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Other projects

A slow week or two at The Decembrist, in case you didn't notice, although a burst of new entries tonight. The main reason for delay is that I had a couple of other writing projects. My comments on liberals sense of our own history led to an invitation from Michael Tomasky at The American Prospect to write a semi-frequent online column on these issues, ideally looking at a current question in the light of recent history, or reviving some forgotten idea. I'm very excited to do this column, in part because it will be a real challenge. There's a lot of people who know more about this history than I do, but probably not many who are also wonky enough about current politics and policy debates to be able to connect the two. We'll see how it turns out.

The first installment was posted last Friday at http://www.prospect.org/web/page.ww?section=root&name=ViewWeb&articleId=7765

Also, last weekend I spoke at a conference co-sponsored by the New Democracy Project and the Nation Institute, What We Stand For I have a low tolerance for full-day or multi-day conferences -- although if I'm not careful, I could spend my life at them -- but this was superb. The opening sessions on terrorism and war, with Gary Hart, James Fallows, Anne-Marie Slaughter and others were thoroughly informative and lively, as were the Saturday sessions. It was a serious, creative two days, ample proof that the left is not without ideas. The crowd was huge, totally filling the new auditorium at NYU. (I left before the last panel, but I'm told that Eli Pariser of MoveOn.org asked the crowd how many had learned about the conference through MoveOn, and almost every hand was raised.)

I spoke on a panel on political reform, along with Miles Rapoport of Demos , Rep. Gregory Meeks from Queens, and Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker. The conference was based on contributions to two recent books, one called Take Back America and published by Nation Books; the other What We Stand For: A Program for Progressive Patriotism was edited by Mark Green, the former Public Advocate of New York City and is a follow up to the Agenda for America book that the first incarnation of The Democracy Project issued in time for the last election in which an incumbent President Bush was defeated.

I wrote the chapter on political reform in the book. I recommend the entire book, which is inexpensive, but here is the .pdf of my chapter: Beyond Money: Restoring the Rules that Make Democracy Work.

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

A Theory About the Senate

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's campaign trip to South Dakota to defeat his Democratic counterpart brought to mind a question a friend asked me recently: Did I think there was a case to be made that something had fundamentally gone wrong with the U.S. Senate? (And, no, this has nothing to do with the extracurricular activities of young staffers, which have always involved what they will always involve.) This follows on several comments on this weblog about unbelievable comments by Senators such as Rick Santorum, a member of the majority party leadership who, a few months after equating committed gay relationships to "man-on-dog" sex declared that one of his colleagues "doesn't have the understanding of how government works" -- perhaps a mild insult in the blogosphere, but pretty much unheard of in the U.S. Senate as I know it. The more recent declaration by Senator Inhofe that he is "outraged by the outrage" at torture and abuse by U.S. personnel in Iraq shows that Santorum is not alone.

However, there is always peril in assuming there was a golden age of the Senate in which civility ruled and every man (and, if there is one notable positive change in the Senate, it is that the number of women has increased by more than 900% in a decade) was a statesman. As pointed out in comments here earlier, Joe McCarthy was a Senator, and so were many other mentally and morally compromised individuals. A recent obituary reminded me of Senator William Scott of Virginia, who in the 1970s topped a list of "Dumbest Senators" compiled by New Times magazine -- and the next day held a press conference to deny the charge. Robert Caro's Master of the Senate, while chronicling Lyndon Johnson's rise to dominate the institution, also shows that other figures who are considered titans of the 1950s Senate, such as Paul Douglas of Illinois or Herbert Lehman of New York, were most often pretty marginal gadflies in an institution dominated by less gifted or less honorable men.

But without romanticizing the quality of the actual Senators of the past

-- and if you want to lose any illusions about the "World's Greatest Deliberative Body," go even further back, to before direct election of Senators, and find an old copy of The Treason of the Senate by the muckraking journalist and novelist David Graham Phillips -- there is still something unbelievable that has occurred in the interaction between Senators, and in the general institutional culture. Frist's campaigning against Daschle is unprecedented for a good reason. The benefits of a Senate leader making campaign appearances in a state where he is barely known cannot possibly offset the cost in terms of a good working relationship on the mundane daily problems of managing the insitution, scheduling votes, or asking routine favors such as holding a vote for a Senator who is coming in on a delayed flight. And then there is the very real possibility that the Senate Republicans will attempt this year to declare that the Senate rules do not permit a filibuster on judicial nominations, or on any nominations, in order to deprive Democrats of the means of blocking the worst Bush judges. Since the Senate rules emphatically do not exempt judicial nominations from filibuster, this will require over-ruling the Senate Parliamentarian, or, more likely, firing the Senate Parliamentarian and replacing him with someone who will provide the rulings they wish.

