Blogging will resume on July 7, 2003. Please check back then.
Blogging will resume on July 7, 2003. Please check back then.
BATTING .100 AND DECLARING YOURSELF AN ALL-STAR
One of the oddest legacies of the Clinton years is how Republicans got off the hook for many false allegations about Clinton's morality and character. Whitewater, the alleged Vince Foster "murder," Troopergate, Filegate, Travelgate, the Chinese fundraising "scandal," allegations of involvement in the cocaine trade and other staples of right wing radio proved, in the end, to be a big zero. On all of these, Clinton emerged innocent of wrong-doing, although the controversies served their political purpose in tainting Clinton's image and thus making it harder for him to enact his agenda.
The reason why Republican sqawking about refuted scandals hasn't hurt them is simple: Monica Lewinsky. They finally got tangible proof that Clinton did something most people consider immoral. I think a lot of voters reacted by letting conservatives off the hook for other scandals. Their gut reaction was that Republicans weren't totally off-base because -- well looky here -- there was something
to it after all.
Republicans are now trying to pull off the same trick in Iraq. It's been established that many claims the administration made before the war were false. The links between Hussein and Al Qaeda were phony. The Niger Uranium sale documents were forgeries. The "smoking gun" aluminum tubes turned out to have nothing to do with developing nuclear weapons. The mobile trailers turned out not to be biological laboratories, according to a British government investigation.
But Republicans are looking for one tangible item they can use to argue that Saddam Hussein had some weapons of mass destruction in the first place, an item such as the centrifuge buried in a Baghdad rose garden. Of course, centrifuges were not the original issue. Of course, the discovery of one item should not excuse the numerous mistatements the administration made in misleading the American people on a decision of, literally, life and death importance. But if the administration finds such an item, they will argue, "See? We were right. Hussein had weapons." And many people again will give the Republicans a pass on all the other false statements, just like they gave a pass on the false allegations made about Clinton.
It must be nice to so dominate political debate that you only have to be right one time out of ten to win.
THE FOLLY OF SEEING WHAT YOU WANT TO SEE
Too often we see what we want to see rather than the way things are. But that mistake is fatal in wartime. Before starting the war against Iraq, the administration saw what it wanted when contemplating post-war reconstruction.
As Tom Friedman says
: “The Bush Pentagon went into this war assuming that it could decapitate the Iraqi army, bureaucracy and police force, remove the Saddam loyalists and then basically run Iraq through the rump army, bureaucracy and police. Wrong. What happened instead was that they all collapsed, leaving a security and administrative vacuum, which the U.S. military was utterly unprepared to fill.”
He’s not alone
in this opinion. "The expectations at the Pentagon were that [government] ministries would emerge unscathed" and take over the running of the country, one senior U.S. official told me when I was in Baghdad. No one foresaw the virtual collapse of many ministries, nor their physical destruction by looters. . .
The administration wanted to see an Iraq that could be governed easily because that was the only way they could justify pulling the trigger. Recognizing that the aftermath involved either allowing an Islamic theocracy to arise or overseeing a long, costly reconstruction might have discouraged them, not to mention Senators and voters, from invading in the first place.
But you can’t duck reality
forever. "I thought we were holding our own until this week, and now I'm not sure," said retired Air Force Col. Richard M. Atchison, a former intelligence officer for the Central Command, the U.S. military headquarters for the Middle East. "If we don't get this operation moving soon, the opposition will continue to grow, and we will have a much larger problem."
Even on the specific issue of oil production, the reality is not as rosy
as the administration projected. "Iraq's wells are pumping about 750,000 barrels of oil a day, a level that is little improved from a month ago and is far below the country's prewar production of about 2.8 million barrels a day. U.S. officials, who had predicted that prewar production would be reached by September, now say that won't occur until at least mid-2004."
In her book, The March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman describes how policies that seem irrational in retrospect were pursued because decision-makers had blinded themselves to facts they did not want to accept. One example she uses is the American prosecution of the War in Vietnam. For those who think that analogies between Iraq and Vietnam are ill-founded, analyst Mohammed Hasan’s agreement is chilling. He thinks the analogy fails because prospects for American success are far worse
in Iraq than they were in Vietnam. "In South Vietnam, the Americans had a supporter army of 1 million Vietnamese, a network of Vietnamese agents and policemen and a certain social base, limited but existent. In Iraq, there is no such base."
The only way to avoid calamity is for the administration to recognize that its initial vision for reconstructing Iraq was gravely distorted. Looking at the situation as it is now, the administration must make one of two choices. Either it will have to throw together an interim government rapidly and hand over power as quickly as possible, or it will have to send many more troops and expend much more money for years to pull off a reconstruction reminiscent of Germany or Japan. Because the administration did not do the political groundwork necessary to reconcile the American people to the second option before the war started, and because it has demonstrated an unyielding preference for doing things on the cheap, the administration should probably pick the first alternative. But either choice would be better than what we are seeing now – a "worst of both worlds" scenario with too few resources to get the job done right, but too much intrusion into the lives of the Iraqi people to avoid instigating rebellion.
GRASS ROOTS, NOT FERTILIZER
As I posted earlier
, it's puzzling how inert many Democratic elected officials have become. It's not like they don't have a wealth of opportunities to blast the administration on issues like the mammoth deficit, lay offs, and the Case of the Missing WMDs. Terry McAullife illustrated the problem in a Daily Kos' interview
, when he mentioned putting together a photo op in Minnesota about all the jobs lost in the State since Bush took office. When Kos asked why McAullife couldn't get any elected officials to join in, McAullife said, "I guess they're not as aggressive as we are."
The problem is money. The majority of big money contributors to the party are moderate/centrist business interests. They generally do not share the anger toward Bush prevalent among leftist grass roots Democrats. If elected Democratic officials weren't afraid of alienating their fundraising base, more from safe districts would be aggressive in taking Republicans to task.
The Democratic presidential candidates are different for one reason: the unexpected emergence of Howard Dean. With little to lose, Dean threw verbal hand grenades at the administration early and often, earning the admiration of many partisan Democrats. A couple months ago, the buzz among Beltway Democrats was that Dean had tapped into an anger among the grass roots at their own leadership. To keep pace, other presidential candidates began chiming in.
In his kickoff speech
, Dean made his grass roots tactics a plank in his substantive platform. He is saying that the politics of grass roots activism are tightly tied to the nature of the policies Democrats can champion. His implicit premise is that the standard approach of appeasing business interests hamstrings Democrats; it prevents them from presenting the stark alternative to the administration required to motivate the base and those who would not otherwise bother to vote.
It is this approach, rather than his location on the political spectrum, that makes it appropriate for Dean to quote the late Sen. Paul Wellstone about representing the "Democratic wing of the Democratic party." For Senator Wellstone used to say he chose to wage a grass roots campaign and expand the total number of voters rather than fight a fundraising war to show more ads in an attempt to garner 50% plus 1 of an ever shrinking electorate.
This is certainly a bold move, full of risks. But if Democrats keep doing what they have been doing, they are unlikely to change the dynamic whereby the political debate keeps veering to the right and Democrats chase it in an elusive quest for the "center." Casting off from some of their traditional fundraising sources and embracing their grass roots may be the only way to invigorate the vast bulk of people whom they seek to represent.
THE NEW TRADITIONALISTS
In yesterday's post, I mentioned how John Edwards and Howard Dean recently articulated powerful themes for their candidacies. The two themes differ from each other but are strikingly similar in their heavy reliance upon American tradition. John Edwards quotes from President Andrew Jackson, "Equal opportunity for all, special privileges for none." Howard Dean calls for a "Great American Restoration," echoing the Great Awakening of the early 18th Century, and quoting from Puritan Minister John Winthrop.
To some extent, invoking tradition is a standard Democratic tactic. Since 1968, Republicans have had an advantage over Democrats in public perception as the party closer to traditional American values. Whether that perception is accurate or not is another matter, but it has a major impact. Consequently, Democratic presidential candidates go out of their way to quote from American historical icons and drape themselves in the language and images of political days gone by, all in an effort to innoculate themselves against charges that they are counter-culture liberals in rebellion against the American mainstream. President Clinton's call for a "New Covenant" is a recent example of how this works.
But Edwards' and Dean's references to tradition also have a deeper significance, for they are not mere lip service to head off anticipated political charges by Republicans. Dean cites communitarian traditions against recent tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the few while necessitating program cuts that harm the many. He also cites Jefferson and Adams to argue that America's role in the world should not be imperial but exemplary of the operation of democracy and the rule of international law. Similarly, Edwards contrasts his belief in the traditional values of honesty and fair play against the insider benefits and crony capitalism practiced by the administration. He also contrasts his belief in the traditional value of hard work against the way in which the administration is changing the tax code to favor those who live off financial instruments over those who live off paychecks.
