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A Generous View of Kerry as a Senator

While looking for something else, I came across an old article that makes the strongest case for John Kerry's Senate career I've read, stronger than anything his own campaign has put out:

This is from an article by Jack Beatty in The Atlantic in 1996, previewing Kerry's campaign for a third term against the enormously well-liked Republican governor, Bill Weld. It's worth remembering that this was thought to be one of the great showdowns of that year, with Weld favored. Subsequent events, however, in which Weld lost interest in the governorship abandoned it in favor of becoming Bill Clinton's nominee to be ambassador to Mexico, had his nomination blocked by Jesse Helms, then retreated to a career of white-shoe lawyering and novel-writing in New York, more than proved Beatty's point that "Weld's is a well-rounded ambition, not the distended mania for office that crazes most politicians."

On Kerry, Beatty has a few critical things to say: "What has he done for the country? What has he done, period? These are the questions people ask about Kerry. For a senator who has been in office twelve years, he's curiously undefined." But the core of the article is this:

Kerry accrued his Lincolnian gravity in Vietnam. ...Combat cost him. What it gave John Kerry was character.

"The guy has guts," Jack Blum, who investigated the drug-contra connection for a subcommittee on terrorism that Kerry headed, told me recently. "So many politicians are in the job so people will love them. Kerry is a throwback to senators like Phil Hart, who, even though he came from Michigan, investigated the auto industry. They run for office not so people will love them but to use the powers of office"--in Kerry's case to expose betrayals of the public trust.

In three investigations during his two terms Kerry has charged targets head on. He is a hero of a new biography of the Washington power lawyer and Democratic pooh-bah Clark Clifford. In Friends in High Places: The Rise and Fall of Clark Clifford, Douglas Frantz and David McKean depict Kerry as the only Democratic senator who was willing to investigate the Bank of Credit and Commerce International and Clifford's role in its mega-larcenies. "What are you doing to my old friend Clark Clifford?" an older southern Democrat asked Kerry in a Senate elevator one day. Kerry made no reply, but told an aide accompanying him, "You should hear what they say to me in the cloakroom." Not in public life to be loved, Kerry pressed on. The evidence compiled by his committee helped to close down a huge criminal conspiracy.

Kerry went after Oliver North more than a year before Iran-contra broke, exposing the connection between the U.S.-supported Nicaraguan contras and drug trafficking. And when Arthur Liman, the chief counsel of the Iran-Contra Committee, agreed to a White House demand that the committee be permitted to see only edited portions of North's diaries, Kerry refused to go along with the whitewash and persuaded the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to subpoena the North diaries. This did not endear him to his colleagues, who above everything were eager to avoid impeaching Ronald Reagan.

Kerry's staff did not want him to address the explosive POW-MIA issue--nor was he eager to touch "the third rail in his life," as one friend put it. Still, as a decorated veteran he had political capital on Vietnam, which brought with it responsibility. After exhaustive and emotional hearings a Kerry-chaired special committee issued a unanimous (12-0) report that laid to rest the harrowing and commercially robust fantasy that U.S. POWs are still being held in Indochina. The report opened the door to the normalization of relations with Vietnam.

Kerry was both a war hero and a war protester, a founder of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He sees his Senate career as continuous with his anti-war activism. Then as now, he says, he sought to hold power publicly accountable. Making government obey the laws and its officials tell the truth, Kerry says, is a precondition to restoring the public trust on which any progressive use of government depends. Kerry's investigations can thus be seen as means to a liberal end: to put government on the side of the governed.

Puzzlingly, Kerry rarely mentions any of this on the campaign trail, preferring to recommend himself as a co-sponsor of the reauthorization of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

This is the defense of Kerry's Senate career that is beginning to appear in the press: He spent it not on ordinary legislative matters, but on the kind of investigations that "put government on the side of the governed." The Senate is really an entrepreneurial institution, and there a lot of ways to make a mark, including investigations.

I've been quite dismissive of Kerry's Senate service, so I can't leave it at that. Two things to add: First, these investigations were getting stale at the time Beatty wrote this, almost eight years ago now. The POW-MIA committee that he did with McCain was a significant achievement, but that's at least ten years ago. As far as I know, Kerry has not undertaken a major investigation like BCCI in a long time, although presumably in a Republican-controlled Senate, its harder to get the staff and resources to expose such scandals.

