understand. What would happen if an agreement were announced today that there would be re-votes in Florida and Michigan? Immediately, the previous primaries in those states would become dead letters. Instead of being 200,000 votes down in the popular vote (by her campaign's count), or 500,000 down (by my count, which gives Clinton her Florida votes), Clinton would be down in the popular vote by almost 1 million. And 193 delegates that they are currently counting would suddenly disappear.
And at that point, the magnitude of Clinton's deficit would be too obvious to spin away. Yes, there would be two additional large-state contests in which to win back the million popular votes and hundreds of delegates. But unless she did significantly better in both states than she did in the illegal primaries, she would lose, not gain, ground, by her own calculations. Since she was on the ballot alone in Michigan before, it's highly unlikely that she will do better there. It's very possible that she could do better than the 50 percent she won in Florida in January, but since it would now be a two-person race, it's a dead certainty that Obama would do significantly better than the 32 percent he got in January, thus adding to his total popular vote margin and delegate count even if he lost again, and so it would be a net loss for Clinton. Re-votes cannot help Clinton be "perceived" as the winner of the popular vote.
Contrary to the gullible media's belief that "time" is a "powerful ally" on Clinton's side, in fact, Clinton's only ally is uncertainty. The minute it becomes clear what will happen with Michigan and Florida -- re-vote them, refuse to seat them, or split them 50-50 or with half-votes, as some have proposed -- is the minute that Clinton's last "path to the nomination" closes. The only way to keep spin alive is to keep uncertainty alive -- maybe there will be a revote, maybe they'll seat the illegal Michigan/Florida delegations, maybe, maybe, maybe. In the fog of uncertainty, Penn can claim that there is a path to the nomination, but under any possible actual resolution of the uncertainty, there is not.
So far, Obama is playing this situation well -- agreeing to abide by any rules the party establishes, but not pushing to embrace any particular solution other than the existing rules. But soon it will make more sense to call the question: Move toward some certain resolution of Michigan and Florida. I think my seat Florida/re-vote Michigan scheme makes sense and now seems a likely outcome, but the specific resolution doesn't matter, because whatever it is, it will introduce certainty and finiteness, and without the comfort of ambiguity, the Clinton spin-campaign cannot survive. The Clinton campaign began -- unwisely -- by spinning inevitability; it ends, equally unwisely, by spinning cosmic uncertainty. In between the two spin campaigns, they apparently forgot to give people enough of a positive reason to actually vote for Senator Clinton.
UPDATE: Commenter weboy [at TAPPED] complained that I should have sought out more pro-Clinton blogs, and recommends a few, so I will link to Tom Watson's recent post, "The Few, the Proud, the Pro-Clinton Bloggers," and to riverdaughter, as well as his own.
Nothing to See Here
* A post today on TAPPED, revisiting an argument I made a year ago that the Republican takeover in 1994 is not the model for this year’s elections.
* Two articles that just came out in the Washington Monthly, which had the brilliant idea of printing alternate covers, front and back, one assuming Republicans win next Tuesday, the other Dems win, with mostly the same writers on both sides.
Here’s my pre-election post-election speculation on a Democratic victory.
And finally, a contribution from last week to a fascinating discussion of Jacob Hacker’s new book, The Great Risk Shift.
Of Coups, Their Plotters, and the Next Era of Politics
At moments like these, as I watch the civil war among the Republican congressional leadership, I’m glad that a long time ago I worked my way through all three volumes of John Julius Norwich’s history of the Byzantine Empire. When was the last bloodless, orderly transition in the Republican leadership? Like the Byzantines (and apparently, according to an e-mailer, like the Klingons, but that’s never been my thing) it’s been all coups, beheadings, indictments and instant resignations, as far as I can tell, going back at least to Newt Gingrich’s victory in the race for Republican whip in 1989. There was the failed coup of 1997, which resulted in at least one coup-plotter, Bill Paxon of New York, being exiled (opening the seat now held by the equally ambitious Tom Reynolds.) There was the successful defenestration of Gingrich in 1998, followed within days by the elimination of his successor, Bob Livingston, by Tom DeLay, who replaced him with the more malleable Denny Hastert. While Hastert recently became the longest-serving Republican Speaker in history, he was also by all accounts the most impotent. When DeLay’s inevitable fall came, it was followed by the unlikely victory of John Boehner -- a throwback to the original Gingrichites -- over a DeLay protege, and an actual ideologue, both of whom remain ready to pounce. Without DeLay, Hastert could not lead on his own, and in the months since DeLay’s resignation, the House has been basically paralyzed (thankfully!) except to pass legislation permitting their president to torture people. As my wife points out -- and she gets out more than I do -- when Republican members of Congress go out to campaign over the next month, they inevitably are asked some version of, "So, you Republicans control both houses of Congress? Why couldn’t you pass something on immigration reform?" And they hate not having an answer to that.
So who knows what happened now? Robert Novak wrote this morning that there has always been "distance" between Reynolds and Hastert. As of last week, Reynolds was perhaps scheming to depose Hastert, by pulling victory in the House races from the jaws of defeat and being "heralded as asavior" -- in Novak’s words. Last week for a moment that seemed possible. Today, Reynolds and his (former) aide Kirk Fordham are succeeding all too well in bringing down Hastert, but will destroy themselves as well. Leaving the Republican campaign committee rudderless, and a leadership election in the spring that has no easy answers. If the Republicans lose, will they let Boehner -- their leader during the annus horribilus -- become minority leader? Will they let whip Roy Blunt, rejected in the last showdown and as shamelessly corrupt as DeLay, remain? What other potential leaders -- such as Conference Chair Deborah Pryce of Ohio -- will themselves lose reelection? If they go outside of leadership, usually it’s with a committee leader, as they tried to do with Livingston, who chaired Appropriations. Oh, too bad -- all their major committee leaders are at risk of indictment at any moment: Jerry Lewis, Duncan Hunter -- or already indicted: Ney, or generally disagreeable: Bill Thomas. (Rules Committee chair David Dreier is still available, but they are still homophobes after all.) The Mike Pence wing of so-called fiscal conservatives could take power, which would only further alienate voters who expect government to do something besides cut taxes.
The big question in my my mind is whether the revelations about Foley were merely the spark that ignited the war within leadership, or whether they were actually a tactical move on the part of some faction. There’s no obvious beneficiary -- certainly not Fordham/Reynolds -- so I can’t flesh out this theory, but maybe when we know more it will make sense.
Much more interesting to me about this leadership crisis is not what it heralds for the election, but what it means for the next era of American politics. I’ve generally operated under the assumption that if the Dems win the House, they actually don’t win much besides subpoena power. (Not that there’s anything trivial about subpoena power, except why would an administration that believes in absolute presidential power obey a subpoena?) I’ve assumed that the narrow Democratic House majority would face off against an extraordinarily disciplined and fierce opposition party, working with the Republicans in the Senate whether minority or not, that would continue to frame the agenda and define the fights much as they did in the early Clinton years. In many ways the modern Republicans are a machine constructed for opposition, and far less effective as a governing party that has to make choices based on consequences. I want the Democrats to win, but I’m terrified of it at the same time. I’m worried that to win they will promise things they intend to "do," but they will not have the power to do anything.
But what happens if the Republican structure is not capable of discipline, if it’s riven by infighting and finger-pointing?? That’s going to be a very different story. If the White House can’t count on loyal and effective allies in the House, even in the minority, they are even more stuck than they already are. Tony Snow’s comments yesterday on the scandal attracted a lot of attention for his dismissal of Foley’s abuse as "naughty e-mails." But there was more to the statement than that. He also basically dismissed Congress entirely, saying "there are a lot of scandals up there," and basically treating Congress as if it was already controlled by another party. Members of Congress think Bush is dragging them down; Bush thinks its Congress dragging him down, and he’s got numbers on his side.
If Bush rejects "Congress" altogether, without regard to party, at some point he has to come back and deal. And if the GOP doesn’t get its act together to form the fierce opposition that protects Bush, then I think there’s a real possibility that Bush and the Senate Republicans have to think about a different approach, a kind end-of-life turn to "triangulation," actually working with the congressional Democratic majority to find some common ground and get things done. That’s still a long-shot, but I’m more optimistic not just about the election, but about the possibility that we don’t have to wait until 2009 for this whole Byzantine approach to politics to come to an end.
It's All the Liberals' Fault, or Maybe George Soros's
So far there are two versions of right-wing spin to make the Mark Foley scandal and the cover-up go away. First there’s the complex postmodern pseudo-politically correct spin from the Wall Street Journal, Newt Gingrich and the Family Research Council: "Senior Republicans might well have decided they had no grounds to doubt Mr. Foley merely because he was gay and a little too friendly in emails. Some of those liberals now shouting the loudest for Mr. Hastert’s head are the same voices who tell us that the larger society must be tolerant of private lifestyle choices...Are these Democratic critics of Mr. Hastert saying that they now have more sympathy for the Boy Scouts’ decision to ban gay scoutmasters?"
As the FRC said, Hastert and his colleagues "probably did not want to appear homophobic" by taking on Foley. A friend commented last night that, "We know the avoidance of homophobia is the guiding principal for the house leadership."
One of the stories that the right likes to tell about itself is that they believe in moral absolutes, that there is such a thing as good and bad, while liberals are all relativists, we have no "foundation" for our views of what’s good and bad. This comes in lots of versions, from the bumper sticker to the erudite, Alisdair MacIntyre-wanna-be’s like Princeton professor Robert P. George, but that one sentence sums up the argument.
But when it comes to Foley, this is a case where it is us liberals who have the absolute moral value: Don’t mess with kids sexually. Adults must not mess with kids, people in positions of authority should not mess with kids. It’s not about the legal line or the age of consent in Florida or DC. It’s morality: Fifty-two year olds must not mess with 16 year olds. Remember that rule and all this complexity falls away. Don’t tolerate people who mess with kids, gay or straight. Not complicated. As Robert George would say, it’s "foundational." If you know that basic rule, and don’t hesitate to take action if people break it, or raise alarms if you suspect them of breaking it (as in, asking for a picture) then guess what?: Life gets a little simpler. Gays can be Scoutmasters because, like any other Scoutmaster, they know that you don’t mess with the kids. Straight men can be high school teachers of girls because they maintain that boundary, they treat it as a moral absolute. And so on.
So what do you call the belief that gay people somehow by their nature cannot respect that rule, that they in fact can’t appreciate moral absolutes? Yep, that’s it.
While that spin on the cover-up is disturbing, the other spin is actually funny. It’s all George Soros’s fault. This is the story behind the "dirty trick" theory being peddled by Katherine Harris, Gingrich again, Hugh Hewitt, and apparently now being peddled on Fox News. Whenever the right runs into trouble, it seems their first move is to play a game of "Six Degrees of George Soros": What’s the fewest number of moves we can make to blame this on George. You can imagine them testing out various theories: How about this one: Soros’s operatives in Eastern Europe starting in the 1980s bred a super-race of sexually irresistible young men, taught them perfect English, had them placed as congressional pages and programmed them to tempt Mark Foley. Hmm, nice try, but a little more Blofeld than Soros.
No, the new line, from Gingrich to Katherine Harris, and the weirder corners of the right-blogosphere, is that it’s all George Soros’s fault because a "Soros-funded organization" had the e-mails and waited until just this critical moment in the election cycle to release them. Meanwhile, kids were put at risk. Someone named Clarice Feldman who writes at The American Thinker (modesty in blog naming has never been the right’s strong suit) seems to have figured this one out. Drat. If it weren’t for Clarice, Scooby and the rest of those meddlesome kids, George would have gotten away with it, too! Unfortunately there’s one loose end to the theory -- the organization, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (which does get a small grant from Soros’s foundation, although the right referred to CREW as "Soros-funded" even when it wasn’t), immediately turned the e-mails over to the FBI, and released them only after ABC News made the story public.
So get back to the drawing board guys: Connect Mark Foley to George Soros in six moves or less!