In other words, Edwards and Dean really are asking to turn the clock back. Not very far. Just to about 1999 or so. Sure they have some new proposals, such as Dean's health care plan and Edward's tax credits for home buying, but it's easy to see those programs as extensions of Clinton's policies. Indeed, they look like policies Clinton favored but couldn't get enacted.
Their campaigns are based on the argument that the administration is the one doing something new, dangerously new. That the administration touts itself as conservative, a word which in one sense means those who want to conserve worthy traditions from the past, merely shows the paucity of our political nomenclature. As Edwards and Dean say, this administration is breaking from traditions that have served us well; it is not conservative in this sense at all. Rather, it is left to Democrats to fight to preserve many of the things that have made America what it is today.
FINDING A THEME
As I posted below
, I believe three Democratic candidates have the potential to pose a strong challenge to Bush. In no particular order, they are John Edwards, Howard Dean, and John Kerry. But I stress the word potential because none of them is there yet. As I said in the linked post, each is slogging along a learning curve and should be a better national candidate six months from now than today.
One important step any successful candidate for the nomination must make is to find a winning theme. Even at the Senatorial level, you can get away with a laundry list of policy positions and criticisms of the opposition. But at the Presidential level, the competition is so fierce, and the importance of communicating well is so heightened, that you have to hit upon a theme that sends a meta-message that gives added signficiance to each policy proposal.
The classic example of theme failure in a Democratic primary was 1984. Gary Hart caught fire as the candidate of "new ideas," but when Walter Mondale challenged him to tell us, "Where's the beef?" Hart couldn't do it. As a result, his theme of new ideas became an embarassment, unusable. He ended up losing to Mondale's theme of carrying the torch for traditional New Deal/Great Society Democrats. (Unfortunately, Mondale's theme had no hope of prevailing in the general election, but I'm talking about theme as a prerequisite to winning the nomination).
Before this week, I really hadn't seen any workable themes developed on the Democratic side. Sure, Gephardt came out with a universal health coverage proposal, but that's just a policy position. But this week two of my top three candidates developed a theme.
First came an important speech by John Edwards
. He did a masterful job of weaving together his critiques of the Bush administration and his policy proposals. His theme is that he will defend the traditional American way of work and the rules that make it possible against the Republican attempt to instill a regime of crony capitalism that is as un-American as it is ineffective.
Second came Howard Dean's kickoff speech
. He also did a masterful job of weaving togehter his critiques and his policy proposals. His theme is that all concerned Americans must take grass roots action to take power back from institutional interests so that we can return to striving for traditional American ideals.
Well, two out of three ain't bad. A recent John Kerry speech
merely lists a standard laundry list of Democratic critiques and policy proposals. But he still has plenty of time to find his theme. C'mon Senator Kerry. Find your voice and give us a top tier theme trifecta.
I haven't had time to digest the Supreme Court opinions that came down today. Their combined length would make Tolstoy proud. But I think much of the political argument about affirmative action comes down to how you frame the issue. If you frame it from the point of view of the white kid who gets shut out a top school, many will think affirmative action should not be allowed. If you frame it from the point of view of the minority kid who gets in, you engender some sympathy for racial prejudice.
Unfortunately, this second frame is unlikely to win majority adherence. Some people are swayed by it, but the sad fact is that many minority people will relate to the minority kid in the second frame but many white people will relate to the white kid in the first frame. In a majority rule electoral system, that is not a winning strategy for proponents of affirmative action.
The winning frame is to take the point of view of the institution trying to do its own job better. In other words, if an institution such as a university believes that obtaining a racially diverse student body in the context of other forms of diversity allows it to be a better university, it becomes difficult to argue that such a practice shouldn't be allowed.
Nor are universities the only institutions that find it in their own interest to practice affirmative action. The Republican convention in 2000 displayed nearly every African-American Republican face in existence to reach out to that community. Many large corporations would not think of having a marketing department lacking a fair cross-section of minorities because they want to market to those communities effectively. From all appearances, the Army could use all the offspring of Middle Eastern immigrants it can get in its officer corps to help it figure out how to navigate in that murky part of the world.
To argue that such institutions shouldn't be allowed to engage in affirmative action, one has to take the position that either (a) the institution can account for every diversity factor in existence except race or (b) the institution simply doesn't know what's in its own best interests. The first position is asking the institution to blind itself to a significant reality. The second position would be an unusual one for traditional conservatives to take, an argument that the government knows better than the institution itself what best serves the institution's own interests. That's why the winning frame for affirmative action proponents focuses on the institution, not the applicants.
FEAR AND HOPE AFTER 9/11
A political science professor once said that, when you boil down political philosophies to their most fundamental component, the left operates from hope while the right operates from fear. It may sound like an overgeneralization or a gross simplification, but apply it to a wide range of policy positions and see for yourself if there is something to it.
A problem with the administration’s post-9/11 approach to the Middle East is that it is based principally on fear. The attack on Afghanistan was based on fear of another Al Qaeda attack. The attack on Iraq was based on fear of Saddam destabilizing the region, principally by providing weapons of mass destruction to terrorists or others who would use them against ourselves and our allies.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking fear, the primal emotion that keeps us alive. I certainly favored the attack on the Taliban, for example. Without fear, people or entities would soon perish from taking too many risks. But fear is only one side of the equation. It represents the stick we use to try to get others to change their behavior, as in, “Let the inspectors roam freely or we will attack you.” This approach is designed to alleviate our fear and instill fear in the other by making him change his behavior to avoid the threat he fears.
An effective strategy, however, usually involves carrots as well as sticks, hope as well as fear. This administration, however, doesn’t seem to do hope. Rather, its world-view is based upon the same foundation as its ideology: fear.
This shortcoming has concrete consequences for rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan. The administration talks about democratizing those countries, but the rhetoric rings hollow. For example, the administration won’t let local elections take place
even where conditions seem ripe for them. Similarly, the administration gives every sign that it will decide the future of Iraq’s economic resources before
Iraq has a government in place to make those decisions.
When the United States helped rebuild Germany and Japan, we did so in the context of a policy based on hope as well as fear. The hope was for a new world order where liberal democratic capitalism would become the standard form of government. These democracies would operate in a framework of international law maintained through the United Nations so that peace would ultimately reign because aggressive wars would be prevented by collective action.
That language of hope had a tremendous appeal for many people around the world. Ultimately, it proved overly ambitious in the sense that we have never gotten there. But the appeal to hope was a key factor in getting us as far toward a world made up of genuine democracies as we have gone. The administration knows how to mouth the words of democratization, but they can’t set it to the music of hope. Without appealing to people’s hopes for a better future, the project to democratize the Middle East cannot succeed because, in that event, people will merely look to avoid what they fear, not to build what they hope for.
MARK SHIELDS ON THE DLC VS. LIBERALS
Much has been written lately abou the disagreements between the Democratic Leadership Conference and Democratic liberals. But Mark Shields got to the heart of it
MARK SHIELDS: I think after every election defeat a political party splits into two factions-- the shirts and the skins. The shirts say this reason we lost is that we didn't stick strong enough to our core beliefs. Conservative Republicans said that after a defeat.
JIM LEHRER: They said that after Clinton won.
MARK SHIELDS: That's right. The skins say the reason we lost is we didn't reach out to those folks in the middle. We've become too ideological. That's what the Democrats are going through right now. That's what the Republicans went through. The losing party always thinks the strongest candidate in the other party is a moderate. I always thought Howard Baker. David always thought Scoop Jackson. The party has just never nominated either one.
: Another word I can’t pronounce.
: Cures whatever ails you.
Axis of Evil
: Tom Daschle, Nancy Pelosi, and Gray Davis.
: The guys who produced my economic policy.
: The guys who produced my economic estimates.
American Petroleum Institute
: The guys who produced my environmental policy.
: A relative of the unicorn, the griffin, and other useful myths.
: Useful for dealing with both nosy neighbors and calls for investigations.
: A 1% rebate on benefits given to corporate sponsors.
: Those who follow me.
: Those who don’t.
THE POLITICS OF NORQUIST’S GRAND PLAN
Big Kahuna Republican anti-tax activist Grover Norquist spilled the beans in an Op-Ed piece
about the Republican’s long-term strategy for cutting taxes. David Broder elaborated
the ramifications. Essentially, Norquist states that Republicans can take advantage of the fact that the House of Representatives has been gerrymandered to their benefit for the rest of the decade and the composition of the states achieves the same result in the Senate. He explains that Republicans will approach their ideal taxation system step-by-step, avoiding the political defeat that often faces ambitious comprehensive bills, such as the Clinton Health Care proposal. At the end of the day, however, all taxes will be eliminated on financial earnings – including capital gains, dividends, and estate taxes. Federal taxation on income will be reduced to one flat percentage, applied only to wages and salaries.