Second, even more so than other Senate activities, Senators don't do investigations themselves. They are entirely about staff work. Congressional investigators operate more like Assistant U.S. Attorneys than anything else. They interview everyone they need to, set everything up, and then organize a media event -- a hearing -- at which the Senators ask scripted questions and express scripted outrage. The staff has to be extremely good, like Blum, quoted by Beatty, and the Senator doesn't have to do most of the things that a Senator normally has to do: persuade colleagues, understand the intricacies of legislation, sit through meetings, hang out on the Senate floor for a chance to offer an amendment, etc.

Still, it's the people who are best at that aspect of being a Senator, like Bob Dole, who tend to make weak presidential candidates, so Kerry's way of using the institution might be just the ticket.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 31, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Back to Nixon-loving, Bush-hating

David Bernstein, writing at the Volokh Conspiracy, combines two ideas that are both wrong: First, that Bush is like Nixon (a point I've written about before, and, second, that Bush-hating is an irrational response, given Bush's Nixonian spending on health and education, which liberals would applaud if they weren't so blinded by Bush-hatred. Here's Bernstein's main post, and there are some follow-ups later.

Bernstein claims that those who disagree with him take one of three positions: (1) deny that the increases occurred or argue that they weren't enough, (2) argue that spending on these and other domestic needs will be horribly constrained by the revenue shortfalls in future years or (3) complain that they money goes to purposes they don't agree with, such as school vouchers. I won't take the first position, the second is true even under Bush's own budget assumptions, and as for the third: well, different people have their own views, but I favor experimentation with school vouchers, so for me, that's not the point.

I've done this topic to death, so I should try to respond briefly and calmly.

First, there were plenty of reasons to hate Nixon, and social spending isn't the only thing that even liberals measure a president by. It's not for no reason that Nixon resigned under imminent threat of impeachment, after a group of Republican leaders decided they had had enough of a lawless presidency. It's true that only the hindsight of history has fully revealed the degree to which Nixon's domestic presidency was a continuation of, rather than a break with, the generally expansive trend of government in the Kennedy and Johnson years, and had liberals understood that, they might have looked at Nixon in a slightly different light, though he's no less guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors. But the difference between Nixon and Bush is simply this: Nixon's initiatives, except for wage and price controls, were good, serious efforts. They were relatively clear-cut, well-designed, and the resources were appropriate to the task. The EPA and SSI (the Social Security benefit for people who can't work because of disabilities), to take two examples of Nixonian liberalism, are generally popular, sound programs that no one questions. The Bush initiatives, on the other hand, are a mess: complicated, intrusive, and ineffective.

Second, liberalism is not about throwing money at problems. It's about trying to solve public problems by public means. As a liberal, do I celebrate the news that the Medicare bill will cost more than $500 billion, rather than $400 billion -- a 25% cost overrun in just two months? Of course not. In fact the news gives me a pain in the pit of my stomach. It doesn't mean we're doing 25% better at solving the health care problems of seniors. It just means we're doing whatever it is the bill does even less efficiently. The bill doesn't do the job, at any cost, and so every dollar spent on it is a dollar that's taken away from what could be a more effective program, or from long-term fiscal stability. The same is true in education, where No Child Left Behind is a mess, and makes so many more promises and demands than can possibly be met with the funding available, and thus invites deceit.

The shorter version of Paul O'Neill's complaint inThe Price of Loyalty, after all, is "I thought this would be the Nixon or Ford administration, but it wasn't." What liberals dislike about Bush is the very same thing that O'Neill disliked: reckless incompetence, Karl Rove running policy, nihilism on a grand scale.

Here's the difference between Nixon and Bush: When Nixon left, his successor could proclaim that "our long national nightmare is over." With Bush, we'll be feeling the consequences for generations.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 29, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Kaus, Kerry and Welfare Reform

Mickey Kaus has decided to shift his anti-Kerry crusade from he's-a-loser (a view which I admit, I had shared) to he's-an-unreconstructed-liberal. And of course the issue of the day (as most days) is welfare reform, and the almost-forgotten debate over that bill in 1996.