Dude Look Like an Echo
I’m obsessed, but don’t really know what to say, about the torture bill passing the Senate. But then I come across this, and fortunately for my sanity, I know exactly what to say. This is the third paragraph, the third paragraph of the New York Times’ front-page story about the self-destructing candidacy of Westchester County attorney Jeanine Pirro for attorney general of the state:
But to many people who have been watching the couple for decades, the Pirros look a lot like an echo of that other Westchester power couple, the Clintons, who are also political and financial partners whose fates and fortunes are profoundly intertwined. The Pirros live in Rye, the Clintons in Chappaqua.
"Look a lot like an echo of" is one of the great weasel phrases of modern journalism, even apart from the simple fact that echoes don’t "look" like anything. Here are the "echoes" between the Pirros and the Clintons:
* Apparently they live in towns that are a mere sixteen miles apart.
What are the odds of that? My family lives about two miles from Karl Rove. Echo? You be the judge. We used to live about a mile from Jennifer Connelly. I like that echo better.
* Hillary Clinton is an attorney. Jeanine Pirro? Also an attorney. What are the odds? Not to mention, both are attractive and dress well.
Why don’t we just stop here? The echoes are blinding me.
* Apparently, Mr. Pirro had some extra-curricular dalliances. Well, more than a few, since at least one resulted in the birth of a child, and another one resulted in his wife hiring Bernie Kerik to bug their yacht, pleading, "“What am I supposed to do, Bernie? Watch him f--k her every night?" Mr. Clinton apparently has also been unfaithful to his wife.
Such activity is highly unusual, of course, and to find it in two families living a mere sixteen miles apart, both of them lawyers, is quite obviously something that "looks a lot like an echo." . Or maybe it sounds a lot like a shadow.
* Mr. Clinton has a secretary named Pirro, and Mr. Pirro has a secretary named Clinton.
Holy cow! Oh, never mind, I was thinking of Lincoln and JFK.
Sadly for the perfection of the analogy, there are some very minor notes that don’t quite fit with "look like an echo." For example:
* According to the Times, "Two decades ago [Ms. Pirro] dropped her bid for lieutenant governor in the face of questions about her husband’s ties to a company in the garbage-hauling business, an activity that was often linked to the mob."
Bill Clinton was an extremely successful two-term president of the United States, and presided over a period of near-full-employment and peace in the world. Mr. Pirro was in the mob-run garbage-hauling business.Maybe if we just say that each was near the top of his chosen profession, then "looks like an echo" would still work.
* "In terms of bad publicity, probably nothing compared to Mr. Pirro’s tax evasion case. In 1998, the Pirros paid close to $1 million in back taxes, but Mr. Pirro was indicted the following year, basically for billing personal expenses to his businesses and taking tax deductions on them.
Among the purchases were a portrait of the Pirro children commissioned by Ms. Pirro, the set for her cable television show when she was a judge, furniture for their vacation home in West Palm Beach, Fla., and drivers and maids (in uniforms) to tend to the children, the wine cellar and the family’s pet pot-bellied pigs.
In June 2000, a jury convicted Mr. Pirro on 34 counts of conspiracy, tax evasion and filing false returns. His brother, Anthony, an accountant, was also convicted. Albert Pirro served 11 months in federal prison."
Okay, well, Bill Clinton never did anything like that. Never even came close. His half-brother Roger got into some trouble, though, just like Pirro’s brother. That sure "looks like an echo."
When I read something like that third paragraph, and consider the fact that it can wind up on the front page of the most thoroughly edited paper in this country, I can’t help but think of Michael Kinsley and David Broder and all the others who this week seem to be losing it about "foul-mouthed bloggers" and people getting their news from "some acned 12-year-old in his parents’ basement recycling rumors from the Internet echo chamber" or from "myleftarmpit.com." I wonder not so much what blogs are they reading, but what newspapers?
The byline on this story, by the way, is Leslie Eaton and Mike McIntire.
The Pure Centrists of America / Go Crazy
David Broder is a complete head case -- consumed by the convoluted efforts to square the circle of his own conflicting impulses.
Why would I say such a terrible thing? Is it because I’m a “vituperative, foul-mouthed blogger,” as he described people like me in the first of his two columns saluting the “independence party” of Democratic and Republican insiders that he wishes to see reelected?
No, I use that phrase because those are the very words - “a complete head case…” and the rest -- that Broder himself used to describe Rep. Chris Shays in a column a week ago Sunday. Everyone outraged by the dean’s last two columns in which he salutes the “independence” of a set of politicians characterized primarily by their incumbency, should add the one that preceded that pair as well. Perhaps you’ll come away with a little more sympathy for just what’s going on in the minds of the people who think they know how American politics works.
I’m not one to treat Broder with contempt. He’s worn out more shoe leather than I’ll ever see trying to understand American politics. And he’s written a bunch of books that I’ve learned a lot from (the book he wrote with Haynes Johnson about the politics of the Clinton health care plan, The System, is still the best book of the last several decades on the inner workings of Washington.) There are more than enough journalists out there who obviously don’t work as hard and aren’t as open-minded as Broder, many of them a third his age. It’s true, he doesn’t really get what’s going on in American politics right now. But that says less about Broder himself than about the craziness of the situation.
And that was my reaction to Broder’s column about the centrist Shays. Broder recounts a Washington journalists’ breakfast with Shays, at which the congressman tries to say what he really thinks about Iraq: he still supports the war, but thinks we should get out, but not on a timetable (he has a scheme instead whereby every time one Iraqi policeman is trained, one U.S. soldier goes home). He also thinks that the “president has no credibility,” but that Bush’s second inaugural address, in which he promised to make democracy the primary criterion of American foreign policy, was brilliant. And most important to Shays, no one should ever suggest for a minute that these complex positions were influenced in the least by his reelection race.
All Broder’s vituperative invective was well earned: “tortured,” a “self-absorbed soliloquy,” a “bundle of contradictions.” And Shays is, even by politician standards, unusually self-absorbed. But it seemed to me a week ago that Broder was seeing the problem as if it were a mental disorder in Shays’s head rather than a reasonable tortured reaction to the external situation as faced by a centrist Republican in 2006. Sometimes R.D. Laing is right: what we call mental illness might be a rational reaction to the double binds and cognitive dissonance of a situation.
And so I don’t think Broder is a head case, even though his salute-to-incumbency columns are filled with at least as many tortured contradictions as in Shays’ breakfast ramble. There is, for example, his insistence that Senator Mike DeWine of Ohio must be reelected because opponent Sherrod Brown is “a loud advocate of protectionist policies,” followed without a pause by a declaration that the Independence Party incumbents are those who listen to public opinion: “Americans are saying no to excess greenhouse gases and no to open borders; yes to embryonic stem cell research, yes to a path to earned citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants and yes to a living wage.” Needless to say, the “protectionist policies” Brown advocates (such as incorporating labor and environmental standards into trade agreements) are also things that Americans say yes to; it is elite Washington opinion that rejects them. And have any of the conservative Republicans he salutes as independent ever said a kind word about living wage proposals? Of course not; these are provisions championed not just by Democrats, but by the very ultraliberals that Broder thinks must be rejected.
And we could go on. It’s tough out there for a centrist. Like Shays, Broder has to try to fit the world into a paradigm in which each party is driven equally by extremists, in which there are responsible centrists in both parties who can lead us to hope. And yet, just as with Shays, none of the facts - including the more recent datum that his heroes McCain and Lindsay Graham caved on torture - fit this mental model. And the result may be Broder’s madness, or Shay’s, or perhaps the singularity of our current political situation.
The Last Refuge
The Washington Post reported yesterday that the Republican congressional campaign committees plan to spend "more than 90%" of its funds on negative attacks on Democratic challengers based on local issues and scandals.
I’ve seen two reactions to this. First, the suggestion that it contradicts Republican threats to nationalize the election around security. And, second, that it’s more or less business as usual, because the party in power always wants to treat elections as local fights between individual incumbents and challengers, while the party out of power always wants to use a national tide to give its challengers a boost.
Neither response recognizes quite how unusual this is. And the article doesn’t quite say it either.
The article is missing a key phrase. Cosider the conventional wisdom that the party in control of Congress wants to keep the focus on local races. Usually, the saying goes, it’s because "People hate Congress but they like their own congressman." But the article tells a very different story.
If you take a basic course on congressional politics, you’ll be taught that there are two possible rhythms to a congressional election. In most elections, the national trend, whatever it is, doesn’t quite cross over into local races, and 98% of incumbents are reelected. In 1988, for example, George H.W. Bush won a solid victory but Democrats actually gained two seats in the House.
But every so often, the national trend is so strong that it breaks the back of incumbents who have held on to their districts for years through the usual incumbent advantages: name recognition, constituent service, delivering pork, an advantage in campaign money. 1994 was such a year.
Those advantages of incumbency are typically positive advantages. But not only is the national trend this year strong enough to overwhelm them, most of the natural positive advantages of incumbency aren’t there for Republicans. They can’t count on Americans liking their own congressman, because people don’t like their congressmen. They can’t count on ribbon-cutting ceremonies and pork-barrel spending because large forces have been unleashed that make those things look -- as they are -- trivial. (The ultimate irony of big-government conservatism is that it may have no political payoff.) And they can no longer count on the basic fundraising advantage that incumbents have. And that will get worse as the K Street Project turns on itself. (An acquaintance who runs a sizable trade association PAC told me the other day that their giving up to now had been 70:30 Republican, and her job between now and November was to get it to 50:50, so that they’re not shut out in the next Congress.)
Without the usual local advantages of incumbency, the Republicans’ second choice is to nationalize the election themselves, as the incumbent party, making it a referendum on the Bush-defined "War on Terror." That’s an unusual move, but to some extent it’s what they did to win the 2002 elections. And certainly until the Post article, this is what they promised. But it’s getting old.
And the Post article is an indication that, at least from the point of view of those following congressional races most closely, it’s not working. And so, time for Plan C. There’s nothing new about negative campaigning in congressional races, of course, and nothing per se wrong with it. But if your opponent is unknown and underfunded, and you are a well-liked incumbent, the last thing you want to do is even mention your opponent. You don’t debate, you don’t do anything that brings the challenger into the same zone. And so a systematic negative campaign by incumbents against challengers, across the board, is highly unusual. But it may be the only option available.
And it may well work, at least in just enough congressional districts to avoid a Democratic takeover of the House or at least keep it vanishingly close. The strategy of aggressively disqualifying a challenger before the race even begins, defining the challenger before she can define herself, worked against Kerry and its worked in some Senate races. I wouldn’t write it off. But have no doubt -- it is the strategy of a party and a movement that is on its last legs.
Who is "Serious" About Terrorism?
Can someone explain what Senator Lieberman could possibly mean when he says the following:
“I’m worried that too many people, both in politics and out, don’t appreciate the seriousness of the threat to American security and the evil of the enemy that faces us — more evil, or as evil, as Nazism and probably more dangerous than the Soviet Communists we fought during the long Cold War,” Mr. Lieberman said.
First, there’s no antecedent to the word "threat" or "enemy" so we have no idea what threat he’s referring to. Is it al-Qaeda alone? Al-Qaeda plus Hezbollah and Hamas, plus Syria and Ahmadinejad? Or that thing out there that
Little Green Footballs the President now calls "Islamic fascists"?
Who knows. But under any possible definition of "threat" or "enemy" it cannot possibly be as dangerous than the Soviet Union at the peak of the Cold War, with multiple thermonuclear devices pointed at every one of our cities and towns. And, I don’t know exactly how to score "evilness," but not much matches Hitler. I suppose in some way bin Laden and Zawahiri’s hearts may be as filled with evil as Hitler’s or Stalin’s, but they don’t have the SS and Luftwaffe at their disposal. Maybe they would send us all to concentration camps if they controlled half of Europe, but thankfully, they live in caves and can’t use the phone. Is Ahmadinejad "more evil, or as evil" as Hitler? Maybe the potential is there, with his holocaust denial and all that, but so far it’s mostly talk.
I’m sorry, but this is just a deranged, or at best deeply confused and manic, thing to say. It shows a lack of perspective and reality and responsibility, even in its lack of clarity about what exactly the threat is and how to defeat it. Why does anyone accept that this kind of blather can be considered taking the threat more "seriously"? It’s not. It’s hugely unserious in its trivialization of the great moral challenges of the Twentieth Century and it’s bald politicization of the current challenge.