The bright guys at New Republic’s blog quote this part of Norquist’s piece: "The political goal is to unite all taxpayers. When taxpayers are divided into different tax brackets, they can be mugged one at a time through the "divide, isolate and tax" strategy that Clinton pursued when he promised to tax "just the top 2 percent" of earners."
Then they wonder "What's so magical about "uniting all taxpayers" at the same rate? If someone like Bill Clinton could come along at a time when the average rich person faced a vastly higher tax rate than the average poor person and get a lot of political mileage out of promising to raise that rate even higher, why would it get harder to raise taxes on the rich once the average rich person was paying the same low rate as the average poor person? Intuitively, it seems like it would get a lot easier at that point, no?"
But they are missing something. Norquist’s “political goal” is simply a defense of the centrality of the flat tax to the Republican agenda. The difference between the past Clinton inherited and the future Norquist envisions is that, in the future, the flat tax will have already been written into law by a Republican Senate politically committed to its defense. They will no doubt use the filibuster as part of this defense. Accordingly, they can block changes to the tax code so long as they win the votes of about 10%
of the population. If Norquist’s vision is realized, even the support of an overwhelming majority of American voters will not suffice to return to the tradition of progressive taxation. Scary stuff, eh?
Majority Leader Frist’s recent rumblings about abolishing the filibuster don’t change the equation. It may well be mere saber-rattling. Even if not, any abolition will probably be limited to judicial appointments.
MORE TROUBLE FOR UNILATERALISTS
As I posted below
, the administration's desire to act unilaterally in foreign affairs is difficult to square with our need for allied peace-keeping troops in Iraq or hunger for $ 500 billion in annual capital flows from abroad. It's also difficult to square with our need for allied troops
to keep Afghanistan from descending further into anarchy.
But you would think even the administration would begin to see the contradiction between its unilateral boasts when it comes from the mouth of the President. Recently, he said the United States would not tolerate Iran's unacceptable nuclear program. When questioned how he would take action, he said
, The international community must come together to make it very clear to Iran that we will not tolerate construction of a nuclear weapon.
[Link via The Left Coaster
] You think he might notice that the international community is much less likely to come together on issues like this after we ran roughshod over its objections to invading Iraq. Is it asking too much for the administration to think one move ahead?
HOWIE KURTZ AND MYTHS ABOUT LIBERALS
You gotta admire Howie Kurtz's consistency in his Washington Post media column. He is closer to wrong 100% of the time than just about any other pundit I've read. Here's his take
on efforts by Al Gore and others to create a liberal cable and/or radio network:
One reason such efforts have fizzled is that too many liberals tend to be of the dull and earnest variety. Talking about eight-point plans to revive the economy or protect the environment doesn't quite have the entertainment pizzazz of Rush/O'Reilly/Hannity spouting off against big government and low morality. That's also why a spate of in-your-face conservative books have hit the best-seller lists.
Yeah, all those dull liberals just can't write a best-seller. That's why Michael Moore's book has been near the top of the best-seller lists for a year. Ditto for Al Franken's last. And Hillary Clinton's looks to rival their efforts.
More important, perhaps, is that there's a built-in conservative audience that feels alienated from what it views as the liberal media establishment of ABC-CBS-NBC-New York Times-Washington Post-CNN etc. They hungered for the alternative delivery system that talk radio and Fox provide. There may not be a comparable left-leaning audience that is deeply dissatisfied with the mainstream press.
That's why we on the left side of the blogosphere are so happy with media coverage that we call it the Mighty Wurlitzer or the SLCM (So-Called Liberal Media)
This ignores some of the past failures -- from Mario Cuomo on radio to Phil Donahue on MSNBC -- that haunt the graveyard of liberal media ventures. . . . If there was, more liberal radio hosts would undoubtedly be thriving.
Only Howie could blatantly overlook the fact that Donahue had the highest-rated show on MSNBC when he was cancelled and that his replacement hasn't come close to matching his numbers. As for Cuomo, even the guys at Clear Channel concluded that the problem with liberal talk radio shows was that they were sandwiched between a number of conservative ones. That stood about as much chance as putting a classical music program on a station otherwise devoted to hip-hop.
Well, let's look on the bright side. Howard Kurtz is a reliable contrary indicator. If he has grave doubts that a liberal network can succeed, then it's a sure-fire winner.
BUSH VS. THE WORLD
According to recent polls
, foreign attitudes toward America are souring rapidly. For anyone who agrees with Joseph Nye that soft power
helps secure America's position in the world, such a trend is deeply troubling.
Obviously, the run up to the attack on Iraq played a big part in this change. But at first glance, it may seem surprising that the administration won't even try to counteract the problem. It would have been easy enough for Bush to lay a wreath on the grave of the four German soldiers recently killed in Afghanistan while he was in Europe. Or he could have visited Lafayette's tomb when he was in France and talked about the debt the young United States owed to France in achieving independence. Or he could have visited Bosnia or Kosovo during his trip to Europe and equated multilateral efforts to build democracy there to our hopes for Afghanistan and Iraq.
Bush hasn't bothered to make these public relations gestures. At first glance, one might suspect that he thinks foreign attitudes toward the United States just don't matter very much. After all, he's gotten almost everything he wanted domestically without worrying about alienating Democrats. Why should he worry about alienating foreigners who can't even vote? :-)
But his real motivation may arise, as usual
, from politics. Bush's conservative base has long opposed a multilateral approach to foreign policy. Traditional conservatives are generally isolationist, and neoconservatives are determinedly unilateralist. There have been fewer lines sure to get applause from a Republican crowd during the last 40 years than a blistering attack on the United Nations. Bush clearly doesn't want to undercut himself with that base for something as evanescent as international opinion. (It's hard to think of instances where he has risked irritating that base even when the negative consequences were much more tangible).
Indeed, neoconservatives should generally see public relations moves to allay foreign concerns as negative. To the neoconservatives, one key to remaking the world is convincing foreign powers that we will act unilaterally. To the extent Bush tries to mollify overseas opinion, neoconservatives would be concerned that he is sending the message the U.S. will return to its multilateral traditions now that Saddam is out of the picture. From the neoconservative point of view, that would undercut the "demonstration effect" of recent wars, the message that the U.S. will feel free to come after rogue states no matter what the rest of the West has to say about it.
Obviously, I don't agree with this way of going about things. The administration's need for troops from other countries for peace-keeping
is becoming pressing. Plus, I would think Bush would want to stay on the good side of foreigners when we have to borrow $ 500 billion
per year from them to keep the economy going. There is still enough residual good-will toward the United States to get some peace-keeping troops and loans. But if the administration stays on this path, the day will come when those doors close.
MISREPRESENTING INTELLIGENCE ABOUT IRAQI WMDs
By far the best synthesis about the Bush administration's misrepresentations of the intelligence concerning Iraqi WMDs appears, in of all places, The New Republic
, which was a fervent supporter of the war.
THE MOVEON.ORG INTERNET PRIMARY
As I'm sure you've heard, the progressive internet site moveon.org
is staging an internet primary. If more than 50% of those registered vote for a candidate, moveon will endorse and raise money for that candidate. Moveon has raised a lot of money for progressive candidates in the past, so there is a lot at stake. Specifically, Howard Dean's campaign is taking this very seriously
I have mixed feelings about the Internet Primary. On the one hand, Ezra Klein
makes a great impassioned plea that it is time for internet progressives to get active. On the other hand, I need more time to see the different candidates in action before making a decision. Although I agree that internet progressives need to get active in this campaign, I just can't see that things will be terrible if they don't do so by June 30, 2003. But if you've already made your decision, I would encourage you to go to moveon.org and express it.
EXPLAINING DEMOCRATIC PARALYSIS
I've been wondering for some time now how to explain the fecklessness of national Democratic elected officials. They've been handed potent ammunition to use against the adminstration, such as the case of the missing WMDs, the exploding deficit, the worst employment recession since Hoover, Grover Norquist's admission of the long run plan to defund Social Security and Medicare, and much more. Yet, as a group, elected Democratic officials at the national level do little with all this. One can't help but recall Casey Stengal's plaintive cry upon watching the 1962 Mets practice, "Can't anybody here play this game?"
Explanations for this phenomenon typically fall into three large categories.
1. LIBERALS DON'T DO HATE
: A surprisingly large number of people attribute the lack of criticism from Democrats to the liberal mindset. According to this argument, liberals are by nature less sure of their convictions and more open to the idea that a competing view might have some merit than are conservatives. A variant of this argument is that liberals see things less in terms of absolutes and more in terms of shades of grey, which makes their critiques more nuanced but less punchy.