Kaus complains that Kerry told Bob Schieffer, "I have fought hard for responsible welfare reform. I voted for welfare reform." Kaus notes that Kerry did vote for final passage of the bill, but "in the Kabuki procedures of the Senate, the final passage vote is often for show, and that was the case with welfare reform. The final vote allowed senators who needed to be seen as supportive of the bill--especially senators up for reelection like Kerry--to go on record as voting for it" while actually trying to gut it. The real test was on amendments, Kaus say, and he notes three amendments Kerry voted for: the Daschle amendment, which was the main Democratic substitute, a Biden-Specter substitute, and a Breaux amendment that would have allowed states to continue to provide non-cash benefits to kids in families that had run out their two-year time limit.

If Kaus thinks that aligning himself with Senator Breaux on an amendment that passed in a Republican-controlled Senate makes Kerry a liberal, he's welcome to that delusion. Kaus says he followed the issue very closely at the time, and promises more research to find out whether these amendments would have "gutted" welfare reform. I'll do his work for him -- I spent most of this time perched quietly on the staff bench at the edge of the Senate floor, so I know exactly how this went down. Kerry was not one of the Democrats who wanted to defeat or gut the bill. (My boss, Senator Bradley, was.)

Kaus is certainly correct that Kerry was not an active leader on welfare reform, so "I fought hard for..." is glib Senatorial hyperbole -- but he's hardly the first to use that phrase. Kerry did offer an amendment on the floor, which passed, requiring states that showed an increase in child poverty to develop a plan for corrective action. That was a good idea, one of a number of Democratic efforts to put the goal of reducing child poverty, not just welfare caseloads, into the bill.

On the amendments Kaus cites: The Daschle alternative was known as the "Work First" bill. It had work requirements that were stricter than the Republican bill, and it was more honest about the funds states would need to implement Work First. Actual opponents of welfare reform, like Moynihan and Bradley, thought it did very little to improve on the Republican bill, but voted for it. I don't recall exactly what the Biden-Specter alternative did, but all the actual opponents of welfare reform voted against it, which should tell Kaus something. (There was an alternative that would have preserved the individual entitlement to AFDC, which really just means that funding for states would have continued to come as a match rather than a block grant, drafted by Moynihan, but he never even offered it for a vote.) The Breaux amendment was one of those little things that humanized the bill, and has contributed to what I would now consider the partial success of welfare reform.

What happened on the Senate floor in 1996 was not, as Kaus describes it, a meaningless final vote. What happened was that, after these early amendments, the bill's sponsors made every effort to get as many Democrats to vote for it as possible, by making substantive changes to win their votes. This might have been politically motivated -- just dare Clinton to veto a bill that passed 74-24 -- or it might have been a sincere effort to reach the broadest consensus, the exact opposite of what happens today, where the Republicans seem determined to squeak everything through by the narrowest votes because it means they've made the fewest compromises. In the final round of negotiations, they added hundreds of millions of dollars for child care, made some of the rules more sensible, and accepted amendments such as Kerry's and even some of Wellstone's that moderated the bill, in order to get most of the moderate Democrats to support it. Kerry can take credit that he was a modest part of the group that proposed and made their votes contingent on the kind of changes that improved the bill enough that it could be called "responsible welfare reform," and not just a block grant. (The bill that later came back from the House-Senate conference, which Kerry also voted for and that Clinton signed, dropped many of those improvements and added some horrible stuff such as the first funding for "abstinence-only education".)

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 29, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Dean's Death Spiral

It's sad to say, but people who are interested in politics tend to be unduly distracted by the more gruesome car crashes along the political highway. Seeing a Trent Lott or a John Rowland brought down is hugely satisfying, but Dean's astonishingly rapid collapse has a certain sick fascination to it as well.

I can look at this both ways. On the one hand, it was an arrogant, cocky campaign that thought it had accomplished something when it really hadn't, that thought they had transcended some of the normal rules of politics. (See my long post, early in the history of this blog, on Saviors and Counters for my take on his approach to politics vs. the standard constituency-based approach.) And, of course, I had the most negative first reaction to Trippi. I thought he was delusional and almost offensive in his belief that the other candidates should just bow down in awe of Dean's money and his internet base, and get out before a single vote his cast or risk a "donnybrook."