And I’m interested in examples -- I know there are people from Paul Berman to the Malkin wing of the right blogosphere who like to say that Islamic extremists are sort of like fascism, or there’s a debate going on now on National Review Online about whether "Islamo-Nazi" is a better word than Islamofascist. But is there anyone else who has used that framework: "more dangerous than the Soviet Communists" or "more evil, or as evil, as Nazism."??
This is a man who has become so deeply unserious that I don’t think he should be a U.S. Senator, from either party.
Vietnam Analogies Everywhere!
The Vietnam War was a long one, so those devoted to finding exact historical parallels can usually find something to fit into their proof that the nomination of Ned Lamont is a disaster for Democrats.
Jacob Weisberg mines 1972, as usual: "In 1972, the Democrats repudiated their flawed Cold Warriors and chose as their standard-bearer a naive and honorable anti-war idealist...In a similar way, the 2006 Connecticut primary points to the growing influence within the party of leftists unmoved by the fight against global jihad."
(Earlier in the piece, Weisberg makes clear that the Cold Warrior "repudiated" in 1972 was Senator Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson. I’m going to make it my special mission to knock this one down as often as I have to: Scoop Jackson wasn’t "repudiated" or robbed of something legitimately his. He just, like dozens of Senatorial would-be-presidents before and since simply Didn’t Get Any Votes. He’s not a martyr, just a guy who No One Voted For. A lot like Joe Lieberman in fact, although Saint Scoop’s performance in 1972 fell short even of Joe’s famous "three-way tie for third place." -- more conventionally known as "fifth place.")
Like McGovern’s naively isolationist supporters, who didn’t appreciate the actual Communist threat, Weisberg says that Lamont supporters and other anti-war Dems "see Iraq purely as a symptom of a cynical and politicized right-wing response to Sept. 11, as opposed to a tragic misstep in a bigger conflict."
I think it’s fair to call Vietnam a "tragic misstep" within a larger Cold War conflict, and probably fair to say that some McGovernites let the tragedy of Vietnam blind them to the obligations of American strength in the postwar conflict.
But is Iraq really a "tragic misstep in a bigger conflict"? As opposed to "a cynical and politicized right-wing response to Sept. 11"? Read the history of Vietnam, and it’s hard not to be somewhat sympathetic -- within the limits of what men like McNamara knew and assumed, you can see how each little step made sense to them at the moment, and before you know it, you’ve got 50,000 dead and no way out. But Iraq is not a "misstep" in the same way, or series of missteps. It was a very considered, aggressively sold choice to pursue a war that had little to with "the fight against global jihad," for reasons that we may never fully understand. It is a perfectly reasonable position to support ending the U.S. involvement in Iraq as quickly as possible, while strongly advocating the sort of engagement in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere that would be part of "the fight against global jihad," if you want to put it that way. As Kevin Drum pointed outthe other day, General Clark’s proposal on this from a couple years ago was good, so are any number of others, including Peter Beinart’s. Yes, we should make full use of American power -- economic, cultural, military, and the power of example.
The Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, did a wonderful thing this morning: They realized that the history of Dems and Vietnam is not reducible to 1972. The Lamont victory is not the McGovern nomination, but "arguably the most important victory for the American left since the Watergate rout of 1974." YES! That’s the metaphor we’re looking for: 75 new Democrats elected to the House, many of them from Republican districts which they held for many years, a group of serious, hard-working non-extremists like John Murtha, George Miller, and Chris Dodd.
Ah but that’s where all the trouble began: "If Democrats retake Congress, we will be back where we were in Vietnam circa 1975. Early that year the Congressional left blocked funds for our allies in the government of South Vietnam...within weeks... the last American helicopters were leaving Saigon [and] the Soviet Union was clearly emboldened to assert itself via proxies from Afghanistan to Central America."
The stab-in-the-back theory! Ah, if only we had just stuck it out for a few more years in Vietnam.
But I think the Journal is right. This is more like 1974 than 1972. And 2008 will be even more so. In 1974/75, everyone understood that U.S. involvement in Vietnam, a decade after Tonkin, had to end. That’s where we are with Iraq, and the only people who don’t seem ready to be part of figuring out how to end it are George Bush, Joe Lieberman and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. But folks like Weisberg, who see everything as 1972 all over again, aren’t making it any easier to get to that point.
A Last Few Words on Connecticut
Some random thoughts in the closing days:
First, is there a better expression of what I called “checklist liberalism” than Lieberman’s I-gave-at-the-office answer to George Stephanopoulos this morning, complete with the Rumsfeldian question-answer format?:
Lieberman: “Did I keep in touch with Democrats? You bet I did….I have the support of most of the key inner constituencies, advocacy groups within the Democratic Party : the AFL-CIO, the League of Conservation Voters, Defenders of Wildlife, Human Rights Campaign, NARAL, Planned Parenthood PAC. They wouldn’t support me if I lost touch with them.”
Second, I want to comment on some bits of Dan Balz’s article, billed on the Washington Post website as “What A Lieberman Loss Would Mean.” Balz’s unsurprising argument is that if Lieberman loses, it will increase the importance of the Iraq War in the 2008 Democratic primaries, and advantage candidates like Al Gore whose opposition has been stronger.
In contrast, Balz says, “many party moderates say they see worrisome parallels to what happened to the Democrats during Vietnam, when they opposed an unpopular war but paid a price politically for years after because of a perception the party was too dovish on national security.
“‘Candidates know they cannot appease [antiwar] activists if they are going to run winning national campaigns,’ said Will Marshall, president of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute.”
Two comments on this: First, the 2008 primaries are seventeen months away. Balz projects a straight line from the way the issue breaks today to that point. And seems to take it for granted that we’ll still be embroiled in Iraq. But consider that at the time of the 2004 primaries, the war was less than one year old! By the time of the first primary votes in 2008, it will be almost five years of war. We’re now in the fourth year of the war; does anyone seriously think that by the sixth, absent some enormous change, that “antiwar activists” won’t be the vast majority of people? If the issue - the war - remains unchanged, the politics of it cannot remain unchanged.
This is why I’ve never been worried in the past about the “split” on Iraq among Democrats. I thought that by the time we got within sight of the 2008 primaries, either something dramatic would have happened to change things, or it would become completely obvious to everyone that withdrawal on a timetable was the only option. With David Broder and Tom Friedman now in the “cut and run” camp, with Senator Clinton standing up to Rumsfeld, that moment has almost come. And while the Lamont challenge may accelerate it somewhat among the more cautious politicians, it’s the reality, the fact that we are now in the middle of someone else’s civil war, that is driving everyone else to that consensus.
Also, I’m really tired of the Vietnam/Democrats analogy, in which the entire political history of Vietnam is reduced to McGovern’s loss in 1972. The real reason the Vietnam War divided and discredited Democrats and splintered the liberal consensus was because - let’s not be afraid to admit it -- Democrats started that war. Opposition to the war didn’t unify or define the party, it divided it. Nixon won the 1968 election because Humphrey was associated with the war, couldn’t split with LBJ, and Nixon promised - dishonestly -- to end it. The national security gap for Democrats first appeared in polls in 1967-68, because LBJ was held responsible for the war itself, not because they were associated with antiwar activists. (See this paper from the Truman Project for more.) And in the election after 1972, the 75+ Democrats who won congressional seats were overwhelmingly anti-war, a transforming fresh spirit in politics that dominated Congress for the next two decades. We can only hope that a new class of legislators elected on a wave of revulsion at the war and at corruption will be as skilled and resilient.
Third, I’ve been predicting for weeks that the Lieberman independent bid would amount to nothing, and that seems to now be the conventional wisdom, especially after Senator Frank Lautenberg suggested that if he did not come within 10 points of Lamont, he should drop the Party of One bid.
Politicians can be superficially supportive but also cruelly contemptuous toward colleagues who can’t take care of their own business. I think that some of the establishment figures have to be noticing that not only did Lieberman put himself in this situation, but he did absolutely nothing, at any point, to get himself out of it. From attacking Lamont, acting peevish and entitled, declaring the independent bid, refusing to say anything that would show any difference between his view of Iraq and Bush’s (even with George Stephanopoulos this morning he was mouthing the WH line that the only threat to a unified, stable Iraq was “the terrorists”), to finally trying a clumsy imitation of Lamont’s enthusiastic rallies, the only result of which was that the face of his campaign for a day was a loudmouth DC lobbyist who looked like an understudy for the “Billionaires for Bush” comedy troupe, Lieberman didn’t make one right move in six months. He doesn’t even seem to realize that if he denounces his opponent for voting with Republicans and calls him “center-right,” he can’t credibly also say, “That’s something that separates me from my opponent - I don’t hate Republicans.”
I was going to end this post with some attempt to figure out why it happened, but all explanation - such as that he doesn’t quite understand how politics has changed since the 1990s - seems inadequate to the magnitude of the flame-out. I think it’s possible that after the primary, unleashed from the obligation of being a checklist Democrat, Lieberman may emerge as a very, very conservative figure, one of those real neoconservatives (in the older sense of the word) whose main politics is to obsess over and recoil at what they see as the excesses of the left. Michael Barone is a good example of such a figure, and that way madness lies. I’m just speculating, but if that does occur, we’ll understand why he couldn’t run a plausible Democratic campaign in 2006: he couldn’t bring himself to.
Beyond Checklist Liberalism
Two comments on Adam Nagourney’s Lieberman story yesterday:
1. It’s not said explicitly, but it sure does sound like the Party Of One option is now considered likely to fizzle. Nagourney focuses only on the way in which the move alienated Democrats, and says, “should Mr. Lieberman lose the primary, all indications are that most Democratic leaders will abandon him in the general election race.” Even David Broder, painfully unable to understand what’s happening and dreaming that sanity will one day return - “the early successes of these elitist insurgents have been followed by decisive defeats when a broader public weighs in” - seems to have little hope that the general election in Connecticut will be that return to normalcy. Lieberman, I’m told, calculated that he had a 50% chance of winning the primary and an 85% chance of winning the general as an independent, making his decision obvious. But of course that was a terrible miscalculation, because among other things it failed to factor in the effect of the decision itself. If he had a 50% chance of winning the primary the day before the election, that chance dropped enormously the day after, as both Nagourney and Broder say. And there was never an 85% chance of winning the general after being tagged as a loser, with Democratic officials and donors unable to help, with 40% of the vote sufficient for victory. I point this out only because you read it here first.
Mr. Clinton had told him to acknowledge that Democrats should be able to hold contrary opinions on the war, Mr. Lieberman recounted. But Mr. Clinton also recommended that Mr. Lieberman aggressively try to refocus the debate on other topics.
A longtime associate spoke of sending an e-mail message to Mr. Lieberman suggesting that he talk about domestic issues important to liberal Democrats: blocking oil drilling in Alaska, protecting affirmative action and preserving abortion rights.
Is “refocus the debate on other topics” really brilliant, insightful advice for Lieberman? Hasn’t he been trying to change the topic? Isn’t the whole point that that’s not working?
And what about Clinton? This is the guy who is assumed to be the de facto strategist-in-chief for the front-running Dem 08 candidate. Is “refocus the debate” the best he can do? Or, “acknowledge that Democrats should be able to hold contrary opinions on the war,” which if Lieberman can’t or won’t do, he’s got some serious problems. (If Lieberman won’t even acknowledge that views other than his own are legitimate within the party, then who’s the unyielding ideologue here?)
And then the second paragraph, which I think says it all about why the mainstream Democrat advice to Lieberman misses the point. This paragraph is not attributed to Clinton, although its positioning implies that it expands on the advice Clinton gave. It’s a great expression of the Democratic Party of 1996: You got your enviros, you got your minorities, you got your women. Each group has one issue. For the enviros, it’s ANWR (the most trivial of victories, but the one that raises the money). For the minorities, affirmative action. (Likewise, of minor relevance to the actual structure of economic opportunity for most African-Americans and Latinos.) For women, it’s all about “preserve abortion rights.” There are a couple others, but those are the basic buttons you press to be credentialed as a good liberal Democrat. After you press them, you can do whatever you want.
But has Lieberman failed to press those buttons? No! In fact, he’s been pounding on them like that guy at the elevator who thinks that if he presses “Down” hard enough and often enough, eventually the elevator will recognize how important and how late he is.