Poppycock. In saloon discussions, I haven't noticed liberals getting tongue-tied when expressing vitriol. In the past, say the late 60s and early 70s, nobody accused the left of being unable to express criticism in powerful language. More to the point, contemporary liberals like Jim Carville, Paul Begala, Paul Krugman, Eric Alterman, Nicholas Kristoff, David Corn, Rik Hertzberg, Joe Conanson and many others routinely make devastating critiques of the administration and Republicans. The problem seems to be getting elected Democrats in the national spotlight -- like Daschle, Gephardt, and Pelosi -- to do the same.
2. DEMOCRATS ARE THE PARTY OF GOVERNMENT
: The argument here is that Democrats generally like government and, at the national level, were generally the majority in Congress for the last few decades. Under this view, they are more inclined to agree to compromises required to improve government than to simply throw rocks at it.
This argument is unconvincing as well. The Democrats haven't controlled the House of Representatives for around a decade. Given the rules in the House, and how it has been run
by its Republican masters, Democrats have next to no influence on policy. They have absolutely nothing to lose by throwing rocks and shouting, "No!" It is also telling that Democrats who are not in elective office, who presumably love government every bit as much as those in office, have no difficulty castigating the administration.
3. THERE'S NO MONEY IN IT
: The argument here is that Democratic office holders have to raise money to compete with Republicans. Although there are some sources -- such as union PACs, entertainment figures, government employees, and trial lawyers -- that favor Democrats, the party still has to raise a lot of money from business to stay competitive with Republicans. An example is the story of the staffer who told his Democratic Congressman that eliminating the estate tax would affect only a few hundred thousand people nationwide and then got the reply, "Yeah, but it affected every single person who came to my fundraiser yesterday." Elected Democrats cannot be too vituperative in criticizing administration measures, such as the first Bush Tax Cut, without alienating this fundraising source.
Sad to say, this explanation seems more plausible to me than the other two. For one thing, it would explain the tension developing between grass roots Democrats, who cheer every bit of anti-administration invective Howard Dean or Paul Krugman can muster, and the timid Democratic national leadership. For another thing, it would explain why so many proposals made by Senate Democrats are but pale shades of Republican ideas, such as, "Yeah, tax cuts would be good, but let's make them a little smaller and aimed a bit more towards the middle of the income spectrum."
If this explanation is true, the worst part is that changing the pattern will require something earth-shattering. If someone thinks they have a better explanation for current Democratic wimpiness, please e-mail me using the button to the right.
SEARCHING FOR A NEW ENDGAME IN IRAQ
It's becoming painfully obvious that the administration miscalculated how the endgame in Iraq would play out. As I posted below
, they planned on decapitating the Iraqi regime and installling some supporters like Chalabai to keep the governmental machinery working, but that plan has failed. The neoconservatives
, may be too deeply in the grip of their ideology to adapt.
But there is one very flexible mind in the Bush administration: Karl Rove. He was the one who convinced Bush to abandon his opposition to both accounting reforms and the formation of a Homeland Security Department when he saw the heat was getting too high. In fact, the dark genius was able to score political points while executing these flip-flops. He also convinced Bush not to follow the neoconservatives calling for an expansion of the Iraq conflict into Syria because he thought two wars were as much as the American voters could stomach. He might well be the one to craft a change in course to avoid a political disaster in Iraq.
What might such a shift in gears look like? One clue is the sudden emergence of the previously obscureAdnan Pachachi
, an 80 year old former Iraqi foreign minister. Another clue is in an article I lost track of, indicating that the armed forces are intensifying their efforts to prove through DNA analysis that Saddam Hussein died in an earlier missile strike.
What's the connection? I'm completely speculating, but coming up with definitive proof that Saddam died would make it much easier to hightail it out of Iraq. Under this scenario, we would announce that the job of liberation is largely done with the proven demise of Saddam while simultaneously handing over the reins to Pachachi. He would be installed as the chairman of an interim authority made up largely of some of the leaders we've been trying to get on a leadership council
anyway. With a guy like Pachachi at the helm, it wouldn't look like Iraq was evolving into a Shi'ite fundamentalist state, a result that would be political anathema to Rove. Rather, we could essentially declare victory and depart the field, a Bush/Rove specialty. (Just ask Karzai of Kabul how that works).
This outcome would be different than the original endgame plan because Pachachi would not simply start running Iraq like Chalabai and his cronies would. In fact, he couldn't because the Iraq governmental and economic structure that we thought would be largely intact has instead disintegrated. Installing Pachachi would merely be an interim step in taking our hands off and leaving Iraq to its fate, a fate that is likely to be pretty dark given its recent history.
In many ways, such an outcome would be very disappointing as a matter of policy. But for Bush's political standing, it would be preferable to the slow bloody transformation of Iraq into an American West Bank. And Bush's political standing is job one for Rove.
[Note: some of the sources referenced here were found via the invaluable Iraq Democracy Watch
. Start checking it out if you haven't already.]
THE SEMANTICS OF IMMINENT THREAT
Few things are more frustrating in political debate than seeing an issue get side-tracked into a semantic dispute. The phrase "imminent threat" is becoming the focus of just such a quibble.
The phrase has a long and important lineage. Traditionally, international law entitled a country to lstrike pre-emptively
at another that was making an "imminent threat" of attack. Obviously, if your neighbor started amassing troops along the border, you were entitled to hit him first rather than waiting until he had chosen the most auspicious moment to begin his offensive.
Many administration critics have argued that the war on Iraq was unjustified because Iraq did not present an imminent threat of attack upon the United States. Some administration defenders say the administration never claimed that Iraq presented such a threat. The debate often devolves into a battle of citations concerning which administration official said what when.
But what actually happened is fairly clear. The administration argued that we have entered a new era
, and thus what constitutes an imminent threat is different than it used to be. Under this view, the technological development of weapons of mass destruction and the ideological development of terrorists willing to use them to kill massive numbers of civilians means that the type of "imminent threat" necessary to justify a pre-emptive strike must be redefined to account for the new reality.
As an abstract matter, I doubt many people disagree. If we knew that a country had extensive weapons of mass destruction and was enthusiastic about distributing them to terrorists, few would disagree that immediate military action would be called for. At the other end of the spectrum, if we knew a country was twenty years away from developing weapons of mass destruction, almost no one would use that fact to justify an immediate attack.
The disagreement about the war on Iraq is not really an abstract disagreement about what constitutes an imminent threat. Rather, it is a disagreement about the particulars of Iraq. The administration claimed Iraq had substantial quantities of weapons of mass destruction and ties to terrorists who could use them. Critics maintained the opposite. On the evidence so far, the critics were right. The semantic squabble should not be allowed to obscure that basic fact.
THE MOST FUNDAMENTAL INTELLIGENCE FAILURE
The current controversy about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction is important
, but it primarily concerns the past. Its importance concerns whether the administration misled the country into war last fall and winter. But there is another intelligence failure that has consequences for our soldiers today and everyday: our mistaken view of how Iraqi society would respond to the toppling of Saddam.
Our failure to predict what would happen is clear to any fair-minded observer. Military officials freely admit
they were surprised by rampant looting and lawlessness. They greviously underestimated
the manpower and effort needed to reconstruct Iraq. Objectively, Gardner and Bodine were not fired because things were going according to plan.
My read is that the administration foresaw a completely different post-Saddam aftermath than they are facing. I think their original plan was to decapitate the Baathist regime by taking out a couple hundred of the top party members. Under the plan, the Iraqi government would continue to run largely as before, including the police, courts and other security elements. The administration would replace the top of the pyramid with an interim Iraqi authority based largely on an Afghanistani model. Chalabai would be the Iraqi Karzai, supported by representatives drawn from various elements, including Kurdish parties, Shia mullahs, and returned Iraqi expatriates.
The administration failed to foresee the collapse of the Iraqi government in an act of almost willful blindness. Where other authoritarian regimes have been eliminated -- in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan -- the descent into chaos has been rapid and difficult to reverse. Indeed, when Army Chief of Staff Shinseki predicted that we would need several hundred thousand troops to manage the reconstruction of Iraq, he was basing his opinion on these experiences. But the Rumsfeld clique thought they knew better, trying to do far too much with far too little.
As with the weapons of mass destruction, this intelligence failure seems to be the product of ideology. Part of the administration's mistakes in interpreting evidence concerning Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was that the administration just couldn't believe
that Saddam was the kind of guy who might destroy any such weapons. Similarly, it appears the administration thought Saddam was so clearly an heir of Hitler and Stalin that everyone would be so delighted by his departure that they would be eager to work with us. Unfortunately, the Iraqis don't seem to have shared this view.