I loved Josh Marshall's comment after Iowa that the way Dean had taken on the Democratic Party establishment was by luring them all in and then driving them off a cliff.

On the other hand, there's a lot to appreciate about what Trippi built for Dean. And bringing in Roy Neel to run this campaign makes about as much sense as hiring Billy Tauzin to run Common Cause! I think Simon Rosenberg got it just about right on the New Democrat Network blog:

What Dean and its Trippi era have done is to make the Party of the middle class more authentically the champion of the middle class by fundamentally altering how we finance and imagine our politics. This campaign is about them. No winks, no nods. We now know that we can only win this race with not just their votes but with their active participation in our politics again.

But there are two small things I want to say:

1. Tolstoy would not have made a good political pundit: Unhappy campaigns are very much alike, or at least they look alike. Campaigns in their down cycles all tend to look absolutely disastrous. Kerry's campaign looked like one of the biggest train wrecks in political history back in November. It can be hard to tell the difference between one where the fundamentals are strong but it just needs a fresh face, and a campaign that's doomed. In this case, though, it's the wrong time to fall apart. A campaign that even in its more modest and strategic phase (that is, before it got carried away with itself last spring or summer) had to win New Hampshire HAS TO win New Hampshire. After that it's just a painful death spiral, a frantic running from state to state looking for a win: Washington, Michigan, no, let's try Arizona... I've seen it, it's ugly and the only saving grace is it's over quickly.

2. Political campaigns are like living in New York. What do I mean by that? People always say that you have to be rich to live in New York. But I remember noticing when I lived here in the late 1980s that I knew plenty of people who made a lot of money -- investment bankers -- and also plenty of people who made even less than I did, like people who worked in the mail rooms at publishing companies. And yet they all managed to create a decent life for themselves in New York (albeit as young singles), and what they had in common was that they had no money left at the end of the week. You can be rich or poor in New York, but it just takes whatever you've got either way. And politics is like that too, which is why it's not totally surprising that Dean seems to have spent most of his $40 million. You can be Kucinich or you can be Dean -- either way, your money will get spent. Still, that's a lot of loot to go through so quickly. I wonder how much of it was spent on ads (everyone assumes that TV ads are the main cost in politics, but they're generally about a third, and things like getting the People-Powered gang to Iowa and moving them around and keeping them all happy and organized can be insanely expensive) and just how bad the ads really were.

Now it's time to stop staring at the wreck and get back on the road.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 28, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

A few random thoughts after New Hampshire

A snow day, and my wife's in South Carolina to cover the lead-up to that primary (weather sounds worse than New Hampshire), so playing in the snow slowed down the blogging today, or vice versa. But my thoughts from last night:

1. The result is obviously very different from what prediction/polling would have suggested two weeks ago, or even two days ago, when Dean seemed to be battling back. But it's almost exactly what one might have predicted a year ago: The two candidates from neighboring states on top, with Kerry winning, Dean second, Edwards with a decent following. You would probably have picked Lieberman to do a little better, but as I've said all along, he long ago, and by his own unnecessary choice, positioned himself in a niche where there are no Democratic primary voters, and certainly few in New Hampshire. (Even the independents are coming from a different place than the DLC/morality pitch. They tend to be more socially libertarian, and more fiscally conservative.) Of course, you would have assumed Gephardt would be in the race and Clark, probably not. Dean's second place, unfortunately, marks the end of his campaign, whereas in the year-ago scenario, it would have been a decent beginning, putting him solidly in the top two or three contenders. If Gephardt had won Iowa, Kerry New Hampshire, and Dean had come second in both, those would be the three viable contenders. The Iowa results, on the other hand, were not at all what one would have expected a year ago, so the fact that Kerry won both makes the NH result all the more significant for him.