But it’s not working. Why? Two reasons: One of course is that Iraq, and the constellation of foreign policy and security failures it represents really is huge. And while Democrats can accept a fairly wide range of viewpoints, roughly from Biden’s make-it-work to Murtha’s get-out-now, only Lieberman’s stay-the-course is ridiculous. It’s pretty difficult to look at ANWR and Iraq and conclude that a good position on ANWR more than offsets a bad one on Iraq. (Especially if there’s no reason to think that Ned Lamont has a different position on ANWR or the other three buttons.)
The second reason is that Lamont supporters actually aren’t ideologues. They aren’t looking for the party to be more liberal on traditional dimensions. They’re looking for it to be more of a party. They want to put issues on the table that don’t have an interest group behind them - like Lieberman’s support for the bankruptcy bill -- because they are part of a broader vision. And I think that’s what blows the mind of the traditional Dems. They can handle a challenge from the left, on predictable, narrow-constituency terms. But where do these other issues come from? These are “elitist insurgents,” as Broder puts it - since when do they care about bankruptcy? What if all of a sudden you couldn’t count on Democratic women just because you said that right things about choice - what if they started to vote on the whole range of issues that affect women’s economic and personal opportunities?
But caring about bankruptcy, even if you’re not teetering on the brink of it or a bankruptcy lawyer yourself, is part of a vision of a just society. And a vision of a just society - not just the single-issue push-buttons of a bunch of constituency groups - is what a center-left political party ought to be about. And at the end of this fight, I don’t expect that we’ll have a more leftist Democratic Party, but one that can at least begin to get beyond checklist liberalism.
I probably shouldn’t be so obsessed with the Lieberman-Lamont race, but I can’t help it.
This seems to be the week when the Republican right (Kondracke, Chris Caldwell) has decided to make Joe Lieberman’s cause their own. Which is fine, but their opinion about who should be the Democratic nominee in a state they don’t live in is about as relevant as my opinion about who should be the next president of France. (Anyone interested in my strongly-held opinion on the latter question, the answer is here.)
But at the same time, the actual Democrats supporting Lieberman seemed to have figured out what contributors to TPMCafe and others have been saying for months: Lieberman got himself into this situation, and every day he makes it worse. The other day, while looking for some of those "savage, internet-based attacks" that Kondracke laments, I came across the blog "Lieberdem," devoted mostly to savage, internet-based attacks on Mr. Lamont and those they call "Nedheads." Lieberdem has two contributors, one being Dan Gerstein, who I recall vaguely from years ago when he, Lieberman, and Bill Bennett were trying to stamp out the threat to America’s families posed by "Melrose Place." (And especially, of course, the show’s single, chaste gay character.) While Gerstein’s contributions to the blog read like a dark-side imitation of David Sirota, his counterpart, Matt Smith, seems a little more grounded. Here’s Smith on Friday:
Joe Lieberman’s campaign has looked as if it has been in a constant state of panic ever since Lamont’s campaign started to look serious. ...Even Lieberman himself has acted like he never saw this coming. Many political observers have noticed it, and so have I.
Ned Lamont has every right to run against Joe Lieberman in the primary, and Democratic voters have every right to support him...
Lieberman simply never saw this coming, and still hasn’t gotten over the initial shock of Lamont’s entry into the race. The initial surprise is somewhat understandable. He’s a three-term Senator with a strong record on nearly all progressive causes who has not faced a serious electoral challenge at home in 18 years. Lieberman realized that most Democrats in his state disagreed with him on the Iraq War, but it probably was hard for Lieberman to imagine that any single issue could fuel a serious intraparty challenge to him.
His campaign staff also seems like they never expected to have to run a real campaign. So at first they seemed to ignore Lamont’s challenge, probably expecting it to fade fast. It didn’t, and Lieberman’s campaign came to realize that Lamont’s challenge was serious. And what they did next is mind-boggling: Instead of reminding the voters of Lieberman’s strong history on progressive causes, their campaign increasingly focused on disqualifying Lamont.
I can’t think of a polite word to describe that strategy. I agree with the general rule that if the incumbent’s campaign can make the election about the challenger, that the incumbent will almost certainly win. But that simply was never going to happen and will never happen in this race. Lieberman is one of the most prominent politicians in the state’s - and indeed in the nation’s - recent history. By contrast, Lamont has no record, and virtually no one had ever heard Ned Lamont’s name before this year. Ned Lamont is a vehicle for opposition to Lieberman; the campaign will never be about him...
The vast majority of voters voting for Lamont were doing so not because they supported Lamont, but because they were against Lieberman. Consequently, any campaign strategy that was designed to damage Lamont in the eyes of voters has always been and will always be doomed to failure. As the Hotline On Call blog asked this weekend "Are negative ads what really what Lieberman needs right now? Aren’t voters looking for a reason to come back to Lieberman?"
They are, and they have plenty of reasons to. Joe Lieberman is hardly out of the mainstream of the Democratic party - one need only look at his voting record to see this - and Lieberman’s long history of fighting for progressive causes cannot seriously be questioned. Iraq is admittedly a big thorn in Lieberman’s side, but less than a quarter of all voters and just 33% of Democrats said Iraq was the top issue for them in this election.
Lieberman clearly can improve if his campaign just reminds voters of how strong he is on the traditional progressive issues of education, the environment, civil rights, choice, worker’s rights, and virtually every other progressive cause that you can think of. Those same Quinnipiac polls still show that a majority of Democrats think he deserves to be re-elected, and the loyalty of his supporters runs deep.
The Quinnipiac polls show, as they always have, that Lieberman would easily dispatch of Lamont in the general election. However, it really should not come to that, and it’s never too late to break bad habits. There are plenty of reasons for Democrats to vote for Lieberman. He and the members of his campaign need to remind voters of what they are, or else be willing to accept a good share of the responsibility if Lieberman loses on August 8.
All very true. Lieberman’s not the first politician, Senators especially, to lose touch with his voters. Senators have a tendency to think that the people who voted for them six years earlier are some kind of loyal base, forgetting that six years is a long time; people move in, move out, turn 18, etc.; and that all those people did six years ago was a 10-second act of expressing a preference for you over your opponent. (Lieberman’s opponent from six years ago is now serving a 37-year prison term for pedophilia, so it wasn’t much of a choice.) It’s one reason Senate races tend to be more competitive, and more often surprising, than House races. Sometimes it catches a Senator totally by surprise right before the election, as in Rudy Boschwitz’s 1990 loss to Paul Wellstone. But Lieberman has had plenty of warning, plenty of opportunity to reestablish his connection with voters. And the first step would have been to acknowledge, as Smith does, that "Lamont has every right to run," and then make his own case.
What the "Netroots" Can Do, And What They Can't
Can we please put to rest the idea that Ned Lamont’s challenge to Senator Lieberman is a product of, or a wholly-owned subsidiary of, that thing called “the netroots.” (Without, in so doing, disparaging or minimizing the netroots themselves.)
Yes, a lot of nationally prominent liberal bloggers are enthusiastic about the Lamont challenge. They’ve presumably helped raise some money (the thing he needs least, but the only symbolic gesture of support available to most people outside the state) and perhaps have generated some volunteers, including a number of bloggers themselves, notably Jane Hamsher. And a number of fabulous Connecticut-based blogs are central to the internal and external communications around the Lamont campaign. But that’s true of every successful campaign today, left, right and center, and in either major party. (The centrist Democratic Senate candidate in Missouri, for example, Claire McCaskill, is backed by almost as impressive a group of Show-Me-State blogs as Lamont is by Nutmeg blogs.)
The plausibility of the Lamont campaign is attributable to two major things, none of which have anything to do with Markos Moulitsas or his loyal minions:
1. Decades of statewide progressive organizing in the state. Lamont’s campaign manager is no blogger, but Tom Swan, who left his job as head of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group (CCAG) to run the campaign. According to one of the Connecticut blogs I mentioned above, much of the CCAG staff has also quit or taken a leave to help Lamont. CCAG got its start before even Al Gore had heard of the Internet, in the same year that Lieberman won his first primary - 1970 - and from the same impulses that created the reformist/anti-war Caucus of Connecticut Democrats in which Lieberman was active.
CCAG has had its ups and downs over the decades, but it is one of a very few multi-issue progressive groups of that era to have survived. A related group, the Legislative Electoral Action Program (LEAP) was very successful at getting progressives elected to the state legislature, many of whom are still there. CCAG has had a very successful last couple of years, most notably in winning passage of the state’s public financing law for campaigns, the first such “clean money” law to be passed through a legislature rather than by voter initiative. It takes a lot of skill and political savvy to get a legislature to back a proposal with low political salience that most politicians view as a threat. (That is, they would like to bury it and expect they can get away with it.) The Lamont campaign is coming off the energy and lessons learned of that victory.
You could imagine a challenge like Lamont’s emerging without the “netroots,” although they certainly drive a lot of the enthusiasm. You couldn’t imagine it without politically savvy, experienced organizers like Swan, with a base in a long-term, multi-issue progressive coalition that has allies and experience and understands the state. And anyone thinking about how to build structures and parties that can win elections against Republicans needs to understand this as well.
2. The fact that Lieberman has run, so far, the second most embarrassingly bad campaign of the year. (The worst campaign’s entire staff just quit, so there may be an opening to move up.) The fact is that there’s been a lot of latent discontent with Lieberman in the state at least since his speech about Monica Lewinsky, but as recently as a few months ago, his approval rating among Democrats was solidly in the low 70’s, indistinguishable from his support among Independents and Republicans. (This is an important point, by the way: A good portion of Republicans and Independents in Connecticut are more liberal than the average registered Democrat, and his support among those groups could prove just as soft as his Democratic support.) Lieberman could easily have restored his bond with Connecticut Democrats, or at least enough to be sure of winning a primary. I could have written that speech or that ad, and I would have done it, too, before he said “we criticize our commander-in-chief at our own peril.” It would involve a much stronger condemnation of Bush’s conduct of the war, a heartfelt acknowledgement of respect for opponents of the war and for the legitimacy of dissent, and a message that, wherever anyone stood in 2003, now we have a crisis on the ground in Iraq and have to work together - and with Republicans -- to get it right and get out. (If he couldn’t in good conscience say those things, then he’s got bigger problems.) The war is not the only issue driving opposition to Lieberman, of course, but it is the great question of our time and if he could defuse it somewhat as an issue, the opposition doesn’t have that much to work with.
Instead, for whatever reason, he chose to act petulant about the fact that anyone would oppose him at all, which is not the right response for a democrat, much less a Democrat; produce a series of comically inept ads, and shrink himself into a sort of suburban-mensch version of Al D’Amato : “I saved 3,000 jobs at Electric Boat in Groton.” “I voted for the energy bill because we got $800 million for energy conservation in Connecticut.” (Large forces have been unleashed in our politics, and a national figure like Lieberman should be seen as confronting those questions, not selling out for petty earmarks.) And finally, by taking out the “insurance policy” of running under a party named after himself, he highlighted every one of his own negatives and virtually ensured his defeat in the primary, with a very good chance that the independent candidacy will fizzle as well.
So let’s credit the netroots for what they do well - generate enthusiasm, force the big questions onto the agenda, generate a new definition of what it means to be a Democrat. But by themselves they can’t create a viable candidacy or bring down a popular three-term incumbent. Only organizing and the incumbent’s own mistakes can do that.
Netroots, Labor and Strong Parties
It seems to me that Noam Scheiber and Garance Franke-Ruta are both making too much of the distinction between “netroots” and traditional Democratic interest groups, especially the possible “split” between netroots liberals and organized labor.
It’s as simple as this: Interest groups think like interest groups, netroots want to think like a party. They are two different ways of operating and thinking in a political world, not two different constituencies competing for a zero-sum quantity of influence.
The key fact adduced as evidence of a breach is that unions have endorsed seven of the most vulnerable northeastern House Republicans, seats that the netroots are enthusiastic about taking back for Democrats. Is that evidence of an ideological divide between labor and the netroots? Does labor have a problem with the Democratic challengers for those seats?