If this seems outrageous to you, you should know that this would actually be the second time the Republicans have fired their own Parliamentarian because they didn't like his rulings. They call this "The Nuclear Option," but, if it happens, it is Nagasaki, not Hiroshima.

How did the institution come to this point? It's not because the Senators of today are lesser individuals than in the past, although that may be true also. Rather, I think, it is the way the Senate goes about its business that brings out the worst in those individuals, whereas there are things about the Senate in the past that brought out the best democratic and deliberative capacities of its members.

It took me a while to grasp that the Senate is not a rule-driven institution. It has rules, but they don't drive the process. They are more like a toolbox made up of procedures and tactics to be used for certain conditions at certain times. For example, when I worked in the Senate, cloture votes -- which would determine whether there were enough votes to end a filibuster -- were the main tool being used to drive the business of the Senate, although filibusters themselves were infrequent. There was a period when a tactic known as "filling the amendment tree" was used often to block an unwelcome amendment -- I remember when Senator Byrd did it in 1993 in an attempt to salvage Clinton's now-forgotten "stimulus package," most of my senior colleagues had never seen the tactic used, but by 1995, Senator Dole was filling the tree daily. At the same time, the rules that exist can be broken or bypassed at will: Senator Byrd once pointed out that every rule of the Senate could be waived by consent, except for the rules governing who is a Senator.

That makes the Senate a kind of improvisational theater, rather than a formalized process, and while power is not distributed equally within it, every Senator has the power to initiate action (offer an amendment) or block action. Outside of the legislative process, many Senators also have the power to, for example, launch investigations (which is how John Kerry made his mark) and at any given time, a dozen or so are national figures who can shape the debate by appearing on Meet the Press, by helping to build outside organizations, or making visits to other states. (There's probably never been a Senator who understood this outside-in role as well as Hilary Clinton.) That engenders a kind of respect or acknowledgement of each colleague. My former boss, Senator Bradley, once said something in a campaign debate early on in the period when I worked for him: "You hold power, but you must never claim power." I didn't fully understand what he meant until a few years later -- it means that whatever power you have derives entirely from your ability to influence others, create coalitions, form alliances, be entrepreneurial, etc. No one in the Senate, not the Majority Leader, not the chair of the Finance or Appropriations Committees, holds even a fraction of the actual power of their counterparts in the House of Representatives, because the power they have, if they "claim" it without consent, is so easily undermined.

Combine these factors with four other facts: Senators generally expect that they will serve for a long time and so will their colleagues. But they don't expect their party's tenure in or out of power to last nearly as long; control of the Senate has changed five times since 1980, and most Senators have seen it change at least three times. Finally, because of the filibuster and other rules, nothing can generally be done without forming a bipartisan coalition. Senator Dole used to say every day, "you need 60 votes to do anything around here," which isn't quite true, but we'll get to that in a minute. Finally, party affiliations don't correspond exactly with ideology, so bipartisan coalitions will always be the rule and the Majority Leader does not control a reliable bloc.

You can't argue that the Senate is a good representative body, but within the boundaries of the institution, these factors can create the ideal conditions for deliberative democracy. Participants know that their interactions will be repeated, that their reputations in those interactions will matter, that they may not be in the same power relationship next time as today. When I worked in the Senate, I saw plenty of partisanship, but an intense, constant effort to put together the bipartisan coalitions that would be able to get something done. Sitting behind the dais of the Senate Finance Committee, one saw a group of Senators across both sides of the center part of the horseshoe-shaped table who respected one another, had learned to like each other, and were accustomed to working together to get something accomplished. One of the best examples, though it was unsuccessful, was the "centrists group" that formed after the failure of the Clinton health plan, around Senator John Chafee in particular, which met constantly over a period of weeks in 1994 in an effort to salvage something that could pass.

So what has gone wrong with the Senate: First, party affiliation is no longer on a different axis than ideology. The Republican Party is now the right-wing party, the Democrats the liberal party, with only a few outliers. That was not something that could be said in the Reagan era, when Phil Gramm was still a Democrat, or even ten years ago, when Richard Shelby of Alabama was a Democrat. The only such "Dixiecrat" today is the retiring Zell Miller of Georgia, a very strange case because he did not come from the same tradition, and his estrangement from the Democrats seems best explained as a matter of psychology or allergic reaction to Washington, as Ed Kilgore of the Democratic Leadership Council has argued. And this means that the Majority Leader can usually command the votes of a majority without reaching out at all.