2. I had a nightmare scenario -- and it was not one in which Howard Dean won the nomination. I was certainly worried about that scenario, and Dean's electability, but the far worse nightmare involved a prolonged contest between Dean and an anti-Dean -- Clark, Gephardt, Kerry or Edwards -- in which the anti-Dean ultimately prevailed, entirely on the energy of a stop-Dean movement, but Dean nonetheless came into Boston with a solid 35% of the delegates, all armed with a righteous conviction that they'd been robbed, perhaps by the Clintons, of something they had legitimately won. I've only been to one convention -- 1992 -- and the Jerry Brown delegates at that convention, who probably had less than 15% of the delegates (I can't find the exact number, but did find this evocative photo) managed to be an incredibly disruptive force. Even without the threat that he would run as an independent, I think that nightmare was one of the things that made some of the party establishment, such as it is, decide that it was wiser to join Dean than fight him. It now looks like that is a much less likely scenario. Even if Dean pulls back into some sort of contention and has a significant delegate presence, it will not be able to claim the "we wuz robbed" mantle. And in the very unlikely event that he comes back and wins the nomination, well, that would be a testament to political skill at the Bill Clinton level, and it would just have to be respected. But Dean has been humbled, appropriately, and his delegates will no longer be an angry, self-righteous force. And that's all to the good. As George W. Bush used to say, humility is a good thing.

Dean's grand mistake -- the mistake for which Joe Trippi deserved to get fired, despite his extraordinary genius -- was to believe that he had actually accomplished something before a single vote had been cast or a delegate committed. See my long-ago post, "The Trippy Scenario," for my first impression of this arrogance, and my mistake in thinking twice about it.

3. Clark: I'm disappointed and a little frustrated about what happened to General Clark. I like Clark not because he was an anti-Dean, but because I loved the way he talked about domestic issues. It's exactly what I've been looking for in a candidate: Clear statements of meaningful principles, not the programmatic language of Senators, and a deep understanding of and respect for public institutions, such as the one in which he'd spent his career. And, needless to say, he also had a wonderful power in talking about foreign policy issues, and could actually tell the story of how we went awry over Iraq, rather than simply opposing the war. Similarly, on Meet the Press last Sunday, he was able to convey doubts about whether the administration had taken al Qaeda seriously in a narrative context: all they cared about was missile defense, and so they ignored people who told them terrorism was the bigger concern. The only way to get voters to consider the possibility that the President didn't do all he could to prevent a terrorist attack is to tell a story in which it makes sense, and Clark does that far better than I've seen Kerry do.

I'd been hoping and expecting that Clark would click with New Hampshire's independents. What I didn't understand was that before he could do that, he would have to establish his credentials as a Democrat and even his right to run in the primary, in a way that McCain never had to establish his credentials as a Republican. Spooked by Dean -- unduly, it turns out -- he had to oversimplify his position on the war, and every minute he spent shoring up his not-very-believable left-of-center cred was a minute spent not reaching out to New Hampshire independents. I sort of wonder what would have happened if Clark had answered questions about party affiliation by saying something like, "political parties have never been that important to me. I've got my beliefs and values, and that's what I'm going to talk about. I've met plenty of Republicans who share my values, but they're not represented in this administration. On the most fundamental issues, such as a fair tax system, I agree with most Democrats, but I want to lead a country that's less partisan, where we work together to solve problems," etc. How many Democrats would be upset by that? Who's loyalty today is really to a party? And it would certainly help reach independents.

Clark got very good at staying on message, so good that he didn't quite know when he should step off message long enough to deal with something. The Michael Moore issue, and whether he should appear with Moore after Moore called Bush a "deserter," was an infuriating piece of bullshit to be dealing with in the last few days of the campaign, and one of the most egregious examples of press misconduct. "Who is this guy?" is always the deadliest question in politics, and Michael Moore is such a sharp contrast to Clark that he forced that question to the forefront. If I were Clark, I would have gotten off message long enough to say, "Like a lot of young men at the time, George Bush apparently didn't want to go to Vietnam. He was very fortunate in that he was given another way to serve his country. It's up to George Bush to tell the American people whether or not he actually fulfilled the requirements of that alternative service. The question is to him, not to me." But maybe that would have been inflammatory.

But still, the very idea that the New York Times treats Clark as if he made some mistake because "Bush's actions do not meet the technical definition of desertion, which is punishable by death" is offensive. No, Bush is obviously not a "deserter," since by definition he would have been shot by a firing squad if he was! But it's his actions that should be in question here, not Clark's or Moore's. This is one of those issues where it helps to turn the table and put Clinton in the same spot. Does anyone ever demand that Bush renounce people like Jerry Falwell who put out tapes accusing Clinton of being responsible for the deaths of 184 people? I think it's fair to say that Clinton's actions did not meet the technical definition of mass murder.