No. It’s evidence of nothing of the kind. It’s simply a function of the way interest groups work, the way they have to work. I used the example of environmental groups in my column in the Prospect in June, but it applies to organized labor just as well. The one thing they know is that to get anything done, they need bipartisan support. They have to be able to go into the offices of Republican members of Congress from districts where labor has influence and ask for their help. And when the member says, “If I’m with you on these three things, will you endorse me in the fall?” they need to be able to say Yes. They need to be strategic about it, they shouldn’t sell out for peanuts. But they can’t say, “Oh, gee, we like you and we need your help, but we are a Democratic interest group after all.” That would be malpractice. And these groups can all point to good things they’ve gotten done, or terrible things they’ve prevented, as a result of offering these incentives.
So labor’s not stupid or mistaken to endorse Jim Gerlach in Pennsylvania, just as NARAL’s not stupid to endorse Lincoln Chafee. Sure, both know that their causes would be better served by changing the majority, but neither can give up the retail trade of your support for our endorsement that is their basic way of doing business. But as I wrote in my column, “at a certain point, rewarding friendly Republicans crosses the line into desperately trying to prop up a few so that you can still seem bipartisan -- at the price of legitimating a majority whose highest priority after tax cuts is the evisceration of environmental regulation” (or, substitute “labor laws” or “abortion rights” for “environmental regulation.” Perhaps I should have said, amongst their priorities are such diverse elements as…) Of course it’s hard to know when that line has been crossed: after Gerlach, Shays and a dozen other Republican moderates with good records on labor, environment and choice lose this year, then how are these interest groups going to continue to function in the normal bipartisan way? Will they define moderation down, endorsing Republicans they wouldn’t touch in the past but who are now the best the party has to offer? Or will they accept that their cause is best served by operating within the single party that is pro-labor, pro-environment and largely pro-choice?
Netroots, on the other hand, doesn’t need to worry about bipartisan deals because it doesn’t have a cause. Instead, it is a vision of what the Democratic Party ought to be: Liberal, sure - up to a point. (Ideology barely begins to explain why some politicians - Brian Schweitzer, Harry Reid - are netroots favs). Fights back. Responsive. Broadly critical of corporate power. It is not a faction looking for influence in the Democratic Party, as Scheiber puts it, but the vanguard of a strong and cohesive party.
While Garance is right to point out that the netroots can’t substitute for the voter mobilization that labor produces (and doesn’t even try - this is not a voter turnout operation), there are also shortcomings to the traditional advocacy-group model of voter turnout. Only a party can do the kind of serious targeting that the Republicans do, not finding voters through membership lists but locating people who fit the economic and demographic profile of Republican voters.
There’s a lot to be said for a strong and cohesive party, even apart from questions of whether Democrats win elections or not. For one thing, as Scheiber does note, it puts different issues on the table. Interest groups, for as many as there are, leave hundreds of important issues un-spoken for. That’s why the bankruptcy bill was such a good example of the value of netroots. Members had voted for that bill several times before, and they had not heard a word about. Sure, there was a little effort by bankruptcy lawyers, but they seemed like a petty, interested party. (Although most were so busy that losing business was the least of their worries.) Near bankrupt families simply had no one to speak for them in Washington, and no power if they did. There are more such collective-action problems than there are solutions. And so a politician goes through life thinking that there are a few issues on which he has to deal with engaged and interested constituents that will endorse him or not, rank him on scorecards, mobilize voters, and then lots of other issues that no one pays attention to, and on which he can just go with his cash constituents. Netroots totally changes the logic of this - an issue he thought was invisible suddenly becomes a key marker of Democratic Party principles. And that’s a good thing.
I didn’t mean this to be so laudatory of the netroots world, because it’s not without its problems. But the era of interest-group politics is dead, and the strong party that the netroots advocates foresee will take its place, and while that won’t be without some disruptions, it will be to the good.
Lieberman and the Millionaire Provision
Senator Lieberman recently described his decision to take out petitions to appear on the November ballot as an independent if he loses the Democratic primary as “an insurance policy” against opponent Ned Lamont’s capacity to fund his own campaign.
One problem (of many) with this argument is that when Congress wrote the new campaign finance law in 2002, it wrote itself a sweet insurance policy against self-funded challengers: the so-called “millionaire’s provision.” Under this rule, if a candidate spends more than a certain amount of his or her own funds (a complex formula based on the state’s population), the contribution limits for other candidates in the race are doubled, quadrupled, and eventually sextupled.
In practice, in Connecticut, if I’m reading the law correctly, this means that if Lamont were to spend $2.5 million of his own money (which is not that much; Lieberman himself spent $3.7 million on his barely contested reelection in 2000), Lieberman would be able to accept contributions six times the normal $2,000 limit. And presumably he would be able to accept them for the primary and the general election separately: a single lobbyist could contribute $24,000 to Lieberman.
To his credit, Lieberman voted against the millionaire provision, as did most Democrats, and his colleague Senator Dodd offered the strongest speech in opposition. It is surely the worst thing in that law, incumbent protection of the most blatant kind. Yes, it is disturbing that so many Senators and members of Congress are wealthy and financed their own first campaigns. But given the advantage incumbents already have, in name recognition and access to donors - until the rise of small donors and the netroots -- a self-financed candidate has usually been the only challenger who has a chance, and many of them lose. (The world’s expert on self-financed candidates is Jennifer Steen of Boston College.) And only incumbents, not another challenger, are likely to be able to take advantage of these $4,000, $8,000 or $12,000 donors. The millionaire provision doesn’t level the playing field against self-financed candidates, rather, it restores and magnifies the advantage that incumbents already have.
And if Congress has concluded that $2,000 is an appropriate contribution limit, because higher contributions can be corrupting, why is $12,000 not corrupting when your opponent happens to be self-financed?
The Supreme Court did not rule on the constitutionality of the Millionaire Provision when it upheld McCain-Feingold in 2003, because no millionaire candidate with standing to claim he was hurt by the provision had appeared. Now, however, the Democrat challenging Rep. Tom Reynolds, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, has filed suit challenging the provision.
So here’s a good question for tonight’s Lieberman-Lamont debate: “Senator Lieberman, since you have decided to run as an independent as an ‘insurance policy’ against Mr. Lamont’s personal wealth, will you promise not to use your other ‘insurance policy,’ the provision that allows you to raise huge amounts of money from private donors and lobbyists?”
Carville and Penn: Where's the Data?
There seem to be various complaints about James Carville and Mark Penn’s case for Hillary Clinton’s electability that appeared in the Post yesterday, including that Penn was not identified as a current consultant to Clinton’s Senate reelection campaign. But I had a different reaction.
Here’s one of Carville and Penn’s key arguments, and to me the most powerful one:
Pundits and fundraisers and activists may be unsure of whether Hillary can get elected president, but Democratic voters, particularly Democratic women and even independent women, are thrilled with the idea.
The X factor for 2008 -- and we do mean X -- is the power of women in the electorate.... We believe that Hillary is uniquely capable of getting those swing voters back to the Democratic column...we could see an explosion of women voting -- and voting Democratic.
The big question about Senator Clinton’s candidacy is this: Does she have a particular appeal to women, including independent and Republican-leaning women, and married women?
I think she might, which is one reason I’m open to the idea that Clinton is as electable as anyone else, and possibly more so. I could have written the sentences above, but purely as speculation. It’s a huge question, and if I were a pollster, if I had the capacity to do more than speculate, I would sure like to find out.
Which gets to the problem with the op-ed: Mark Penn is a pollster. He actually has the capacity to find out. Presumably he is out there trying to find out, unless he’s too busy inventing new and dubious demographic categories, like "office park dads." Not one single piece of data is attached to statements like, "independent women are thrilled with the idea," or "we believe that Hillary is uniquely capable of getting those swing voters," or "we could see an explosion of women voting."
At the launch of the new online publication, The Democratic Strategist, last week, Ruy Teixera promised a new era in which Democratic thinking would be guided by "facts not faction." I’m totally open to the argument that Senator Clinton is electable -- but please show us some facts.
My Lieberman Problem -- And Ours
Like Josh Marshall and others, I have strong and deeply conflicted feelings about Ned Lamont’s challenge to Senator Lieberman. I have a lot of residual respect for Lieberman, which goes way back. And I mean way back: As I often note, Lieberman is probably the first politician I was aware of when I was a little kid. When I was about seven years old, my view of politics could probably be summed up as Nixon=bad/Lieberman=good.
This was when he was a State Senator representing New Haven, following the last great anti-war rebellion in the Connecticut Democratic Party. In 1970, incumbent U.S. Senator Thomas Dodd - hawkish, pro-war, and ill - withdrew from the race for the Democratic nomination when it was apparent that he would lose to anti-war candidate Joe Duffey, but then later reentered the race as an independent. Meanwhile, Lieberman, who with Duffey had founded the anti-war Caucus of Connecticut Democrats, was riding the same wave to unseat the State Senate Majority Leader in a primary. Helping to run both the Lieberman and Duffey campaigns were a lovey-dovey pair of idealistic Yale law students named Rodham and Clinton.
Later I didn’t pay much attention to Lieberman as he ran and lost campaigns for Lieutenant Governor and Congress. He seemed to be one of those ‘70s reformers who just couldn’t stop running. By the time he was elected Attorney General of Connecticut (where he pioneered the role of activist A.G. that Elliott Spitzer has perfected) I had moved out of the state. But later, when I worked in the Senate, I often worked closely with Lieberman and his staff - he and Bill Bradley often shared idiosyncratic positions, such as support for school vouchers, as well as less idiosyncratic but highly complicated interests, such as improving child support enforcement. In most such dealings between Senate offices, staff as well as the Senators, even when they agree, are always subtly jockeying for credit, for a visible leadership role on the issue, or for a place in front of the camera. Even though Lieberman had written a book about child support enforcement, based on his efforts to fix the system in Connecticut, and knew more about it than any other Senator (and surely more than I did), he contentedly played a supporting role. And it always seemed apparent from everyone who worked with him that he was simply a better human being (kinder, more respectful) to those around him than 99% of politicians.
Lieberman’s positions on various issues never really bothered me. I don’t need elected officials to exactly match my issue positions, which often change anyway. And in some cases, I shared his positions. I found his sanctimonious tone grating, his obsession with popular media distasteful and misdirected (as in, you might have more credibility on this if you didn’t suck up to “the I-Man” - Don Imus -- two mornings a week), but they would never be enough to make me think that if I lived in Connecticut, I wouldn’t vote for him. While my family and family friends developed a deep distaste for Lieberman, I would simply repeat the reminder, drilled into my head by own friends in the Lieberman camp, that his voting record really isn’t that different from Senator Dodd’s. And it isn’t.
Josh Marshall suggested recently that his greatest misgiving about Lieberman was his weirdly persistent refusal last year to get off the fence on Social Security privatization, as if he was waiting for some bipartisan deal that he could courageously join. “Perhaps he’s just out of step with the parliamentary turn of recent American politics,” Josh suggests. By which he means that, despite the Medicare drug bill, the energy bill, and the abundance of evidence to the contrary, Lieberman still thinks that he can deal in good faith with the Republicans. True, Lieberman doesn’t seem to really understand the current power structure, but he’s hardly alone in that. It took a couple of whippings before Ted Kennedy understood it. I’ve argued that everyone had better reckon with the fact that the era of bipartisan coalitions is dead, but I think there are downsides to that change and I don’t blame Lieberman for trying. Nor, in the end, did he cause any harm by his misreading of the Social Security game.
Nor is it fatal to me in itself that Lieberman supported the war and opposes withdrawal on a timetable. I voted twice in 2004 for Senators who had voted for the war, and I have no cosmic certainty at this point about what the right answer is. I’d vote for withdrawal on a timetable, but not without doubts. Maybe Biden’s right, maybe Levin and Reed, maybe Murtha. Because the risks are so uncertain, this is the hardest question to answer, and for myself, I find I can’t categorically dismiss anyone’s answer or insist that every Democrat toe one line.