And some of the other conditions, such as the fact that every Senator can find a way to exercise some power, are no longer true either. That's because the majority of the important business of the Senate is now conducted through the process known as Reconciliation. Reconciliation is a provision of the budget rules under which Congress sets a budget, and then can put through a sweeping piece of legislation intended to bring spending programs in line with budget goals, that is, to "reconcile" the programs with the budget. Reconciliation gives Congress a way to force itself to make decisions about entitlement programs, where spending is determined not by how much Congress appropriates, but by the rules of the program, such as the age requirements of Social Security and Medicare, or the eligibility requirements and bank subsidy of the Guaranteed Student Loan program, as well as taxes and tax breaks. Reconciliation bills are governed by special rules that strictly limit the time for debate and prohibit almost all amendments.

Reconciliations used to be infrequent; the process was not used at all for several years after it was created in 1974, and there was one every two or three years between 1979 and 2001. Usually they were the results of long, tortured "budget summits," such as the one at Andrews Air Force Base in the first Bush administration or the balanced budget agreement reached in 1997, and thus leave everyone a little dissatisfied but knowing they did what had to be done. But when one party controls both Houses of Congress and the White House, the process can be used as an exercise in unilateral power, if the party can hold together. Clinton could barely hold his party together in 1993, but did manage to get through Congress, using the reconciliation process, the sweeping budget bill of 1993. This bill not only raised taxes and cut spending; it also reduced taxes for the working poor and created various new programs, such as Empowerment Zones to encourage jobs in poor urban and rural areas, and the Direct Student Loan program, which also saved money. Because no Republicans would support the bill, they were completely cut out of the process, and as a result, much of what was in the bill did not get much public scrutiny, and in the end, the decisions were being made by must a half-dozen or so Senate and House chairmen. But at least that reconciliation lived up to the basic purpose for which the process was created -- improving fiscal discipline.

Bush/DeLay have taken full advantage of the power of reconciliation and pushed through both their giant tax cuts under this process, along with much else. That means that much of the Senate, most Republicans as well as all Democrats are essentially passive bystanders to a process that reverses the normal rules of the Senate. And then, on bills that are not pushed through the reconciliation process, a different tactic is used: the Republicans push through the Senate a bill that they have no intention of fighting for in conference, and then they force the votes on the conference report. So, for example, the Republicans had the Senate pass an energy bill last year that was the same bill that had been passed by the Democrats when they controlled the body. Democrats had voted for it before, so they felt they had to again; Republicans voted for it on the explicit assurance that it would come back from conference in different form. Which it did, of course, the lobbyists and conferees having quietly written the "compromise" as they wished. A conference report can be filibustered but it cannot be amended, and with just a day to go before the end of the congressional session, a filibuster was equivalent to a "no" vote. So the Senate never got an opportunity to deal with anything on the energy bill other than to vote yes or no on a bill they had seen only hours earlier.

When most of the Senate's business is done under these conditions, the problem is that Senators get no opportunity to be Senators. They never learn to form bipartisan coalitions. They never learn to compromise. They don't get to figure out creative ways to at least get a vote on their pet idea. The majority of them are pawns, in the same way that the majority of House members of both parties are pawns, biding their time. The only mystery is why Senators put up with this.

And with so much of the Senate's business closed off to normal debate, there is increasingly just one area where Senators get to exercise some of their rights: nominations. But with all the focus of the Senate on nominations, matters only get worse, because nominations are, always, an ugly scene. You can block them, you can research the hell out of them, you can harass them in committees, you can create a media firestorm, but that's all. You can't amend a nomination or find a compromise or offer an alternative. If the president does not seek the "advice and consent" of minority-party Senators, and makes hugely controversial nominations, then the ugly dimension of the Senate gets far worse, and that's what we're seeing today.

The good news is that the Senate is an adaptable institution, and the current climate was created by deliberate choices by Senator Frist, who, like the president, seems to think he's some kind of CEO. Those choices can be undone, and probably will be.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on May 20, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

Religious Freedom in Texas

The news that the state of Texas has decided that the Unitarian/Universalist church no longer qualifies as a legitimate religion like Scientology, because it does not require that its adherents profess belief in a higher being, says a lot about Texas but also brought to mind something I learned some time ago about religious freedom. (For the full article about the Texas decision, see this entry on Garalog, which happens to be my boss's blog, about which more later.)