Typically, ideologues either ignore facts that don't fit their ideology or contort facts contradicting their ideological assumptions into purported support for those assumptions. Because ideologies are often more a matter of faith than reason, they are difficult to disprove to those who have the will to believe. The neocon project is an expression of ideology. Unfortunately, that ideology is now foundering upon the shoals of reality.
GOVERNMENT BY CORPORATIONS, FOR CORPORATIONS
Many have already documented how House Majority Leader Tom DeLay allows corporate lobbyists to write legislation
in return for the heaps of cash they raise. Payback also comes in the form of legislation like that recently passed by the House of Representatives shifting most class action lawsuits
from state to federal courts.
This may seem like a relatively technical piece of legislation, but it would erect another major road block against efforts to punish corporate malfeasance. Federal courts are much more hostile to class actions than are state courts. Consequently, transferring these cases to federal court is an efficient way to kill most of them. And many big corporations rightly fear class actions because the threat of a large recovery by a nationwide class can compel even a behemoth to stop misconduct.
We've already seen what happens when we make it harder to sue big corporations. In the 1980s and early 1990s, securities class actions were brought against corporations and their accountants for failure to comply with federal securities laws. In the mid-1990s, they obtained legislation severely restricting such lawsuits. Largely freed from scrutiny, publicly traded corporations and their accountants pushed the envelope to see what they could get away with. Legally, they got away with almost everything, but disinformation and cooked books led to the meltdowns at Enron, Worldcom, Arthur Anderson, and elsewhere.
I used to think these shenanigans by big corporations and their congressional enablers would spark a political backlash. I thought a big scandal or economic downturn would get voters to punish corporate apologists at the ballot box. But now I have my doubts. The taxpayers had to pay hundreds of billions to bail out savings and loans in the 1980s because of bankers who played fast and loose with their ethical obligations. Californians are on the hook for tens of billions in energy bills because traders gamed the market. The accounting scandals at Enron and the rest have also cost employees and shareholders many billions and are retarding stock values generally to the tune of hundreds of billions more.
Yet there is no ground swell to crack down on corporate wrong-doing. Congress merrily continues on its way, making it ever harder to call corporations to account. Democracy thrives on course corrections when voters demand changes in response to highly publicized disasters. The sight of politicians feeling free to throw more boquets to corporate wrong-doers despite the financial disasters of the last two decades raises serious questions about whether our democracy still functions.
REVOLT OF THE TRADITIONAL CONSERVATIVES
I've been wondering when traditional conservatives will start parting company with Bush. I use the word traditional conservatives because I've never been quite sure what the word paleocon means. By traditional conservatives, I refer to those who believe in a small federal government, action by local or state government where government is necessary, and fiscal discipline. Traditionally, they tended toward isolationism or a cautious approach toward international affairs. They made up a huge chunk of the Republican party, guys like Robert Taft, Everett Dirksen, Gerald Ford, and Howard Baker.
The first rumblings of their discontent can be heard, especially over the War on Iraq. Traditional conservative Steve Chapman
argues that the war has caused more problems than it has solved. Traditional conservative James Pinkerton
calls the war an exercise in hubris. Traditional conservative William Lind
argues that the administration was either dishonest about WMD intelligence or too incompetent to use that intelligence properly.
The objections of traditional conservatives to the War on Iraq and the rest of the neocon project to remake the Middle East are fundamental. Traditional conservatism is based on a deep mistrust of the ability of governmental or bureaucratic planning to do more harm than good. This mistrust arises from a healthy, indeed overblown, respect for the law of unintended consequences and an inherent faith in the lessons learned by trial and error on a small scale. If they are true to their principles, traditional conservatives should have grave doubts that we can go to Iraq and set up a well-functioning society by sheer dint of want to. For pulling it off would demonstrate that their fundamental philosophy is flawed. If the efforts of a large government bureaucracy can perfect Iraq, similar efforts should improve life in the United States.
Iraq is not the only issue where the Bush administration is violating traditional conservative principles. Traditional conservatives don't believe in large deficits because profligate spending strikes them as inherently risky, but Bush is exploding
the deficit. Traditional conservatives believe in federalism and favor local government to avoid big bureaurcracies where possible, but Bush's friends are pushing to federalize
more and more activities that traditionally took place at the state and local level. Traditional conservatives took a libertarian view of the Bill of Rights as a check on excessive government power, but the Bush administration is encroaching
on those rights with gusto.
At some point, traditional conservatives should recognize that Bush is not one of them. Rather, he believes in strong action by the federal government to remake society in accordance with his vision. When that recognition comes, traditional conservatives will most likely decide to sit the next election out, or give the Democratic nominee a more open hearing than they have in memory.
DO THE DEMOCRATS HAVE A CHANCE AT THE WHITE HOUSE IN 2004?
A lot of Democrats despair of defeating Bush in 2004. No doubt it will be an uphill battle. As Mark Shields once said, every election that has an incumbent is essentially a referendum on the incumbent. If things start looking up -- if the economy booms, Saddam and Osama are captured, and Iraq turns out well despite the mess it appears at the moment -- Bush will win no matter what. But if things go poorly, the Democrats will have a chance.
But even when people are not happy with the incumbent, a challenger will lose if he doesn't get over a certain credibility hurdle. People have to be able to visualize him as a competent President. Neither Johnson in 1964 nor Nixon in 1972 were all that popular, but they won in landslides because the thought of their challengers in the Oval Office scared people.
Another complicating factor is the media infrastructure that conservative Republicans have created tilting the playing field sharply in their favor. A consummate politician like Clinton could still prevail in that environment, but a hapless campaigner like Gore could not. In other words, the credibility bar for challengers has gotten higher for Democrats, putting a premium on raw political talent.
Previous experience running for national office also plays a role. Michael Dukakis said that, no matter how much experience you have running statewide, the jump to running for national office is like going from Triple AAA ball to the majors. I've watched a lot of C-Span over the years, and even Clinton didn't seem Clintonian in 1991. Lieberman and Gephardt have been getting some good mileage in early appearances and debates simply because they've been here before.
On the other hand, they've already topped out in terms of receiving benefits from that prior experience. The other candidates will likely improve. Three in particular appear to me to be capable of developing to the point where they would have a realistic chance.
. He has the charm and charisma. He hasn't yet figured out how to express themes as opposed to policy points. If he does, he would be really good.
. He hasn't hit his stride yet, but I wouldn't underestimate a guy who creamed the incredibly popular Bill Weld in Mass.
. He's a little strident now, but take note of what William Saletan said at Slate
"Dean is far and away the most interesting player in the race. Not since Clinton have Democrats seen a talent like this. Here's Dean on the federal budget:
When Ronald Reagan came into office, he cut taxes, we had big deficits, and we lost 2 million jobs. When Bill Clinton came into office, he raised taxes without a single Republican vote; we balanced the budget; we gained 6 and a half million jobs. George Bush has already lost 2 and a half million. I want a balanced budget because that's how you get jobs in this country is to balance the books. No Republican president has balanced the budget in 34 years. …You had better elect a Democrat, because the Republicans cannot handle money. … We're the party of responsibility, and they're not.
"When you hear Dean talk like this, you wonder why no one else can make the party's case so simply. If more Democrats spoke this way, maybe they'd control a branch of government."
SELLING UNIVERSAL HEALTH COVERAGE
In debating the need for universal health care, one is often confronted with the argument that the uninsured can still get health care by going to the emergency room. You can counter by pointing out how inefficient this is or the negative consequences to the whole health care system when those costs have to be spread among a shrinking base of insured, but eyes start to glaze over.
The key move for liberals to make in the political argument over health care is based on studies like this one
. Two key conclusions of the study are that the mortality rate for the uninsured is 10-15% higher than for the insured, and that negative health consequences from lacking insurance start to show up even for people who were uncovered for only one to four year periods. A big part of the mortality problem for the uninsured is that they are more likely not to have heart problems or cancer discovered until it is too late to do much about it.
Liberals need to get the message out that being uninsured means disease and death for a lot of people who would be walking around if they had been insured. The myth that the uninsured do just fine because they can go to the emergency room is something that will have to be refuted if we are ever to win the battle to provide universal health care.
In a speech in Germany today, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pointed out that preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction requires a multi-lateral effort
. "“Take proliferation. It is not a problem that individual nations can handle by themselves,” Rumsfeld said
I don't know, Don. Do you think it will be easier or harder now to get international co-operation on non-proliferation after the way we handled the run up to the invasion of Iraq? I also wonder if our inability to produce Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction increases or decreases our international credibility when making claims about Iran's nuclear program.