So I ought to be a Lieberman “dead-ender.” I’ve respected him for 30-some years, I don’t mind his idiosyncratic positions, I don’t demand party loyalty, and I don’t insist on any particular position on how to end the war. But I’m not. Because something happened to Lieberman, and it’s more than his position on the war. It is not, as John Dickerson wrote on Slate this week that he “symbolizes” all the other Democrats who voted for the war or won’t take a firm stand. Above all else, it’s simply his self-righteous anger, his hostility to those who differ. He alone among Democrats seem to think that opponents of the war are not just mistaken, but will cause us to lose. (Just as he alone can continue to describe the choice in the war as “winning” or “losing,” as if “winning” were somehow still possible, as opposed to salvaging a bad situation.) He alone would say something like, “”We criticize the commander-in-chief at our own peril.” And he alone would suggest, as he did to David Broder, that Democrats who criticized Bush on the war were acting from "partisan interest" while he was thinking of "the national interest." He alone seems more focused on what he sees as the errors of the war’s opponents than those who launched the war. As Michael Tomasky said of Peter Beinart’s New Republic position on the Iraq War, it was not so much that they supported the war as that they “opposed the opposers.”
It seems to me that Lieberman is following the path, quite literally, of the neo-conservatives - not the Rumsfeldian nationalists who incorrectly wear that label now, but the original neo-cons of the 1960s, driven to the right above all by their irritation at the left, often based on domestic politics. (Hence the title of this post, an allusion to one of the most famous original documents of the neocons, Norman Podhoretz’s 1967 essay, “My Negro Problem - And Ours”.)
Is that enough of a reason to oppose Lieberman? Sure, because it’s a huge error on one of the most fundamental questions of our time. It’s an error not of policy or of political loyalty, but of attitude. And it is not an error that I see others making. I heard Ed Kilgore today, on a bloggingHeads sequence, argue that if “the bloggers” come for Lieberman today, tomorrow they’ll go after Steny Hoyer or Hillary Clinton. I can’t speak for everyone, but while I have disagreements with Clinton and probably Hoyer, I’ve never heard them say things as deeply offensive to my sense of what democracy and patriotism requires as I’ve heard from Lieberman recently.
Nor do I accept the argument that if Lamont wins, it represents a “purge” or shows that “there’s no place in the Democratic Party” for Lieberman. I value competitive elections. Lieberman’s not guaranteed a fourth term in the Senate. Ned Lamont’s reasonably well qualified, certainly as qualified as, say, Paul Wellstone was. If Connecticut Democrats want a Senator who had the right position on the war, or at least doesn’t treat those who did have the right position with contempt, they are entitled to it.
Finally, as to the possibility that Lieberman would run as an independent - well, in the David Broder column mentioned above, he noted Lieberman’s admiration for the great Connecticut Democratic boss and DNC chair, John Bailey, and Bailey’s skill at engineering nominations and avoiding primaries. He should not forget what Bailey said of Senator Thomas Dodd’s decision to run as an independent in 1970: "...any action like this can’t help but hurt the party.”
(I’m grateful to the author who writes as “Genghis Conn” on the Connecticut Local Politics blog for a well-sourced account of the 1970 campaigns.)
The Completely Incorrect History of the Democratic Party
I know we’re done with the Peter Beinart book club, and the poor guy is getting picked on a lot this week. But I can’t resist, and as President Bush said after teasing a legally blind reporter for wearing sunglasses, `I needle you guys out of affection." (The bully’s excuse, doubly vicious because so plainly untrue, and forces the victim to be courteous.) I wouldn’t say that I needle Beinart out of affection -- I don’t know him well, but I admire him for trying to produce something of substance out of the admission that he was wrong about Iraq -- but out of frustration with the fact that he so often seems to start off o.k. and then gets things so spectacularly wrong.
So here’s his latest. In a defense of the Clinton Administration (which I’m totally comfortable with, by the way, having seen myself recently described as a "Clinton Democrat" and not flinching) Beinart gives the following thumbnail history of the Democratic Party in the 1970s:
In reality, the Democratic Party didn’t lose the confidence of its convictions when Clinton became president; it lost them when he was in graduate school. From Harry Truman through Lyndon Johnson, Democrats stood for three basic things: enlightened anti-communism, an expanding welfare state, and racial integration.
Between 1968 and 1972, under pressure from Vietnam and racial conflict, two of those three collapsed. By 1972, George McGovern was urging the virtual abandonment of anticommunism and advocating racial quotas. Then, in 1976, Democrats nominated a relative economic conservative, Jimmy Carter, who showed little interest in extending Johnson’s Great Society largesse. And, poof--there went principle number three.
In The Good Fight, it’s not quite so clear that this is how he would sum up the history, but Wow! Let’s take that second paragraph one point at a time:
By 1972, George McGovern was urging the virtual abandonment of anticommunism,
Um, don’t know what you’re talking about here. McGovern was opposed to the Vietnam War, which was a war against communism. But the "enlightened" anti-communist liberals also opposed that war. To say that opposing the Vietnam is tantamount to "virtual abandonment of anticommunism" is the same as arguing that opposing the Iraq war is a virtual abandonment of opposition to terrorism. Since Beinart is not now willing to make either argument, he cannot keep baiting McGovern as insufficiently anti-communist, in the same way that he cannot continue to bait Iraq war opponents (among whom he now counts himself) for being insufficiently anti-terrorist. Although he makes a good rhetorical effort to do so.
and advocating racial quotas
o.k., the point here seems to be that the Truman-through-Johnson Democrats stood for "racial integration," whereas McGovern abandoned that principle by "advocating racial quotas." That assumes that affirmative action is somehow antithetical to integration,rather than a means to achieve it. But even if you accept that quotas are antithetical to the older ideal of race-blind integration, it seems worth noting that actual racial quotas were introduced into American political life by President Richard M. Nixon, who as it happens was McGovern’s Republican opponent in 1972.
(It’s possible that Beinart is referring to something much more arcane here, namely the internal reforms in the Democratic Party nominating process, implemented by a commission McGovern chaired. Those reforms included some criteria to ensure sufficient numbers of women and minorities were delegates to the convention, which was an important move given that southern states still produced all-white delegations. Beinart follows a traditional neo-conservative argument -- first advanced by Jeanne Kirkpatrick -- that the McGovern-Fraser reforms led to a fragmentation of the New Deal Democratic coalition into identity group politics. But if this is Beinart’s point, and even if he and Jeanne Kirkpatrick are right, it is bizarre to call it an "abandoment" of racial integration. At worst, it was an excessive commitment to integration. And it is also an event of very minor significance, except in the worldview of the neo-cons.)
in 1976, Democrats nominated a relative economic conservative, Jimmy Carter, who showed little interest in extending Johnson’s Great Society largesse. And, poof--there went principle number three
I’ll assume he means principle number two, "an expanding welfare state." I suppose this is a version of the argument that if only that most reckless of big spenders, Saint Scoop, had been elected president in 1976, all would be well. There are a lot of reasons the Carter presidency failed; not spending money on social programs wasn’t one of them. This was the era of CETA, after all. (The big public jobs program, which paid for my last summer in high school.) Carter didn’t have the sway over Congress that LBJ had, and both fiscal and economic circumstances were very different. Nor is "expanding welfare state" (that is, spending) a principle in itself -- expanding economic security is.
And that point Beinart immediately concedes, when it comes to Clinton:
If Clinton convinced Americans that government action could be moral, he also convinced them that it could be responsible. By reducing the budget deficit, he helped restore the Democratic Party’s reputation for economic stewardship, which had been gravely damaged under Carter. And, by using market mechanisms to achieve traditional liberal goals, he found ways to fight poverty in an environment where large new programs were politically impossible.
Yes! I think that’s basically right. But celebrating Clinton as an economic conservative is the complete opposite of arguing that Carter’s mistake was that he was an economic conservative who didn’t launch big programs the way LBJ did.
I have no gripe with Beinart’s rehabiliation of Clinton. I was never very critical of Clinton, and now that we really understand just how vicious the right-wing machine is, we have to appreciate that he did not have the freedom of movement that LBJ had, and that he made almost as much as could be made of his severely constrained political circumstances. It should be possible to make that case without trashing a couple decades of well-meaning, serious liberals -- as committed to anti-communism, racial fairness and broadly shared economic security as their elders -- who just happened to lack the policial skills of an LBJ or Clinton.
Mr. Rove is Ready for His Close-Up
Now that Karl Rove"has his reputation back," what’s he going to do with the rest of his life? Here’s what he did last night:
MANCHESTER, New Hampshire, June 12 (Reuters) - Republicans should campaign on U.S. economic strength and the war in Iraq as they gear up for the November election, President George W. Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove urged on Monday.
"We have the strongest economy of any major industrialized country in the world," Rove told about 400 Republicans at a fund-raising dinner in New Hampshire...
Party officials estimate the fundraiser brought in $60,000. expected to help pay legal bills for a Republican scandal over a phone-jamming scheme designed to keep New Hampshire Democrats from voting in a 2002 election.
The case led to the conviction of three Republican party officials and seriously squeezed the state party’s finances....
Political consultant Rich Killion, who paid $250 to meet Rove...People who attended just to listen to Rove paid $100 each.
Now I’m sure plenty of people here will be appropriately outraged by the fact that an official paid by taxpayers is out there raising money for a felon’s legal fees.
But I’m too busy laughing at the shabbiness of the whole thing. $60,000?? Whoever heard of a Republican fund-raiser that produced $60,000? Aren’t we missing some zeroes here? $60,000 is the price of the car you drive to the Republican fund-raiser in. Not to mention, it’s not even a down-payment on the $3 million in legal fees stemming from the case.
And what’s Rove’s time worth these days? Shaking hands for $250? Isn’t this like the end of a "Behind the Music" or E! True Hollywood Story, where the celebrity gamely tries to make a comeback, playing small clubs or shaking hands for money at conventions of fans of his long-cancelled show?
The Myth of "Scoop"
I was late in posting to the TPMCafe "Book Club" on Peter Beinart’s The Good Fight, and all the good points were already taken -- especially in the vigorous comments sections. My post was long, and I think a little tortured in the effort to give Beinart a fair reading (judging from the comments, some of which seemed to have missed my point entirely), but I made one specific point which should have been my only point. I’ll post that section here, the whole post can be found at this link.
There are perhaps several bits of Beinart’s history that I’m tempted to challenge, but I’ll pick on just one of them here because it’s been bugging me for years. It’s a fairly small thing, just a few pages in the book, but it is an essential pivot point for the argument and, frankly, for the New Republic view of the world. And that is the counterfactual proposition that if only, if only Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson had been the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972 or 1976, all would be right with the world.
This is an essential myth to many of the liberal hawks, to the neocons when they still considered themselves Democrats, and to some extent to the predecessors of the Democratic Leadership Council. (the Schachtmanite Committee for a Democratic Majority). And it’s central to Beinart’s argument. But it’s not just wrong, it’s ridiculous. If I went around arguing that if only Bill Bradley, who I worked for, had been the Democratic nominee in 2000, the world would be better, I might - in some unprovable sense - be correct, but people would still laugh at me. Because he didn’t get many votes. (And that was only six years ago, not 30.) Scoop Jackson wasn’t robbed of a nomination that was rightly his, or shot to death after winning the California primary. He just didn’t get many votes. He fell completely flat in 1972. And in 1976, he botched the tactics, unwisely skipping Iowa and New Hampshire and so by the time he won two primaries, Jimmy Carter had already consolidated the support of conservative Democrats while the liberals were split. Scoop Jackson’s not the great lost hope; he’s merely one of about two dozen capable, non-brilliant Senators since 1972 who saw a president in the mirror each morning, but couldn’t persuade anyone else to see the same thing. Would he have won those elections, if nominated? Who knows? Nor was Jackson some sort of foreign-policy visionary. He was a classic Western New Dealer (the really, really big spenders), who also happened to represent the biggest defense contractor of his era. The unsustainability of his pork-barrel “Guns AND Butter” policy would have tripped him up in the 1970s as surely as it did LBJ in the 1960s. If there is a deeper legacy that Jackson represents, it is uniformly a despicable one, in the form of people like Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz who used him as a vehicle for their emerging theories, and if their later careers are an indication of what a Jacksonian America would have been like, then we should be thankful he was a dud as a candidate. His dud candidacy deserves no more attention than those of Lloyd Bentsen, John Glenn, Fritz Hollings, and many others.