A decade ago, in DC, our downstairs neighbors, who lived in a tiny half-basement apartment, were a lovely, frail couple in their late 80s/early 90s. The first thing we noticed about them is that they seemed to wear only purple. I speculated that they were Theosophists, although I had only the vaguest idea what Theosophists were or even if there were any left from the era of Yeats and Madame Blavatsky. But I wasn't too far off the mark. As we got to know them better, we learned that they were adherents of a religion called "I Am." "I Am" was a huge fad of the late 1930s, a prototype of New Age faiths, founded by one Guy Ballard, who claimed that he had met various inspirational figures when climbing Mount Shasta, including notably the Archangel Gabriel and Saint Germain but also Hindu deities and "Ascended Masters" from almost every other faith. He also claimed to have been George Washington in a past life, and that his wife had been Benjamin Franklin.

"I Am" had a large temple in Chicago, which may still exist, as well as a presence in Mount Shasta, and, now, a web site or two as well as the requisite anti-"I Am" site. In addition, there was a small temple in DC -- a townhouse around the corner from us, which we had never noticed because the words "I Am" above the door were in white letters against a white background. (The temple is still there, on north side of the block of Calvert Street between the bridge and Connecticut Avenue. ) We also learned that the wearing of purple was only for healing purposes. Purple represented "The Violet Consuming Flame" of well-being. Later, the two decided that they needed to return to Mount Shasta, and embarked on a journey by bus and train, and the last we heard of them was a postcard telling us they had made it safely back to their spiritual home.

But the most interesting thing I learned about "I Am" was that it led to one of the most important freedom-of-religion cases in our history. Mr. Ballard was prosecuted for mail fraud and making false claims, on the grounds that his claim to have met Gabriel and Saint Germain on the foothills of Mount Shasta were demonstrably false. In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that no jury or government agency can ever be asked to decide the truth or falsehood of a religious belief. That may seem obvious, but it was evidently not at the time, and apparently it is not obvious in Texas. Here's the key section of Justice Douglas's opinion in United States vs. Ballard (1944):

The First Amendment has a dual aspect. It not only ?forestalls compulsion by law of the acceptance of any creed or the practice of any form of worship but also safeguards the free exercise of the chosen form of religion. Thus the Amendment embraces two concepts, freedom to believe and freedom to act. The first is absolute but, in the nature of things, the second cannot be. Freedom of thought, which includes freedom of religious belief, is basic in a society of free men. West Virginia State Board of Education by Barnette [1943]. It embraces the right to maintain theories of life and of death and of the hereafter which are rank heresy to followers of the orthodox faiths.

Heresy trials are foreign to our Constitution. Men may believe what they cannot prove. They may not be put to the proof of their religious doctrines or beliefs. Religious experiences which are as real as life to some may be incomprehensible to others. Yet the fact that they may be beyond the ken of mortals does not mean that they can be made suspect before the law. Many take their gospel from the New Testament. But it would hardly be supposed that they could be tried before a jury charged with the duty of determining whether those teachings contained false representations. The miracles of the New Testament, the Divinity of Christ, life after death, the power of prayer are deep in the religious convictions of many. If one could be sent to jail because a jury in a hostile environment found those teachings false, little indeed would be left of religious freedom.

The Fathers of the Constitution were not unaware of the varied and extreme views of religious sects, of the violence of disagreement among them, and of the lack of any one religious creed on which all men would agree. They fashioned a charter of government which envisaged the widest possible toleration of conflicting views. Man's relation to his God was made no concern of the state. He was granted the right to worship as he pleased and to answer to no man for the verity of his religious views. The religious views espoused by respondents might seem incredible, if not preposterous, to most people. But if those doctrines are subject to trial before a jury charged with finding their truth or falsity, then the same can be done with the religious beliefs of any sect. When the triers of fact undertake that task, they enter a forbidden domain. The First Amendment does not select any one group or any one type of religion for preferred treatment. It puts them all in that position. Murdock v. Pennsylvania [1943]. As stated in Davis v. Beason [1890], ?With man's relations to his Maker and the obligations he may think they impose, and the manner in which an expression shall be made by him of his belief on those subjects, no interference can be permitted, provided always the laws of society, designed to secure its peace and prosperity, and the morals of its people, are not interfered with.?? So we conclude that the District Court ruled properly when it withheld from the jury all questions concerning the truth or falsity of the religious beliefs or doctrines of respondents?