Dear George, I write this note to you to tell you of our fix.
The politics of weapons are making me quite sick.
I thought for sure we’d find something amid the desert sands,
But weeks we’ve been in Baghdad now with nothing in our hands.
You know last fall we had to find the evidence real fast,
And so I sent my spies about to examine Hussein’s past.
The dossier that they produced I thought was a sure bet.
How could I know the bloody fools got it off the Internet?
With faces red, they went back to work so confident they’d find
The sort of horror weapons that would scare opponents blind,
But MI 6 used the wrong chap. He was a bloody boob.
He’d didn’t know his elbow from an aluminum tube.
The quest took him to Africa to find another clue.
Deep in the bush, he thought he’d got something that would do,
Revealing direct written proof Saddam bought some uranium,
But he didn’t check for forgery due to weakness in the cranium.
They’re looting now in Old Iraq. It’s made our job real tough.
All the buildings have been emptied of any worthy stuff.
Near Tuwaitha they used nuke waste. Now they shine like dayglo.
We’ve naught to show for all our work but a stupid Winnebago.
I can’t understand how I’ll survive now we have found bupkis.
Parliament thinks a P.M lied, they’re sure to start a ruckus.
Do you think they will believe I did it on a dare?
Signed, your friend, Prime Minister, the honorable Tony Blair.
(with apologies to Pat Cooksey, author of “The Sick Note.”)
BOOK REVIEW: THE FUTURE OF FREEDOM
A curse plagues most contemporary non-fiction: the absence of a market for a 50 page book. Consequently, authors have to pump their theses full of hot air to expand their works to a length acceptable in the market. Unfortunately, the easiest way to expand a thesis is to apply it to areas beyond the author’s expertise.
Fareed Zakaria’s, The Future of Freedom, is a perfect example. Zakaria has a clear and well-supported point to make. He points out that we have sometimes fallen so deeply in love with democracy, which he defines as linking political power to election results, that we have lost sight of the importance of what he calls constitutional liberty. By constitutional liberty, Zakaria means those features that narrow the range of majority rule, such the Bill of Rights, the rule of law generally, governmental structures such as checks and balances or federalism, and non-governmental power centers covered by the term “civil society.” Consequently, we have often cheered the holding of elections in countries that lack constitutional liberty, such as Bosnia, Russia or Indonesia, while chastising countries putting constitutional liberty into place without elections, such as South Korea and Taiwan in the 1980s. In the long run, Zakaria argues, countries with constitutional liberty are likely to develop into full-blown democracies akin to the United States a la South Korea or Taiwan, whereas countries that hold elections without constitutional liberty are likely to descend into what he calls “popular autocracies,” which resemble dictatorships but where the dictator submits to election on occasion.
The biggest problem comes halfway through the book, when he runs out of things to say about his basic thesis and turns his attention to domestic politics. He tries to attribute many current problems in America to our mistaken elevation of democracy over the restraints of constitutional liberty. But he cannot do so by maintaining his definition of democracy as the holding of elections, for elections have not changed that much over the years except for a few features like popular referenda that Zakaria harps upon. To adjust, Zakaria changes his definition of democratization in this portion of the book to cover nearly all of the ways in which power, not only political but also economic and cultural, is being decentralized. Along the way, he assails such widespread phenomena as the decline of the WASP elite, mass participation in capital markets, campaign finance reform legislation, and the decline of elite literature in favor of popular television.
As should be evident from this list, however, he has moved far beyond his initial thesis. He assumes and asserts that these other phenomena grow out of our worship at the altar of popular will, but it seems wildly unlikely that all these changes in realms far removed from politics stem from a preference in political philosophy. Moreover, Zakaria largely ignores what seems a much more plausible link. All these changes appear at first glance to stem from the fact that technology and the growth of markets have given individuals access to ever increasing information and an ever wider array of choices. People are simply not as dependent as they used to be upon the opinions of elites, whether in terms of what entertainment to enjoy, what investment to make or what politician to vote for. Consequently, no single person or group can have the sort of sway that Maxwell Perkins had over American literature in the 1920s, or that stockbrokers had in the 1950s, or that political party bosses had before the rise of television.
Not all of these changes have been unadulterated improvements. Good ideas about how to ameliorate the harms arising from these changes would be heartily welcomed. But Zakaria’s argument that we can somehow avoid those harms by remembering to place political limits on the will of the majority does not get the job done. Only by properly diagnosing the causes of the problem could he come up with a plausible cure.
WHY AFGHANISTAN MATTERS
Some recent articles, here
, and here
show how poorly things are going in Afghanistan. Basically, the country is sinking back to where it was before the Taliban arose, with a lot of local warlords sucking what little money remains out of the system. The Taliban are still around and may well re-emerge for the reason they triumphed before, by appearing as the only honest players, albeit Islamist fanatics.
I've talked to many administration supporters who trivialize developments in Afghanistan. To them, it doesn't matter much, especially in comparison to Iraq, because (1) it was always a benighted country unlikely to ever improve, (2) it doesn't have oil, and/or (3) it is historically less important in the region than Iraq. Of course, none of these rationales do much credit to the administration's trumpeting of democracy and human rights. If those values are important for Iraqis, they are no less important for Afghanistanis. But even on their own pragmatic terms, these rationalizations are misplaced.
Yes, Afghanistan has been benighted, but that only made it easier for us to succeed. Things were so bad that it would have been easy to make improvements, even if seemingly minor, to establish the kind of trust needed for us to pull off a Marshall Plan type program there. In other words, because Afghanistan is so poor, relatively less money will go further to improve the quality of life there compared to the copious amounts it will take to restore Iraq.
Yes, Afghanistan lacks oil, but that is beside the point. As articles I've linked in earlier posts demonstrate, Iraq's oil assets are likely to absorb more money than they produce for around five years because of the infrastructure improvements required to get the oil pumping in large quantities. The plan to use Iraq's oil assets to pay the costs of reconstructing Iraq in our image has been revealed for the pipedream it always was.
Yes, Afghanistan has been historically less central to Islam than Iraq, but Afghanistan is closer to where the action should be. Afghanistan is crucial because of its link to Pakistan. The Pashtun tribal area extends into both countries. And the Pashtuns, along with Pakistani Intelligence and varioius Pakistani Islamists, have been deeply involved with the Taliban. Thus, reconstructing Afghanistan was always tied to reforming Pakistan, ideally by helping Musharaaf become the Ataturk of the 21st Century, the leader who repudiates Islamist extremism and builds a secular Pakistan.
Pakistan is much more important than Iraq for the simple reason that Pakistan doesn't have mere intelligence rumors of a nuclear program. Rather, Pakistan has nuclear weapons themselves. If the Islamists win out there, the chances that some nuke will end up in the hands of Islamist terrorists are too high to contemplate.
But it was clear early on that the administration would not expend the kind of money and political capital required to change Pakistan fundamentally. Heck, they wouldn't even give Musharaaf relief from the textile tarrifs that were so important to him and so trivial to us. Similarly, starving Afghanistani reconstruction of funds is not going to produce anything we will be proud of.
What happens in Afghanistan and Pakistan is even more important to our self-interest than what happens in Iraq. Unfortunately, it looks like things are going poorly in all these places. But I'm sorry to waste your time with these boring matters. Let's all turn on the TV and see something important, like what's going on in the Peterson murder case.
MISSING THE CONNECTIONS
, by one of America's great commentators, Rik Hertzberg, raises a crucial flaw in the administration's foreign policy strategy: the disconnect between that strategy and the rest of the administration's agenda. Hertzberg focuses on the administration's insistence on massive tax cuts while paying for a major war. He argues that Americans are unlikely to fund Iraqi public services at the necessary level while their own public services are being cut for lack of tax revenues. This article
points to another aspect of the disconnect: how the campaigns in Iraq and Afghantistan are overextending our military while (not discussed in the article) the neocons blithely make plans to involved more troops in efforts in Iraq, Syria, and North Korea.
Perhaps the easiest way to conceive the problem is to imagine what John McCain would have done in the White House after 9/11. I submit he would have cancelled tax cuts on the grounds that we needed our funds to deal with the grave new threat from abroad. He would have called for shared sacrifice in the struggle to overcome Islamist terror. He would have proceeded more slowly in order to build the level of international support necessary to get peacekeeping forces from other countries to provide post-invasion security. He might well have started permanently restructuring our force configuration to alleviate the overextension problem.
Recall FDR when WW II broke. Many activists, including his wife, wanted him to take what they called a "New Deal" approach to waging war, one that would have made American business mighty unhappy. FDR overruled them, saying Dr. New Deal was being replaced by Dr. Win the War. He did what was needed in order to get the enthusiastic cooperation of American business in producing the munitions necessary to win.