Inhofe, "American Exceptionalism," and the Wackiness of the Academic Right
Yes, Senator James Inhofe ("I’m very proud that in the entire recorded history of our family, there has never been...any kind of homosexual relationship") is a sick and moronic bigot. Bill Bennett is a crude embarassment, mostly to himself.
But all their repulsive, and obsessive arguments against gay marriage, such as this from Inhofe -- "Now, stop and think. What’s going to be the results of this? The results are going to be that it’s going to be a very expensive thing, all these kids, many of them are going to be ending up on welfare" -- are to be found, dressed up in fancy-pants pseudo-Alisdair MacIntyre language, in this document, the Princeton Principles on Marriage, released recently.
The signatories to this document include such respectable conservatives as Jean Bethke Elshtain (Chicago), Robert George (of Princeton, not the young New York Post editorialist), Mary Ann Glendon (Harvard Law), Leon Kass (Chicago), Jeremy Rabkin (Cornell) and the legendary Mr. James Q. Wilson.
On reading this, my first reaction was that if the academic left can be a little wacky and irresponsible, the academic right is wacky and despicable.
The most specific of their arguments against gay marriage -- which is only one of the "Principles," but obviously they chose to release it to coincide with the debate -- is that marriage equals monogamy and gay marriage "would likely corrode marital norms of sexual fidelity, since gay marriage advocates and gay couples tend to downplay the importance of sexual fidelity in their definition of marriage." In other words, when gay people make a lifetime vow, they probably don’t really mean it because, well, you know how those gays are.
They do have other arguments, some rooted in plain-old ugly sexism, such as that children can’t be properly raised by parents of the same gender because men are hard-wired for discipline and women hard-wired for nurture. As to whether a child might not be better off with two nurturers or two disciplinarians than cycling through foster homes, they don’t say. And after they explain that, maybe they can tell me why if I’m such a natural disciplinarian, I can’t get my daughter to drink her milk in the morning and cave, while my wife can.
There’s an interesting point in the last section of the document, though, which goes to the definition of the phrase "American Exceptionalism" that we’ve been hearing a lot recently. A couple weeks ago, I attended a forum at the Hudson Institute with a star-studded panel of conservatives arguing, basically, that conservatives had deep philosophical ideas ("foundations") whereas liberals had none. But the panel was hardly about conservatism at all; with some exceptions, it was devoted to a lengthy exegesis of how liberals or "the left" don’t believe this or that. We don’t believe in the Declaration of Independence, one speaker (a signatory to the Princeton Principles) declared, and above all, over and over, I heard that we don’t believe in "American Exceptionalism."
Now I happen to think I believe in American Exceptionalism. I believe that it matters that this is the first and only country founded on an idea and an ideal, of equality and justice. As an American, I believe we have a distinctive role in the world, a distinctive obligation, some of which is inherent and some of which is derived from our postwar and post-Cold War status. I think this country’s great -- though not that whatever it does is automatically great just because it’s America. So I listened to all this and thought, "I don’t know what these people are talking about."
Now the last section of the Princeton Principles is entitled, "American Exceptionalism and the Way Forward." What does that have to do with gay marriage? Evidently, it goes something like this: While the rest of the Western world is loosening the bonds of marriage, we Americans "are the only country with a "Marriage Movement." "The great task for American exceptionalism in our generation," they write, "is to sustain and energize this movement for the renewal of marriage." If the rest of the world zigs, exceptionalism means we zag.
And of course, you can see where one would go with this, segregation in the past and the death penalty today are also examples of American exceptionalism, if it is defined simply as things that make us different from the rest of the developed world. Is that in itself justification for them?
I won’t go too far with this argument, because it’s silly -- they really don’t want to go there. All this about "American Exceptionalism" is just fancy dressing for an argument that’s as crude and ugly as Mr. Inhofe’s.
A continually surprising phenomenon in American politics is the deep-belief -- not even a lie, because they really do believe -- among right-wingers in the West that government has nothing to do with their prosperity.
Governor Jim Risch tells Oliver Burkemann of the Guardian:
"Here in Idaho, we couldn’t understand how people could sit around on the kerbs waiting for the federal government to come and do something. We had a dam break in 1976, but we didn’t whine about it. We got out our backhoes and we rebuilt the roads and replanted the fields and got on with our lives. That’s the culture here. Not waiting for the federal government to bring you drinking water. In Idaho there would have been entrepreneurs selling the drinking water."
That’s truly a quote to savor. Because if you ever read Cadillac Desert (one of the finest books about American politics ever written) you surely remember what Risch is referring to: the collapse of the Teton Dam on the Snake River as it was being filled for the first time on June 5, 1976. (Wow, actually exactly 30 years ago to this day -- I just noticed that.)
The dam was built despite concerns about its safety as well as environmental impact. That’s because Idaho politicians of both parties -- pushed by a small number of ranchers and farmers -- insisted it be built. Idahoans didn’t build it, though. The Federal Government -- the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation -- built the dam at a cost of about $100 million.
In other words, what they do in Idaho is exactly "waiting for the federal government to bring you drinking water." (And especially irrigation water.)
And when the dam collapsed, there were no entrepreneurs taking care of business. There was the federal government. If you’re interested in the details, see the "Aftermath" section in this official history for some of the hundreds of millions spent by taxpayers in other states for disaster relief and for rebuilding the inefficient irrigation systems wiped out by the flood. And then, as the official history puts it:
President [Ford] decided the government had a moral responsibility to pay restitution to the flood victims. Within a week after the disaster, President Ford requested a $200 million appropriation for initial payments for damages, without assigning responsibility for Teton Dam’s failure. The appropriation was attached to the annual Public Works Appropriation Bill then working its way through Congress. ...Reclamation set up claims offices in Rexburg, Idaho Falls, and Blackfoot. Disaster victims filed over 4,800 claims by January 4, 1977, totalling $194 million. The Federal government paid 3,813 of those claims, $93.5 million, by that date. Originally scheduled to end in July 1978, the Claims Program continued into the 1980s. The number of claims reached 7,884 by December 31, 1982, and totalled $517,213,045.76. At the end of the Claims Program in January 1987, the Federal government paid 7,563 claims a total of $322,034,250.44.
(It’s interesting to compare this with the Katrina response, incidentally. Here almost 4,000 claims were paid within six months of the disaster.)
One thing the government did right was to reject political pressure from the same group of wealthy ranchers and farmers to rebuild the dam.
To an amazing degree, Western and sunbelt conservatism is built on the risible delusion that the federal government never did a damn thing for them and they made it on their own, a delusion that they nurture in their air-conditioned, hot-tub-equipped country clubs in a land that could barely support human existence if it were not for the federal government. Frankly, I think this has something to do also with the current congressional scandal. Duke Cunningham, Mitchell Wade, Brent Wilkes, Dusty Foggo, Duncan Hunter, Bill Lowery and several of the other characters at the center of the current political scandal are all products of the corrupt oligarchy of San Diego. There’s is a city built entirely on defense spending, and yet they still believe that they are hardy entrepreneurs making it on their own without help from anybody. And somehow I think this delusion helps them believe that stealing from government as just another form of private enterprise.
The AMT Is Neither a Flat Tax Nor a Fair Tax
Robert H. Nelson had an op-ed in yesterday’s Washington Post making the case for leaving the Alternative Minimum Tax unchanged, so that it becomes a de facto “flat tax.” (Nelson is the author of one of the most fascinating books about economics I’ve ever read (part of), but also a fellow at the much-in-the-news-lately Competitive Enterprise Institute, best known for defending poor CO2 against its enemies, foreign and domestic, and their fellow-travelers.)
There have been several other comments on the op-ed, and I almost let it go, but there’s more to say, because I worry that this is where we’re going: Republicans will argue that there’s no need for tax increases because revenues are going to go up naturally, and even in a progressive way (as the AMT, which is not indexed to inflation, swallows more of the middle class). I suspect that Democrats will also be tempted by the idea that it might be possible to avoid an actual political fight over raising revenues and let the AMT - which seems somehow “fairer” - work its magic.
Kevin Drum and Ezra Klein both picked on Nelson for his assertion that “There is wide agreement among economists on the benefits of a federal "flat tax" on income that would apply a uniform rate to every taxpayer and eliminate most current deductions and tax credits,” noting correctly that there is a big difference between a single-rate tax - on which there is not wide agreement and which in fact would not be fair - and a broad definition of income, thus eliminating many deductions and credits, on which there is somewhat wider agreement.
The problem with the ATM is that it is neither! It is not a flat tax, since what it does is graft two additional rates onto the existing five-rate system, and those two rates have altogether different rules associated with their definition of income. They are “flat” in that they are not marginal rates - once you trigger the AMT, you pay 26% or 28% on all your income, rather than 10% on the first $15,000, 33% on income over $188,000, etc. as in the regular system. But grafted onto the existing system, the AMT doesn’t make it flatter, it creates more complex marginal rates.
The AMT is also not good at eliminating loopholes or defining income more broadly. Let’s let the geniuses of the Tax Policy Center explain why:
The AMT is poorly targeted. Although originally intended to curb tax sheltering, the AMT raises less than 5 percent of its revenue from anti-sheltering provisions, such as accelerated deprecation or oil depletion allowances. In 2010, only about 1 percent of AMT taxpayers will be subject to the tax due to anti-sheltering rules. A key reason why the AMT does not target shelters very well is that the preferential treatment for capital gains-the lynchpin of most individual tax shelters-is not curtailed by the AMT.
That last point is especially important: The big problem in the tax code right now - the uber-loophole - is the differential treatment of capital gains and dividend income, that is, income from investments rather than from work. They’re still protected, because the. As the AMT expands, it will expand this differential, as those who get their income from work will be affected and those who get more of it from investments are not. A middle-income working taxpayer in a higher-tax state will be hit by the AMT much sooner than someone living off the earnings of a trust fund and making more money, while lazing around a mansion in Miami Beach smoking cigars. (I use Miami partly because the AMT cuts out the deduction for state and local taxes, which is why it’s sometimes called a “Blue State Tax.” There’s a case for eliminating the deductibility of state and local taxes, but no logic for allowing it in the AMT and not the regular tax code.)
Letting the AMT take over the tax code is a really bad, dangerous idea. In the years ahead, there will be no alternative except to face up to the need to raise taxes and make the choices about the fairest way to do that.
What It Takes to Be Ignored in Washington
The dreary Robert Samuelson, who can always be counted on for a “both sides are ignoring the real issue…” column, complains this morning that both sides in the immigration debate, and the press (except, of course, for his own mustache-of-understanding) are ignoring Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation and his projections that the Senate immigration bill would cost $30 billion a year and allow millions more legal immigrants to enter the country. (“One obvious question is why most of the news media missed the larger immigration story,” Samuelson writes. “On May 15 Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama held a news conference with Heritage’s Rector to announce their immigration projections and the estimated impact on the federal budget. Most national media didn’t report the news conference.”)
He considers various explanations for this neglect, from Rector’s theory that the media has a liberal bias and favors immigration, to his own “more complicated” view that the media tends to follow the story as its been defined, and it has been defined as a question of amnesty.
I mean no disrespect to Samuelson’s obviously nuanced and complex worldview, but perhaps we might consider a simpler explanation for the media ignoring Robert Rector: Perhaps, just perhaps, Rector has finally crossed the line - hard to do in Washington - where he has no credibility. Remember, this is Robert Rector who spent the 1990s arguing that there wasn’t really much poverty in America, because some poor people are fat and many have color televisions, and simultaneously telling the Senate Finance Committee that “we spent $5.4 trillion on the war on poverty and poverty won.” (What about all those televisions? And to come up with $5.4 trillion, at a time when welfare and food stamps together cost less than $50 billion a year, involved throwing in all sorts of programs for health care and education unrelated to welfare or the short-lived “war on poverty,” adding up 30 years of spending, adjusting it all upwards for inflation, and then rounding up.) This is also the Robert Rector who has spent the ‘00s concocting studies trying to show that abstinence education and virginity pledges are something other than a dangerous and nasty bit of social engineering that seems to have demonstrably hurt teens’ health by restoring ignorance and shame to sexuality. Rector is a political operative.
A specific rebuttal to Rector on immigration is here. Apparently Rector assumes that most legal immigrants will receive “welfare,” but as with the “$5.4 trillion war on poverty,” he has defined “welfare” to include all general costs of education, courts, etc., and disregarded the taxes immigrants - most of whom will work -- will pay.