Posted by Mark Schmitt on May 20, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"The Wrong Morons"

An article in the Financial Times mentioned this
editorial yesterday in the Army Times newspaper, but I haven't seen it cited anywhere else, so I thought I would post it here:

Published: May 17, 2004

Editorial: A failure of leadership at the highest levels

Around the halls of the Pentagon, a term of caustic derision has emerged for the enlisted soldiers at the heart of the furor over the Abu Ghraib prison scandal: the six morons who lost the war.

Indeed, the damage done to the U.S. military and the nation as a whole by the horrifying photographs of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi detainees at the notorious prison is incalculable.

But the folks in the Pentagon are talking about the wrong morons.

There is no excuse for the behavior displayed by soldiers in the now-infamous pictures and an even more damning report by Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba. Every soldier involved should be ashamed.

But while responsibility begins with the six soldiers facing criminal charges, it extends all the way up the chain of command to the highest reaches of the military hierarchy and its civilian leadership.

The entire affair is a failure of leadership from start to finish. From the moment they are captured, prisoners are hooded, shackled and isolated. The message to the troops: Anything goes.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on May 11, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

More on Anonyspin

Thanks to Kevin Drum and Michael Crowley for pointing out an explanation that I had missed for the silly little phrases that now litter anonymous quotes in the Washington Post particularly, such as, "...asked not to be named in order to speak more candidly," which tend to give pure White House spin the feel of revealed truth.

Apparently the Post initiated a policy under which quotes from unidentified sources must be justified by an explanation of why the speaker did not want to be named. This has been discussed before, but I must have missed it. I guess that's a reasonable policy , but the results in practice show that it's not exactly empowering the reader. It's like asking people in a job interview to identify their greatest weakness: "I just can't be satisfied unless a job is done right."

But imagine if there was a kind of truth serum involved, and reporters were absolutely required to identify the real, real reason a quote is anonymous:

"...said an official, who asked not to be named because he wanted to create the impression that perhaps the speaker was someone important or someone who was actually in the room when the decision was made, rather than a deputy press secretary reading from a sheet of talking points."


"...said an official, who asked not to be named, because he still expects that the cabinet member he just betrayed will take him in as a partner in the lucrative consulting business they intend to start when they leave the administration."

Posted by Mark Schmitt on May 8, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Nonsense About Nader

Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman plays an important role: He is an intellectual provocateur, putting forward big ideas that have the power to change the way we think about basic issues of social justice, constitutional interpretation, or democracy, but that have dozens of practical obstacles. His proposal for "Patriot Dollars," vouchers given to every citizen to make political contributions, is one such example -- full of problems, but nonetheless, a great contribution to our thinking about fairness. In an op-ed in the New York Times this week an entirely theoretical Ackerman proposal is unfortunately presented as if it were a serious proposal to deal with the outside possibility that Ralph Nader would again throw the election to George W. Bush.

What Ackerman proposes is that in states where Nader's name appears on the ballot, instead of offering a slate of electors committed to vote for him in the electoral college, he should choose the same names as the Kerry slate of electors. By this mechanism, he claims, a voter could cast a vote for Nader and yet have it count on behalf of Kerry. The merits of this, Ackerman says, would be that "in effect, he would be enabling his supporters to rank their choices: Mr. Nader first, Mr. Kerry second."

If Ackerman's proposal worked, it would create something that looks a little like Instant Runoff Voting, which is the preferred reform of some Nader supporters. Under IRV, voters can choose a first and second choice and, if their first choice is not among the top two, the second vote will be counted.

I oppose Instant Runoff Voting because it is of no value to achieving the goals its proponents claim. It would not create meaningful third parties, but instead encourages purely symbolic candidacies and symbolic votes. The vote for Nader is merely a gesture before voters turn, on the second ballot, to the real choice, that between Kerry and Bush. I believe that such symbolism discourages voters from developing political maturity and recognizing that, in a democracy, they don't always have their own perfect choice. To the extent that Ackerman's proposal creates something similar to IRV -- and it's not quite the same, because it assumes that Nader's votes should go to Kerry, rather than giving the voter the choice -- it is similiarly flawed. Voters need to understand, without any distraction, that if you want John Kerry and not George W. Bush to be president, you vote for John Kerry. Period.