It is interesting to note that we now have a president who's been accused, with some cause, of desertion, treason (the exposure of Valerie Plame), and of leading the nation to war on a false premise. That's the Trifecta of crimes against your own country, isn't it? OK, the desertion charge doesn't meet the technical definition, and the other two, while we know that they occurred, we still don't have all the details about exactly who said what to whom. Still, not a record on which I'd want to be running for reelection, in a just world.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 27, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

More wacky pollster comments

Zogby's final tracking poll in New Hampshire this morning showed Kerry back to a 13-point lead over Dean. The last couple days, Zogby had been showing the strongest indications of a Dean comeback, with a difference of just three points. Zogby adds this strangely defensive comment at the end:

"A final note: I know that my polling in the past two-days has shown a close race. I have no doubt that this was the case. Dean had bottomed out in the latter part of the week, was re-gaining some of his support among key voting groups, and had rehabilitated up to a point his unfavorable ratings. But in the final analysis, New Hampshire voters have decided to nominate a possible president instead of sending an angry message. New Hampshire voters are always volatile and its primaries are always fluid. I have never gotten a New Hampshire primary wrong. I stand by my close numbers of the last few days as much as I stand by these final numbers."

What does it mean to "stand by" his previous numbers as well as these somewhat different numbers? Only one of them, or neither, will be "right," as in, it will correspond with the actual results tonight. No one will ever know whether his numbers from yesterday were "right" or "wrong." They might have been right for that day, but not an accurate prediction of what would happen if the election had been held that day, once people are forced to decide. And how can he be so certain that "New Hampshire voters have decided to nominate a possible president instead of sending an angry message"? Wasn't the partial Dean recovery that he sees related to Dean presenting himself more as the accomplished moderate governor of a neighboring state?

Soon enough we'll know the real results, so who really cares if these numbers are a little off. They show the broad trends, and that's the most anyone can expect.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 27, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Cheney WILL be replaced

via The Political Wire, I see there's another rumor that Cheney will be off the ticket, replaced with Rudy Giuliani.

One of my big things now is to avoid making predictions. But I think it is a very safe bet that Cheney will be booted from the ticket when Bush needs a boost. Continually affirming that he will be on the ticket is fine for now, it actually helps make it more of a news event when it happens. And it frees Bush to make news by going in whatever direction he wants for a replacement -- toward a less-polarizing figure if need be, or a woman, or a particular state if necessary.

Cheney's health is a perfect excuse. He can have his doctor say he's perfectly healthy but that he's advised against the stress of another four years. Cheney's never helped Bush electorally, and at this point, he himself is the source of so many of the administration's screw-ups and crimes that he certainly ought to be a negative.

As for the replacement, I've always thought it would be Senator Frist. He's a doctor, from a border state, he's got the record of accomplishment, breaking the gridlock in Congress (even if it's only been to pass horrible, disastrous legislation -- at least he gets something done!)

Giuliani is an interesting idea, and it would be another way to remind people of 9/11, and have a triumphal coronation at the New York convention. But with the right as angry as it is right now, I don't think they'll take that lying down. Plus, Giuliani is one of those people who shouldn't be vice president of anything.

Fortunately, Condoleeza Rice is too tainted by the Iraq scandals and Colin Powell is just counting the days until he can wash his hands of this administration.

The only caveat to this is whether the Bush crowd is really serious about grooming Jeb Bush for the presidency. I tend to look on those stories as skeptically as I look at the various Hilary Clinton schemes, which is to say, very skeptically. But if so, they won't want to set up Frist or someone like that as a potential rival.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 27, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack

McCain Speech on campaign reform

Senator McCain spoke today at the Carnegie Corporation of New York (which is not a corporation, but one of the major foundations in the U.S., very important on campaign finance reform, education, and other issues.) It was quite a room -- a lot of media people (Morley Safer asked a question, and I was sitting next to Nick Lemann, the new dean of the Columbia Journalism School and a hero of mine), plus a complete who's who of the people interested in campaign finance reform, many of whom came from Washington or California for the even, plus a good number of foundation presidents and key program officers. I was hilariously underdressed for some reason, in a dress shirt and sweater when everyone else had a suit and tie, but everyone said, "Oh, you're dressed like you're on sabbatical." (Last week in San Francisco, I wore a suit to speak at an event, and everyone else was dressed down. All events need dress codes these days.)