I say congratulations to the press for ignoring Rector. It’s only 15 years too late.
NASCAR Man Goes F1
Peter Beinart -- whose new book I will read as soon as I finish Orhan Pamuk’s Snow -- has a funny, observant but ultimately weird column in The New Republic this week. It starts out as an "anthropology of one’s own tribe" -- liberals at conferences about liberalism, progressivism, whatever you want to call it, blah, blah. Beinart complains that at these conferences, everyone is too nice to each other (hence, apparently, the odd title of the column -- "Nice Ass," as in, Democrats=donkeys, which another word for is "ass" and they’re too nice, thus "Nice Ass." Very clever, in a Hasty Pudding Club sort of way.) , but what he really proves about such conferences is that almost everyone is half-engaged, if they are there at all. "Name tags lie on tables, seats remain unfilled. ...Someone gets a cell phone call, checks the number, and heads for the exit. Someone else fishes a BlackBerry from his suitcase and begins to tap. The condition of American liberalism is grave, we all agree, but evidently not grave enough to put our cell phones on mute."
(An accurate description, although at the last such conclave I attended, only one name tag was unclaimed, Beinart’s, which sat on a side table serving as a silent rebuke lest any of us lapse into mushy, soft-on-terror thinking.)
Beinart points out that every such meeting is then dominated by someone who makes a long and pointless point, even admitting frequently that "maybe this doesn’t make any sense," but that everyone’s too nice, or too distracted by the Blackberry to stop him or her. (I admit that I’m the Blackberry -- Treo, actually -- guy -- I hope I’m not that other guy also.)
But at least I know I’m not the guy Beinart pays most attention to
...if liberals must eradicate self-indulgent niceness, they must also confront an even bigger scourge. Let’s call him nascar Man. Nascar Man hovers over every discussion I’ve ever attended. You don’t always notice him at first, but, sooner or later, someone invites him into the room, and he proceeds to suck out all the air. Nascar Man is the guy liberals need to win, but usually don’t. He loves guns, pickup trucks, chewing tobacco, and church on Sunday. He thinks liberals are high-taxing, culturally libertine, quasi-pacifist wimps. And, once liberals have conjured him up, they no longer say what they really believe--even to one another.
The problem starts with the failure to draw a basic distinction: between what liberals believe and what Democrats should say to get elected. Inevitably, in my experience, the two are conflated, and, inevitably, the latter tramples the former. Should liberals invest more power in the United Nations? Should they spend large new sums on the poor? Should they support gay marriage? The propositions are not refuted; they are rarely even raised, because no one wants to incite nascar Man’s wrath. Nascar Man inhibits intellectual inquiry. He’s the bully everyone wants to appease.
That’s very cleverly put. Indeed, the invocation of Nascar Man, or Dobson Man, is a ritual of such discussions, invariably invoked most often by someone who knows the least about the world beyond the Upper West Side. And Beinart is himself too "nice" to point out that it often occurs within moments of the ritual of pointing out that the group sitting around the table is too white, too straight, too old, too secular, etc., which always must be observed as if noting something obvious allows everyone to move forward, "so noted." Thus one can sometimes have, almost side by side, two "America is..." statements: one, implicit, that America Is like us, but more multicultural; the other that America Is totally unlike us, hates us, loves God, Guns and Guts, and we either need to trick them or go home.
And of course the only "America Is" statement that makes sense is that America is a complicated, hugely diverse place with all kinds of attitudes and constituencies, some of which will be open to progressive ideas and others of which will not. And that in such a place, majorities, political power, and public consensus can all be crafted in multiple ways. Beinart is also right that these assumptions of an America that is overwhelmingly hostile to ideas of justice, rights, and international cooperation lead to a stilted conversation in which people easily lose sight of their own moral touchstones -- they convince themselves that what they themselves believe is something that most other Americans don’t -- in favor of electoral strategizing. That’s particularly disturbing in conversation among people who aren’t actually doing anyone’s electoral strategy.
That said, what’s striking about this passage is it’s lack of self-awareness. Hello? Isn’t Peter Beinart himself the original NASCAR man?? Or at least the one who made the most lucrative go of it. What the hell was the point of "A Fighting Faith," his controversial post-Kerry essay, if not to point out that Americans think liberals/Democrats are "quasi-pacifist wimps"?? Or that they are perceived as quasi-pacifist wimps, and need to do all in their power to combat that perception.
At that time, I argued that the essay might have made internal sense (which is not to say that it would have been correct) had it made a defense of the Iraq war -- that is, if he could argue, as the likes of Christopher Hitchens still do, that Democrats were on the wrong side of history for opposing the war. But although Beinart hadn’t yet said, "We Were Wrong,", he couldn’t defend the war either. So the essay ended up basically saying that moveon.org (his main target) might or might not be right about the war but must not be too outspoken in saying so, because America Is a country that thinks liberals are wimpy and we mustn’t do anything to encourage that perception. In other words, forget reality, say what it takes to get elected, including visibly purging those who might also be right about the war but who might -- in theory -- go too far in their pacifism, opposing other, hypothetisized, wiser wars.
My understanding is that Beinart has toned down the attack in his book. And that he now fully acknowledges that he and his colleagues were wrong to support the war. So I’m surprised by the lack of self-awareness in his otherwise very funny satire of the invokers of "Nascar Man." I hope the book resolves the paradox.
Parricide at the CIA
Sidney Blumenthal has a fine piece in Salon today that demonstrates that Bush and Cheney have essentially, and quite deliberately, destroyed the CIA.
Others have hinted at this, but the Goss debacle and the Hayden nomination add much to the story, and Blumenthal knits it all together well. But what he doesn’t touch on, and I’ve never seen mentioned in any previous discussion of Bush and the CIA is the element of parricide involved.
We all take it for granted that Bush’s feelings about his father had something to do with the compulsion to invade Iraq. It could have been the genuine loyalty of a loving son -- Bush supposedly said of Saddam, "he tried to kill my father," sufficient proof that Saddam was evil. Or it could be a lot more complicated, such as a desire to prove to his withholding father, after decades as the inadequate older son, that he could accomplish something, something that had eluded the father himself. Or perhaps to stick it to the father for his perceived loss of nerve in not finishing the job. It’s all fodder for the psychobiographer in every one of us.
But why wouldn’t a similar analysis apply equally, or moreso, to the CIA? The elder Bush was director of the CIA when W was in his late twenties, roughly the period when he had the legendary confrontation with his father over his drinking and general loser-ness, and challenged the father to fight him, "mano a mano." The CIA building is named after his father. And I believe there is some reason to think that the elder Bush’s connection to the Agency predates his appointment as director (without buying the LaRouchite theory that places Bush 41 on the grassy knoll in Dallas). The CIA is a presence in the Bush family life in much the way that Yale is, another institution toward which Bush 43 holds a weird hostility -- and, of course, those two institutions are themselves linked.
I don’t have a very specific theory here, but it seems natural to wonder whether this almost inexplicable hostility to the CIA as an institution has some deeper roots in Bush’s complex relationship to his father.
The Republicans Do Have Bic Ideas
Now that the conventional wisdom happens to coincide with the reality that it is the Republicans who have no Ideas, don’t think for a second that the Republicans aren’t dealing with the problem. Yes, just like liberals, they’ve got their own rich internal debate about finding the deep purpose and public philosophy that will renew their political relevance.
But do they struggle with abstractions like "the common good." NO. They get down to practical things. And so today’s candidate for core conservative principle is:
Be like a really cheap pen.
I’m not joking. A really cheap pen, literally a throwaway Bic from the 1960s. Preferably one with the cap all chewed up and the ink exploded on the inside from going through the laundry.
This comes from RedState.com, where contributor Robert A. Hahn suggests a Harvard Business School case study as a parable for the Republican Party. This is not the stale VHS/Betamax parable, but involves the history of ballpoint pens. In the 1950s, Hahn says, Papermate invented the retractable ball point pen, which was a great success, the first inexpensive ballpoint. Then Bic (a French company) entered the market with the even cheaper 29 cent Bic pen. Papermate decided that it didn’t need to compete, because its niche was in the "medium-price pen market." Bic ate Papermate’s lunch because, according to Hahn, "it turned out there was no medium-price pen market." People either wanted fancy Cross pens or cheap-as-crap Bics, and Papermate should have competed with Bic in the low end.
How is this parable relevant to the Republican situation? Through that impeccable Harvard Business School/McKinsey Consulting logic that cost a few people their pensions, it proves that there is also no "medium vote market," and thus the Republicans must go where the action is -- to the far right.
There’s every indication that the "really cheap, crappy French pen" strategy is exactly what Karl Rove has in mind. We’ll let Harvard Business School assess the results next year.
Are You What You Eat? Is that all?
The Washington Post today discovered the book/movement known as "Crunchy Cons," which is the term created by Dallas Morning News opinion editor and former New York Post columnist Rod Dreher for the "Birkenstocked Burkeans" who combine their cultural conservatism with a certain measure of environmentalism, living small, no TV for the kids, old-fashioned religion, etc.
I’ve been fascinated by the "Crunchy Cons" because it reminds me of some of the truly fascinating figures in the history of conservatism, among them Karl Hess, who wrote Barry Goldwater’s 1964 convention speech and then moved to a kind of earthy libertarian radicalism that turned him into, of all things, a community organizer in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood of Washington. (Hess’s theory was that the far left and far right converged, but he ultimately became a figure of the New Left.)
I don’t expect the careerist Crunchy Cons (who may or may not consist of more that Mr. and Mrs. Dreher) to be undergoing half the crazed odyssey of Hess, but it actually turns out that their movement amounts to basically nothing more than standard conservativism + shopping at Whole Foods.According to the Post, that’s the Crunchy Con difference: they like to eat tasty organic food. And apparently, at least according to the Post, most conservatives don’t: I guess they like their food steeped in petrochemical byproducts, just like they like their baby seals processed, reconstituted and frozen.
This is what passes for a movement or an ideological position these days? First, who doesn’t shop at Whole Foods? A lot of people: people who can’t afford it. But among the minority of us who benefited from the Bush tax cuts, we are all beneficiaries of a great change in the availability and variety of healthier foods. I’m very happy that I can buy a chicken that’s not from Frank Perdue and I’ll pay more for it because I can.
But that is not a political stance. It is the mistaking of a consumer preference -- and a preference that is limited by economic inequality -- to some sort of public action.
My friend Kevin Mattson wrote an essay on the Commondreams website recently, based on his fine new biography of Upton Sinclair. He points out that Sinclair’s expose of the meat-packing industry in The Jungle was intended to be, and was, a spur to public action: passage of the Meat Inspection Act of 1906. But Sinclair, he writes, was disappointed because he hoped for more sweeping change, gave up on reform and instead turned to dietary fads in a personal search for "perfect health." Kevin writes, "Sinclair’s experimentation in lifestyle change has replaced the more public solutions captured in the Meat Inspection Act and Sinclair’s dream for socialized slaughterhouses. This displacement suggests a wider transformation in the American conscience. We seem to have a hard time talking about public solutions for the many problems we face....“Lifestyle” politics – symbolized in the “whole food” markets that dot America’s suburbanized landscape – serve as the easiest means for people to feel that they’re doing something about the politics of food. Buying organic substitutes for considering ways we might improve the way we make and distribute and eat food collectively."
What’s amazing about the "Crunchy Cons" 15 minutes of fame is that we don’t even realize how far this is from a political stance. And if we don’t challenge the idea that your personal shopping preferences are a political act, we really can’t make the case for a politics of "common good" with much substance.
"Tested By Fire"
You know, I think right-wing Republicans get a bad rap, when people use words like "chickenhawk," or refer to the "101st Fighting Keyboardists." Some of these folks have shown some real courage. Take Katherine Harris, from her first TV ad. She says she’s "Tested by Fire," and you have to admit, anyone who can stand up to ALAN COLMES probably has an inner core of courage that the rest of us can only envy.
Perhaps a better image to accompany "Tested by Fire" would be Harris the morning after consuming $2500 worth of booze with Mitchell Wade. Here’s the ad, thanks to Crooks and Liars.