But the real problem with Ackerman's proposal is an embarassing practical and legal flaw. He deals with only one hypothetical objection to his proposal: That electors are now generally pledged to vote in the Electoral College for the candidate on whose ballot they appeared. This is not mandated by the Constitution, was not the practice before 1800, and on a few occasions electors have defected to support a different candidate. But that's only relevant to Nader if he actually wins a state. Yes, it's possible that if Nader won a state, his electors from that state could argue that they have a right to vote for Kerry if they want to. This would have been a good solution for candidates like George Wallace in 1968, who won five Southern states. But Ralph Nader isn't going to win any states, so why are we talking about this?

The problem that Ackerman just glides over is that votes for Nader and votes for Kerry in a single state are not going to be aggregated, even if their slates have the same people on them. A vote for the Kerry slate is a vote for the Kerry slate; a vote for Nader is a vote for Nader. If Bush wins the plurality of votes in a state, even if Nader and Kerry together win a majority, it is the Bush slate that will represent the state in the Electoral College. Here's how the Federal Election Commission's long document on the Electoral College describes the process: "Whichever party slate wins the most popular votes in the State becomes that State's Electors -- so that, in effect, whichever presidential ticket gets the most popular votes in a State wins all the Electors of that State." There is no precedent for adding the votes of several candidates in order to choose a single slate of electors. It might arguably be constitutionally permissible if a state wanted to operate that way (just as Maine and Nebraska choose not to award their electors on a winner-take-all basis), but it would be a true innovation, and nothing that Nader has any choice about.

And in forty states, two political parties are not permitted to put forward the same candidates, so that Kerry's electors could not appear on the ballot of another party or individual candidate even if the candidate was willing. However, in the statesthat do not ban "fusion," a party is allowed to cross-endorse the candidates of another party, which would allow the same slate of electors to appear twice on the ballot. In New York, the only state where fusion is both legal and commonplace, Kerry and Kerry's slate will appear on both the Democratic Party line and the line of the Working Families Party, a party formed with union and community organization support that is considerably more liberal and creative than the Democratic establishment. Likewise, Bush and his slate will appear on the line of the state's long-standing Conservative Party, and votes for the two Kerry and the two Bush slates will be aggregated. Often, as in the case of Senator Clinton's election in 2000, the votes on the Working Families Party line exceed the margin of victory, giving the party considerable and constructive influence over elected officials. Every so often, when a Democrat is objectionable or to provide an alternative to a corrupt process such as the selection of judicial candidates in Brookly, the WFP will run its own candidates or even endorse a Republican, an option which strengthens its influence.

So, in theory, I suppose that a party in a fusion state could put up its own candidate's name as the presidential candidate, and then cross-endorse the actual electors of another party's slate, in the same way that it might put up its own candidate for governor but endorse Democrats for lower offices. It would be bizarre and would surely seem misleading, but would have the effect Ackerman is seeking. It would require an actual party with a standing presence on the ballot, something Nader's never been interested in, and it would require the candidate and party to actually want to not spoil the election, which seems to be the opposite of Nader's intentions.

But the fact is that fusion alone achieves much of what Nader and Ackerman say they want to do, and much more as well. By voting for Kerry on the WFP line, I simultaneously vote against Bush and also send a signal to the Democratic establishment that I prefer a more progressive voice. And, in addition, I help to build a participatory civic institution that I hope will have a long life in this state. That's why fusion, rather than IRV or Ackerman's proposal, is a valuable political reform. However, it's also a reminder that fixing democracy isn't just a matter of changing the rules. In most of the states that allow fusion, it is rarely practiced and its full potential goes unrealized.

Ackerman says that "the choice is Ralph Nader's" if he wishes to run without spoiling the election for Kerry. In fact, the only choice Nader has, if he does not want to help Bush, is to not run. The choice is with voters, who should simply not sign his petitions or vote for him, and with the press, which should stop taking him any more seriously than they would any other self-aggrandizing crackpot.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on May 7, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Spinonymous? Anonyspin?

I've never objected in general to anonymous sources in newspaper articles. Most stories that provide real new information involve some sources who are taking a chance by telling their story, and that goes double for those in a system as closed and intolerant of dissent as the Bush administration, just as it was in the Nixon administration.