McCain was wonderfully charming and incredibly knowledgeable about not just campaign reform but media concentration and energy policy and a bunch of other things. He was completely at home in this crowd, which ranged from pretty far left to super-mainstream foundation-type liberals. I've always liked McCain, but felt that some progressives fell for him without remembering that he is a conservative: very much the direct heir of Barry Goldwater, whose seat he holds in the Senate. But at this point, he's out there on so many issues that he really does have more in common with progressives than with the Bush administration. He fought both the Medicare bill and the energy bill, which is more than I can say for Tom Daschle, Ron Wyden, Tom Harkin, etc.

And yet, McCain is still very much a conservative. He talked about the need for reform, and in his words, it's: "political reform, but also military reform (don't know if he means procurement or force structure), Medicare reform, Social Security reform, tort reform." Again, the other reforms are not necessarily those that most liberals would embrace, although I would argue that some of them we should embrace, and define.

McCain was very generous toward most of the Democratic candidates for president. He described Kerry, Lieberman and Edwards as close personal friends, which surprised me only in that he would include Edwards in that group. He worked very closely with Kerry on a commission in the mid-1990s that defused the politicized issue of POWs and MIAs in Vietnam -- a huge accomplishment, which is one of the few really significant achievements I credit Kerry with. And he's always found common ground with Lieberman, including on campaign reform. But I didn't know he had the same relationship with Edwards. But in response to a question about whether campaign reform should promote political equality, not just reduce corruption, McCain gave a beautiful answer about inequality, and said something like, "and there's a lot of people who want to hear more about that, and the proof of that is in the Edwards campaign and the big crowds he's getting in New Hampshire by talking about inequality and "two nations.""

And towards the President: not one kind word, though nothing really unkind except to say something like, "there's a lot of dissatisfaction out there.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 26, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Rewriting polls

This interesting paragraph appeared on the website of the ARG New Hampshire tracking poll last night

Howard Dean?s favorable is now at 31%, his unfavorable is 42%, and 27% are aware of Dean but undecided. ...Of the 31% with a favorable opinion of Dean, 28% say they will vote for Dean and 32% say they will vote for John Kerry.

Interesting. But suppose the last sentence was the following:

Of the 75 people who had a favorable opinion of Dean, 21 said they would vote for Dean and 26 said they would vote for Kerry.

That's what it really means. These are based on one night's numbers in a three-night tracking poll. Each night they call a minimum of 200 households; from this sample it looks more like 260. It is really silly to even report anything about sub-samples this small.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 23, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Grover's Back

Right-wing impresario Grover Norquist has not backed down from his belief that the Estate Tax is a policy comparable to the Holocaust. And the forum in which he chose to revisit this issue is none other than The Forward, New York's Jewish daily:

He told the Forward yesterday that the analogy was perfectly valid because "the Nazis were for gun control, the Nazis were for high marginal tax rates."

It's too bad my grandfather's not still alive. I'd love to ask him whether it was really high marginal tax rates that sent my family on a desperate struggle to get out of Germany and over to FDR's America.

I've come to think that Norquist is basically an adolescent, with the adolescent's strange obsession with saying the thing that is most likely to get a reaction. I saw him speak the other day, and you can see just that smug teenager's gleam in his eye when he says something that he thinks will get everyone all atwitter, especially a nice earnest NPR host. If he weren't doing politics, he'd be a second-string Howard Stern-type DJ.

On the other hand, there is a substantive role that Norquist apparently plays in coordinating the right-wing strategies in various states, such things as putting "paycheck protection" initiatives on the ballot in seven states at once, with the goal of diverting organized labor from other causes. I wish one could find out more about what he actually does for the right, and hear less of his shock statements, like that he wants to drown government in the bathtub.

p.s.: Meanwhile, in perhaps the lamest performance by a newspaper columnist so far this year, Richard Cohen of the Washington Post wrote about Norquist's original, widely reported outburst, which took place in October, on January 6. "This is how it happens in my business," Cohen began, explaining that he didn't hear about Norquist's remark until it was reprinted in Harper's which he happened to read over the holidays. Lame.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 23, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (3)