The analogous approach would require Bush to adopt a consensus policy on domestic affairs in in order to keep focus on problems overseas. It would also require him to be frank about the costs and sacrifices involved in trying to remake the Middle East. But Bush won't do that. He'd rather attempt an audaciously ambitious foreign policy agenda on the cheap while deluding people into thinking the whole thing should be, in the words of one official, a "cakewalk." Unfortunately, the internal contradictions inherent in this approach will become more and more apparent over the upcoming months.
HIDING YOUR LIGHT UNDER A BUSHEL
This wisdom from Liberal Oasis
and an article
from TomPaine.com highlight an important difference in the tactics of Republicans and Democrats. Republicans are proud of their ideological partisans and showcase them while Democrats too often try to hide theirs. Far right conservatives like Tom DeLay, Pat Robertson, and Henry Hyde occupy important positions in the Republican coalition and are prominent spokesmen for the cause. Democrats who are as far to the left as those guys are to the right are rarely heard from. Rather, the party tends to push people like Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt toward the microphone, relatively moderate voices who are drowned out by the vitriol coming from the other side.
Republican strategists know how to employ their true believers to best advantage, using them to villify the opposition and fire up the ideological base. That allows presidential candidates like Bush in 2000 to triangulate, to reassure swing voters by appearing somewhat moderate while reaping the benefits of excitement among partisans.
By contrast, Democrats keep sliding to the middle in an effort to win a bare majority of swing voters. But this approach has failed. In 2002, core constituencies simply failed to turn out for the Democrats, in large part because they were turned off by the "me too" bleating of their leadership. Since 1980, the mid-point of the political spectrum has moved steadily to the right, as Republican partisans keep pushing in that direction and Democrats keep scurrying to find where the new center is located.
Republican strategists are well aware of this dynamic. It's one reason they villify unapologetic liberals like Jesse Jackson, Barbara Boxer, or the late Paul Wellstone. When Republicans get Democratic moderates to shy away from their liberal comrades, the most basic wedge of all -- the space between any party's ideologues and its pragmatic centrists -- yawns wide open. Until Democrats embrace their liberal purists they way Republicans embrace their conservative purists, Democrats will keep losing. Are you listening over there at DLC headquarters?
REMEDIAL OPPOSITION POLITICS
The Democrats don't know how to be an opposition party. Take the Democratic bill just passed
in the Senate expanding the child tax credit for low-income families. It's good policy, but lousy opposition politics . . . unless Tom DeLay bails them out by blocking the bill in the House.
If the bill passes the House, most people will remember that Democrats took the rough edges off the tax cut by extending it to those with lower incomes. It's a replay of the first Bush tax cut, when the Democrats pushed to get an immediate rebate sent out over the summer. All they ended up doing was taking some responsibility for the tax cut and letting Bush share credit for sending people that nice check.
Plus, Democrats are getting only a few crumbs off the table for their troubles. The recent Bush tax cut will cost over $ 800 billion when the phony sunset provisions fail to materialize. So Democrats got $ 10 billion for lower income families while providing cheap political cover for a Republican giveaway of over 70 times as much to their constituencies.
In opposition, your job is to scream no. The Democrats shouldn't try to fix the bill but instead travel in mass to a school closing in Oregon and say, "This is what happened because Republicans sent money to millionaires instead of to states." They should travel to a lower income family's house and say, "This person got nothing because Republicans wanted John Snow to get hundreds of thousands." They should go to a Veteran's Hospital turning away patients and pin the blame on Republicans more interested in giving tax breaks to fat cats than funding health care for veterans.
The Democrats need to come up with their own version of Newt Gingrich. When Clinton's economic bill was on the table in 1993, Newt didn't negotiate to shave the tax hike a smidge. Instead, he led the Republicans in voting no on the whole thing, putting the political burden of passing it on Democrats. That was terrible policy, but great politics. It placed the Speaker's gavel in Newt's hands. Can you imagine Tom Daschle pulling someting like that off? Me neither.
TECHNOLOGY AND IMPERIALISM
Some of the most rewarding reading in military history are those works that link changes in military strategy and tactics to changes in technology. The classic illustration is how the development of gunpowder ended the era of the knight on horseback and thus the middle ages.
At least some of the neocons want to usher in an era of American imperialism
. But I wonder if they've paid enough attention to why the earlier era of European imperialism ended. When Europeans started expanding around the world, they had a huge advantage in military technology (and in developed immunities to disease) that allowed, for example, a few hundred Spaniards to conquer the Aztecs and keep them subjugated.
By the time of the 20th Century, the spread of cheap explosives and small arms around the world had changed the equation. Subjugating a restless native population was too hard when they had access to weapons that could kill significant numbers of occupiers. England's 800 year domination of Ireland came to a close in the Southern 26 counties, in the 1920s because England was simply losing too many people trying to hold on to it. (England could hold on to the Northern 6 counties, where they had support among a majority of residents for well-known reasons, but that is not applicable to real imperialism where the foreign occupiers are relatively few compared to the natives). The same thing happened to Britain in Iraq in the 1920s. The American experience in the Phillipines around the turn of the century was dismaying
even if it didn't cause us to leave immediately. Eventually, the European powers had to abandon nearly all their imperial adventures by the 1960s because the bill had become too high.
Now some might try to explain the end of European imperialism by emphasizing Europe's relative weakness after World War I and World War II, but imperialism was always a costly proposition (unless you stumbled on huge gold and silver deposits as the conquistadors did). When the occupier starts losing a bunch of guys to snipers and ambushes, the imperial project becomes too difficult to sustain.
Recent experience demonstates that occupation has become ever more difficult as the firepower available to the average Third World resident increases. We left Lebanon and Somalia post-haste once the heat was turned up, not to mention more protracted conflicts like Vietnam or the Russian experience in Afghanistan. Now in Iraq it is true that we have a stronger level of committment to stay than we did in Lebanon or Somalia, but that may not matter much. The availability of AK-47s, RPGs, and explosives, and the ability of those using them to hide amid a sympathetic populace, will become daunting if the bulk of the people come to oppose our presence.
We are not there yet. Much of Iraq is waiting to see how the post-war reconstruction turns out. But we have to be wary of popular opinion turning against us. Consequently, we don't have much time to demonstrate that our continued presence will benefit the Iraqi people. For if they decide they'd do better without us, we will start losing a distressingly high number of soldiers there.
The nightmare scenario is that we end up with our own West Bank. No one doubts Israel's will in that conflict, but the cost of maintaining control in the Palestinian territories is horrifying. If Iraq becomes anything comparable, the American electorate will not tolerate staying there but will demand that we pull out and leave Iraq to its own devices. In the end, Americans don't want to be unwelcome imperialists and will not pay the costs in both blood and treasure required to play the role.
SPEAR CARRIERS VS. STANDARD BEARERS
Hopping around the Lefty Blogosphere, I am struck at how often the comments sections at various lefty blogs -- Kos, mydd, and Eschaton come to mind -- start revolving around Howard Dean. It's not the everyone likes the guy, but they are all talking about him. The usual thread has virulent Dean supporters sticking up for their guy while assorted Gephardt, Lieberman, Edwards, and sometimes Kerry supporters maintain that Dean is unelectable and/or the spawn of Satan.
I should stop for a moment to say I haven't picked a Democrat to support yet. I'll vote for any of the conceivable candidates over Bush, although a Lieberman selection would cause me to throw a wake for the Democratic party. My ideal candidate would come out of Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory, where sundry parts from Edwards, Dean, and Kerry would be bolted together to make the best possible challenger.
Anyway, as I said in a previous post, I think much of Dean's support comes from grass roots Democrats who are sick of the namby-pamby Democratic office-holders trembling in the face of the Bush-Rove steamroller. In previous times, the harshest critics of the political opposition (the spear carriers) were not the candidates themselves (the standard bearers). This used to be Politics 101. Neither Ronald Reagan nor George H.W. Bush would criticize their opponents too directly, and when they did so they used humor to avoid coming off as too harsh. Rather, their surrogates like Jim Baker would deliver the real body blows. It makes sense that you don't want to squander your candidate's political capital playing the role of hatchet man.
In this way of thinking, Dean's assaults on Bush (and some of his Democratic rivals) would seem self-defeating, at least as a long-run strategy. But that thinking presumes that other Democrats will serve as spear carriers and lead the charge against Bush. Until recently, however, it was hard to think of elected Democrats who were picking up the lance. (The last couple weeks, Robert Byrd, Charles Shumner, and Henry Waxman all seem to take their turns tilting at the White House).