Although anonymous sources are often assumed to be shakier and less trustworthy than those willing to put their name behind a statement and take responsibility for it, it's often the case that greater credibility attaches to an unnamed source, who is assumed to be acting independently in revealing the truth, than to the spin of an official spokesperson. It's the difference between, say, "White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the President was committed to the Middle East peace process," which is just the official position, and "an administration official who asked not to be named said that the President had expressed a strong commitment to bring peace to the Middle East." While both are baloney, the second sentence seems to be revealing something a little deeper and more real than the first.

The master practitioner of this art form was Henry Kissinger, the original "high-ranking administration offiical." But this administration, at every level, has mastered the art of using the anonymous quote to deliver pure vacuous spin, with the particular assistance of the Washington Post. Fairly often, for example, one finds sentences such as, "'The president believes our long-term economic outlook is bright and that Congress should make the tax cuts permanent to create jobs,' said an administration official who asked not to be named." Why not? What's the point of that? And why can't a reporter say, "Look, if you're just going to give me a pre-packaged soundbite from the press office -- or if you are the press office -- I'm not going to put your words in unnamed. Either stand behind it, or I'm just going to paraphrase."

Washingtonian magazine late last year published a good little rundown on who the unnamed sources usually are. Unbelievably, it's often the official spokespeople themselves.

More recently, I've noticed the proliferation of little phrases intended to give even a little more credibility to anonyspin: "...said an official who asked not to be named because his responsibilities do not include speaking to the press" is a phrase I've noticed a few times in the Post particularly. That creates the impression that the reporter is operating a little behind the scenes, finding the worker bees who know the real deal. I guess this is really just code that means it's not the press secretary or the agency spokesperson speaking. On the other hand, the official obviously is speaking to the press, and if the line he's pitching is just the standard Scott McLellan line, then why does it matter what his formal responsibilities are? He's speaking to the press and the nature of the quote makes it obvious that he's been authorized to do so.

And then a classic example this morning in the Post, although it is a minor footnote to the almost unbearable stories about torture at Abu Ghraib: "Bush is 'not satisfied' and 'not happy' with the way Rumsfeld informed him about the investigation into abuses by U.S. soldiers ..., according to the official, who refused to be named so he could speak more candidly."

But there's absolutely nothing "more candid" about these quotes. It was the line of the day, in every paper and on every morning news show: Bush was angry at Rumsfeld, and castigated him. I assume it's true, but for all we know it's not. The point is, it's the story that Scott McClellan and Dan Bartlett decided should be in the paper this morning. The official is hardly going to get fired for putting out the line of the day. Under those circumstances, I think there's no reason for the reporter to allow the quote to be anonymous, or for it to bear the subtle editorial endorsement that it is "more candid" because anonymous.

My guess is that these phrases are not the reporters' own emendations, but are carefully negotiated terms, under which the White House officials refuse to provide a quote unless it is anonymous and is given one of these endorsing phrases. What puzzles me is why the reporters seems to have no leverage in this negotiation. Why can't they just say, we don't need a quote under those conditions?

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


One of the small downsides of writing a blog is that you can never claim to have had an idea before someone else. If you had the idea, you should have written it -- what excuse is there? An editor sat on it? What editor? Trying to find more evidence to prove the thesis? It's a blog -- Who needs evidence?

So all I could do was say "Right On" when Kevin Drum put forward the compelling suggestion that Bush should be understood exactly as he wants to be known, as "the CEO President," adding

but the world is full to bursting with CEOs who have goals they would dearly love to attain but who lack either the skill or the fortitude to make them happen. They assign tasks to subordinates without making sure the subordinates are capable of doing them — but then consider the job done anyway because they've "delegated" it. They insist they want a realistic plan, but they're unwilling to do the hard work of creating one — all those market research reports are just a bunch of ivory tower nonsense anyway. They work hard — but only on subjects in their comfort zone. If they like dealing with people they can't bring themselves to read all those tedious analyst's reports, and if they like numbers they can't bring themselves to spend time chattering with distributors about their latest prospect.

I consider that one of the most insightful paragraphs that's been written about Bush yet, which is why the idea is catching on. I'm kicking myself, though, because I've had a draft blog post sitting around dated April 17 with the title, "The Bad CEO." I set it aside when I felt it was getting too tendentious, and that my argument depended on generalizations about corporate culture, and I don't know that much about life in corporations. But Kevin does, I believe, and his statement of the case is persuasive for its understanding of just what makes a bad CEO. And with his point as grounding, I'll try to salvage a little of what I wrote earlier.

