Monday, October 29, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week: Separation of Powers

New England is currently suffering the shock of two Red Sox championships in four years. It's forcing us to re-evaluate who we are as a region. And the Patriots and Boston College aren't helping: How can we stay lovable when we're pounding people 52-7?

Congress and the President
The DailyKos blogger FWIW has done us all a service by summarizing large chunks of the notes James Madison took during the debates at the constitutional convention in The Founding Fathers Intended. There's no better antidote to the "unitary executive" nonsense than to look at what the Founders actually said.

Here's one simple way to see which branch of government the Founders thought they were making the most powerful: They decided not to divide the executive power among three officials, but split the legislative branch into two houses. A single legislature would concentrate too much power, but a single executive would not. A good satire of where we've gotten instead is also on DailyKos: White House Continues To Deny The Existence of Congress.

Mike Gravel
I forgot to mention it last week, but right after I finished writing WIMTW two weeks ago, I got to sit down for nearly two hours with Democratic presidential candidate Mike Gravel. (OK, he's not Hillary or Barack, but I'm not exactly Walter Cronkite either.) No handlers, no negotiated question list, just him and me sitting in a living room in Manchester drinking cans of Diet Coke. The interview was for the magazine UU World, because Gravel is a Unitarian Universalist. So mostly I'm not blogging about it until I've written the article for the magazine. But I did get an answer to a question I've heard some of you ask: Why is this guy running?

Here's why: Gravel's passion for nearly two decades now has been something he calls the National Initiative, his proposal to allow voters to pass federals laws without going through the usual legislative process. Californians in particular always roll their eyes at this proposal, because they know what a mess the initiative process is in their state. But Gravel has put a lot of thought into avoiding the problems of the state initiative processes, and as I watch Congress do nothing to stop the Iraq War in spite of massive public opposition, I have a hard time arguing with Gravel's claim that "Representative government is broken." Is this the right fix? I'm not sure, but I'm willing to give it a look. Good or bad, publicizing the National Initiative was Gravel's original motive to run for president. "If I don't run," the 77-year-old Gravel recalls saying to himself, "if I don't do something unusual, I won't live to see it."

Interviewing Gravel is a hoot. In most candidate interviews, the interviewer has to work to knock the candidate off his talking points. With Gravel you have to keep him from wandering off to something else entirely. One radio interviewer didn't, and the two of them wound up discussing The Sopranos.

Gravel hasn't collected much money from contributors yet, but New Hampshire resident Gregory Chase recently started his own million-dollar pro-Gravel advertising campaign. He's also offering a $25,000 prize to the Gravel video that gets the most views on YouTube. A couple candidates for the prize are this and this.

Mercenaries and the Private Sector
Several people have written the same basic idea: the Blackwater mercenaries are the epitome of the conservative effort to privatize government, and liberals ought to make them the symbol of conservatism in general. Journeyman does the best job of laying it out: In the same way that conservatives have for decades tried to turn every issue into "freedom versus socialism" or "freedom versus big government", liberals should frame every issue as responsible government versus the mercenary ideal.

The Edwards campaign appears to get this. Saturday one of my friends held a house party for Elizabeth Edwards, and I got to ask her about John's stand on Blackwater and other mercenary armies. She immediately segued into a larger discussion of privatization: "The hiring of private contractors is something that this administration was dedicated to when they came in, and they've done it in every department. And beginning with the Department of Defense, those job functions need to be taken back. ... Government jobs, particularly in sensitive areas like this, cannot be done by private business. They have to be done by government with government accountability. When we start farming them out, what we do is lose the capability to do them ourselves." And she tied it straight to corruption, emphasizing that Blackwater's founder is a major Bush donor and then generalizing to privatization in general: "We need to regain the skills in order to do it in house, so there are not proper government activities that are profit centers for businesses that are contributors to campaigns."

The New Republic's John Chait identifies a bit of conservative framing he calls "entitlement hysteria." It works like this: You lump together the projected problems of Social Security with the much more serious problems of Medicare to get an Entitlement Crisis. Then you ignore Medicare and focus on the dire necessity of doing something about Social Security right away. Chait neglects the final step in constructing the frame: You claim that privatizing Social Security is the only way out, and thereby create vast new profit centers for your campaign contributors in the financial industries.

Another Committed Politician
Another interesting bit of framing comes from Rosa Brooks' column in the L. A. Times: Straightjacket Bush. Brooks argues that impeachment is the wrong model for thinking about getting rid of President Bush -- we ought to be thinking about commitment instead. Brooks quotes the pertinent D. C. law: If a "court or jury finds that [a] person is mentally ill and . . . is likely to injure himself or other persons if allowed to remain at liberty, the court may order his hospitalization." Brooks proposes that the likelihood of Bush starting a delusional war against Iran qualifies.

Now, I'm pretty sure this is a joke. But I'm having a hard time explaining why it's a joke. Is there any doubt that Bush and Cheney will injure other persons if allowed to remain at liberty? Why is Brooks' proposal a joke, but the drumbeating for war with Iran isn't? Why didn't we all react like this: "Those Bush and Cheney guys, they crack me up. You never know what they're going to say. They're not talking about ending this war, they're talking -- get this -- about starting another one. What a bunch of kidders!"

Short Notes
One of the great things about the blogs is that you get stories of how policies affect real people. Lillygirl describes her 81-year-old dad's arrest at JFK airport: "We are safer now. ... You can't say this wasn't another body blow to the terrorists." Gizmo59 writes about a small-scale act of civil disobedience in My Friend Katie Goes to Jail.

FEMA has come up with a new way to control the message: Hold a fake news conference where your people pose as reporters and ask all the questions. Why didn't anybody think of this before?

I continue to collect explanations of the falling casualties in Iraq. One of the more interesting theories goes like this: Casualties are down because we're in the process of ending one war to start another. We have, in essence, switched sides in the civil war between the Sunni and the Shia. So we're no longer losing large numbers of troops in the Sunni-dominated areas like Anbar, while our losses against the Shia will take a while to ramp up.

Don Rumsfeld is getting the Pinochet treatment: Rumsfeld's presence in France caused a consortium of human rights groups to file suit asking the French government to detain him. The argument is that France, as a signer of the Convention Against Torture, has an obligation to try Rumsfeld for war crimes. Most likely this is going nowhere, but I think efforts like this are going to get more and more serious as time goes on. Like Chile's recently deceased tyrant Augusto Pinochet, who was once arrested in Britain because of a Spanish indictment for crimes against humanity, top Bush officials (including Bush himself) are going to have to be careful where they travel after they leave office.

Mike Huckabee has gotten popular enough that the Wall Street Journal thinks it's necessary to denounce him.

Ex-Army Captain and Iraq veteran Phillip Carter (who runs the blog Intel Dump), asks why we can't renounce waterboarding.

It's long but it's important: This weekend's New York Times Magazine published The Evangelical Crackup, an article describing how a new generation of evangelical pastors is telling the Republican Party that they can still be friends, but they need to start seeing other people. They're noticing that Christianity has more political significance than just anti-abortion and anti-gay-rights, and they're starting to pay attention to a few liberal issues like the environment and poverty. Scriptural religion is a mixed bag, but you have to give it this: No matter how long people ignore the Sermon on the Mount, it stays in the book. Sooner or later somebody's bound to run across it again and ask: "Why aren't we doing anything about this?"


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