Why the Democrats were so quiescent is something I still haven't figured out. I think they were mostly scared off by Bush's approval ratings and by the vehemence of the Republican counter-attack to those brief forays such as Daschle's criticism of Bush's diplomacy or Kerry's crack about "regime change" beginning at home. Also, some Democrats have been slow to adapt to both the role of minority party and the partisanship of the administration. But even if the leading lights were afraid, you'd think some up and comers would take advantage of getting some press by taking potshots at the administration (on the theory that "any publicity is good publicity). There's something about this whole episode that shows a grave weakness in the party, but I haven't figured it out yet. Let's just hope the party leadership does . . . and pronto.
DOES IT MATTER?
In the New York Times today, Tom Freidman
and William Safire
give their views on whether it matters if the Bush administration misled the American people on the extent of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction program. I've had conversations with intelligent supporters of the war who maintain steadfastly that it doesn't really matter if the administration misled us so long as we achieved the good result of deposing Saddam.
I'm stunned that such a position has serious defenders. As an initial matter, there is a very pragmatic objection to fibbing your way into support for a policy regardless of the ethics involved, the boy who cried wolf problem. Both voters and other countries are much less likely to believe the adminstration that cried wolf about Iraq's WMDs if the administration has to build support to respond to, say, North Korea's or Iran's.
Secondly, you give up an element of moral authority whenever you lie. There is something in human nature that looks down upon a liar. At some instinctive level, we see lying as a sign of weakness. Since political leadership depends on moral authority to some extent, getting caught in a lie is to sacrifice some of your leadership.
When Republicans try to turn the table and say Democrats condoned Clinton's lie about Lewinsky, I have no problem distinguishing the lie involved. Lying about sex is simply not at the same level as lying about life and death (war). But I must admit that Clinton was diminished by his own lie because that's just how people react to such things.
Most fundamentally, lying about essential policies is inherently undemocratic. Yeah, there's normal political spin, and there are the little trivial fibs that are part of the daily currency of politics. But on the big questions affecting the future of the country, you have to win the support of the voters on the merits. That means you have to put forward the real reasons for your action and convince people you are right. It's no answer to say that, if you do so, people won't go along with what is clearly the right policy. In a democracy, we bow to the majority even when we're convinced they are wrong and we are right.
The alternative is simply too dark to contemplate. Feeding the populace lies on the ground that they are too ignorant or weak to do the right thing has a long line of advocates. But their names are guys like Machiavelli, Nietzche, Lenin, Goebbels and other apologists for authoritarianism. I don't think anyone wants their advice on how to run a country.
A fascinating analysis of what's going on in North Korea is here
. There's an interesting take on how the Internet has increased our knowledge of candidates at daily kos
are the latest dispatches from the front about the class warfare being waged by Republicans. Finally, there is this story
and this one
indicating that the administration's search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is now designed to find political cover rather than to find weapons themselves.
RUNNING OUT OF STEAM
The conservative domestic agenda is running out of steam. Bascially, Bush has one cure for whatever ails you. The economy's booming? Give people tax cuts to put money back in their pockets. The economy's sinking? Give people tax cuts to put money back in their pockets. The stock market's down? Give people tax cuts on dividends to put money back in the corporation's, uh, I mean, their pockets.
But the polling shows that tax cuts have lost their popularity. They throw some red meat to the Republican base, but no longer appeal to independents, much less Democrats. Heck, the highest numbers of people think their federal tax rate is "just right" since the Truman administration.
And the Republicans essentially have nothing else that will sell. Tort deform? That's a goodie for their corporate masters, but it will never excite a big chunk of voters. Flag burning amendments? I'm sure those two million plus who have become unemployed since Bush was elected will be happy to know that he'll put a stop to the epidemic of flag burning that broke out recently.
In some ways, the conservatives have become victims of their own electoral success. In 1980, when the top marginal tax rates were around 70% and the economy seemed rigid and stagnant, campaigning on a platform of reducing rates and deregulation appealled to a lot of people. With top rates in the high 30s and large companyies dominating nearly every industry, these selling points just don't grab a lot of people.
It's an old story in American politics. A faction or party comes up with some ideas that the electorate thinks will fix what's ailing the country, and they get adopted. But then things move on. The good ideas have been put in place already and what's left of the faction's agenda is doesn't look so tasty. It happened to the Federalists in 1800, to the Jeffersonian version of the Democratic party in 1828, to Jacksonian Democrats in 1860, to McKinleyite Republicanism in 1932, and to New Deal Democrats in 1968. The Reagan varient of Republicanism is similarly low on gas. If Bush can't use national security to reinvigorate a new varient (the way McKinley reinvigorated the post-Civil War Republican party with a new platform), the Democrats should be poised to remake the landscape -- at least in 2008, if not 2004.
THE LATEST FROM AFGHANISTAN
You have to work really hard if you want to know what's going on in Afghanistan. This latest just confirms how messed up things are
. If this is the administration's idea of a Marshall Plan, I shudder to contemplate what will happen when they shift to benign neglect.
PREYING ON OUR WEAKNESSES
One of the things that bothers me the most about this administration is the way they have made a fine art of preying upon the weaknesses of the American electorate. For example, according to a recent poll
, 70% of people think the reconstruction of Iraq is going very or moderately well. As Steve Sotoexplains
, this fact may be largely attributable to the way our media has reduced coverage of the unrest in order to put on hour-long specials about Laci Peterson and the like. If we had anything like a functioning media, heavy coverage would be given to the reality of Garner and Bodine being fired within a month after the occupation started, stalwarts like Richard Lugar calling the administration's reconstruction performance "inadequate
," the former head of the Army saying that we have insufficient troops in Iraq for the occupation
, and the probability that Hussein is orchastrating a guerilla campaign
In other words, if coverage were up to the task and people were paying attention, they would know that the occupation is going about as poorly as is conceivable at this early stage.
But like many great political operatives, Karl Rove has a firm grasp of people's weaknesses. While many Americans do not fit this generalization, as a whole we have a notoriously short attention span, are uninterested in other parts of the world, and have little patience with complex or technical subjects. So Rove stages a photogenic carrier landing with a banner saying, "Mission Accomplished" in camera range, knowing people will now stop paying much attention to Iraq after that Hollywood ending. Why not?
-- It worked in Afghanistan, where most people lost interest after the Taliban was toppled and thus don't know how poorly things are going there.
-- It worked during the campaign, where Bush said criticisms of his tax plan were "fuzzy math," even though they have been proven correct in hindsight.
-- It worked with domestic policy, where Bush can play havoc with education so long as he calls his plan the "No Child Left Behind Act" or play havoc with air quality so long as he calls it his plan the "Clean Skies Initiative."
-- It worked with his latest tax cut, where he called it a jobs and growth program even though serious economists were in near-consensus that the program was not designed to stimulate economic growth.
The administration counts on people not having the interest to sift through the counter-claims and see what is really happening beneath the administration's spin. Unfortunately, only if things get bad enough will the electorate revolt against Bush. Even then, they will not work through Rove's spin issue-by-issue but will instead figure it's all just excuses for abysmal performance.
FUN WITH TAX CUTS
is a hoot.
TOO MUCH INVESTMENT
You'll always hear politicians blathering on about how we need to increase investment. Discussion by mainstream economists often seems premised on the assumption that more investment is generally a good thing. But when I step back and look at some of the big economic events over the last 20 years, excessive investment appears to be more of a problem than underinvestment.
Q: What do I mean by excessive investment? A: When too many people/entities throw their investment dollars into a type of investment that, in retrospect, turns out to be a bust. Examples include the 1980s Savings & Loan debacle, the late 80s Japanese stock market and real estate bubbles, the mid-late 90s investments -- direct and otherwise -- in Southeast Asian assets, and the infamous dot.com bubble here. Now the Economist magazine presents a pretty compelling case that we may be faced with a worldwide real estate bubble
. (Link via the perspicacious Nathan Newman
Sure, all investment involves some risk. And even when investment is at proper demand-clearing levels, some busts will take place because of our inability to predict the future. But the scope and frequency of these investment debacles establishes that there is simply too much investment taking place given other the underlying economic reality.
The effects of overinvestment can be devastating. For one thing, the loss of the massive sums invested in these bubbles are substantial and resemble simply taking hunderds of billions and burning them. In fact, burning the money would be preferable, since excessive investment episodes lead to excess capacity
, which puts a further crimp into economic performance until growth can remedy the overcapacity.
This tendency toward excessive investment is a primary symptom of the skewed income distribution discussed in the previous post. People with that much money invest a lot more of their income than do other people. When too much money chases too few good investment opportunities, we get the kind of bubbles that have become a regular feature of the economic landscape. So distributing income more evenly is not just fair. It's also good economic policy, helping the overall economy grow more rapidly by avoiding the waste inherent in excessive investment.