Kevin strengthens my instinct that this is exactly the right way to understand the Bush presidency. Rather than trying to understand Bush in terms of his father, Nixon, Reagan, Harding, Taft, Grant, or some other presidential model, the books to read are the accounts of the failures of great American companies at the hands of incompetent leaders, like David Halberstam's The Reckoning or the books about the savings and loan crisis or the failure of IBM. And keeping the Bad CEO imagine in mind will be the way to defeat Bush. It's a familiar archetype to Americans, and it's exactly right. It helps you understand that he's not so much a born liar as a guy in so far over his head that he starts making things up to keep the stock price high. And he's not a moron, just a guy who would have made a perfectly competent regional vice president, but somehow had the right patrons and played golf at the right clubs, and wound up in the big office on the 35th floor instead.

What got me thinking about this a couple of weeks ago was a line in Condoleeza Rice's testimony to the 9/11 commission:

"If there was any reason to believe that I needed to do something... I would have expected to be asked to do it."

That line just crystallized her amazingly passive tone throughout her testimony, and also the tone of Bush's press conference that week.

For some reason, it brought to mind one of the most atrocious magazine articles I've ever read, one so bad that I still remember it fifteen years later, although it also had some insight. This was a New York Times magazine article, I think entitled simply CEO, from the previous era of the CEO cult, back in the late 1980s. In this magazine article, a writer followed the CEO of Avon Products around for several days, breathlessly chronicling all the tough choices and key decisions he had to make, much as Bob Woodward chronicles presidents. And yet what the article revealed, inadvertently, was that it is perfectly easy to sit at the top of a large organization, make dozens of "decisions" a day, and yet never really grapple with the issues the company faced. The Avon CEO's day consisted of meetings at which teams from various parts of the company essentially pitched him for authorization to spend more money or take more time on some project. The emotional high point of these heady days would come after lunch, when the CEO would ask his secretary to check the stock price, and if it was down, he would swear and slam his office door.

The article later became a book, which I didn't read, but I remember a review in which Joseph Nocera pointed out that neither the CEO nor the author seemed to show any recognition that "the company was a dog," since the business of selling cosmetics door-to-door didn't have much future. For all the decisions, the CEO was as helpless to change his company as the worst-paid, part-time salesperson.

I didn't have any interest in the cult of the CEO, and I've never worked in an organization so big that I didn't know the head of it, but it was still a revelation to me that someone could reach the top of an organization and yet be so completely passive and imprisoned within the assumptions of that organization's culture. There's all the bluster of leadership, all the "I'm the one who has to make the tough calls," all obsession with the stock price as if it's an impeccable barometer of success, but underlying it all, just drift, not mastery.

When I tried to write about this before, I struggled with the fact that Bush is not always such a passive figure. He drove the debate on tax cuts, he made the Iraq war happen despite every reason for it not to, he's forced Congress to act on issues such as Medicare prescription drugs that had been locked in partisan paralysis for years. But, as Kevin makes clear, the bad CEO isn't a lump. He has some subjects that he works hard at. He has some obsessions and pet projects. He has a constituency he favors, such as one division of the company to the expense of the others. And he's vulnerable to management consultants who spin grandiose solutions without any thought to the long-term consequences. In this light, Bob Woodward's description of the Pentagon's Douglas Feith, whose role in making the war happen seems larger than earlier realized, is revealing: “Feith has a high-pitched, insistent voice,” he writes. “He is articulate and has mastered the language of the management consultant, short, pithy sayings, what he called ‘big thoughts.’" (quoted by Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker.)

Understanding Bush as "the bad CEO" will have a positive effect on Democrats' language. Take, for example, a pet peeve of mine: The use of the phrase "failure of diplomacy" to describe Bush's pre- and post-war behavior, the phrase Daschle used. I think "failure of diplomacy" concedes far too much. The good CEO might be guilty of failures of diplomacy, of having a vision for change and pushing hard. The strong leader breaks some china, as they say. Diplomacy is namby-pamby and superficial. But if you think of Bush as the Bad CEO, you don't hesitate to call it what it is: a failure of leadership. Leaders persuade others, and leaders also absorb information and other points of view. They change direction in order to find the smoothest path to their goals. They react quickly to changes, to get ahead of them.

Kerry improved on Daschle a bit, charging Bush with "a failure of diplomacy, a failure of foreign policy, a failure of creative leadership." Still, there seems to be a hesitation about critiquing Bush as a leader -- it's the last of three items, it has to have an adjective, "creative," attached.

It takes a long time to realize that your strong, decisive leader is all bluster. But once people realize it, it's all over.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on May 6, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack