Monday, December 31, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week: Waiting for Iowa

As long as Property exists ... accumulations of it will be made. The snowball will grow as it rolls. -- John Adams

This is the Pigmobile, which uses to dramatize the size of the Pentagon budget. The Pentagon piggy bank is full of million-dollar bills, while the Education piggy bank has a coin going into it. The World Hunger & AIDS piggy has nothing going in.

I took this picture Sunday when the Pigmobile was parked on Main Street in Nashua. (For those of you familiar with Nashua, that's Martha's Exchange in the background.) The driver, Tracy, told me that the idea came from Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. She claims to have worked for a defense contractor and says that her son is a soldier. "I don't want to get a folded flag," she says, referring to the flag that covers a soldier's coffin.
This week New Hampshire is taking a back seat to Iowa, where the caucuses will be held Thursday. (Our primary is the next Tuesday.) The Republican caucuses are not all that different from a primary, but the Democrats have special rules that would be charming if the fate of the Free World weren't riding on the outcome. CNN has a good explanation.

The big thing to understand is that there's a 15% threshold in each local Democratic caucus: If your candidate doesn't get at least 15% on the first ballot, you have to vote for somebody else on the second ballot. Since only Edwards, Obama, and Clinton are polling at least 15% across the state, a lot of Richardson, Kucinich, and Biden supporters are going to be making a second choice. With the polls too close to call, those second choices will be the deciding margin.

In the Democratic race nationally, I think it comes down to Hillary or not-Hillary, and I predict that not-Hillary will ultimately win. Obama and Edwards are competing for the mantle of not-Hillary, and Iowa is where that mantle will probably be won.

The conventional wisdom says that Edwards appeals to the regular caucus-goers, while Obama has a young following that may or may not show up. I'm rooting for Edwards. But if vast numbers of young people turned out to vote for Obama, that would be wonderful news for November. I'd have to tip my cap to him.
Scapegoating Illegal Immigrants
One of the hot issues among Republican presidential candidates is illegal immigration. So, for example, when Romney decided to strike back at Huckabee in Iowa and McCain in New Hampshire, that's the issue he focused on. Sunday, Newsday commented:
All three Republican frontrunners -- Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee -- have sharpened their stance on immigration in recent months. The topic dominated two recent Republican debates, and all three have launched television ads that tout their hard line.
For some reason this issue plays particularly well in places like Iowa. And that's got me puzzled. Because, well, there are no illegal immigrants in Iowa.

OK, that's probably an exaggeration. But I just got back from a post-Christmas family thing in Quincy, Illinois, where I grew up. It's the next town down the Mississippi from the Iowa riverport Keokuk, where I had my first legal beer on my 18th birthday. Quincy is a small city (40K) surrounded by farm land. So while it's not as cosmopolitan as Des Moines -- try not to think too hard about that -- Quincy should be fairly similar to a lot of places in Iowa: Dubuque, Burlington, Waterloo, and so on.

That's why the following observation is relevant: I didn't see a single Hispanic during my two-plus days in Quincy. I almost never do. No Hispanics pushing mops at the mall. No Hispanics making beds at my hotel. The old woman who set out our complimentary breakfast stuff every morning is white. I admit that there are a lot more Mexican restaurants in Quincy than there used to be. But in a town where Hardees advertises its "country burrito" -- whatever that might be -- you have to wonder how much of this food is being produced or consumed by actual Mexicans, legal or otherwise. If there are many illegals in Quincy, they must be coming from places like Estonia or Switzerland, because they look just like your basic white Midwesterners.

Think about that: For some reason, Iowa seems to be full of people ready to base their vote on the illegal immigration issue, despite the fact that they have never seen an illegal immigrant, or more than a handful of Hispanics that they might imagine are illegal immigrants. Illegal immigrants have not taken their jobs, gotten their daughters pregnant, driven down their property values, eaten up their school budget, or harmed them in any way whatever. But they believe that getting rid of these pesky illegals -- wherever they are -- should be the top priority of the next president.

Keep thinking about it: At least 45 Iowans have died in Iraq. (You can find their names listed here.) Iowa CareGivers estimates that 189,360 working-age Iowans (about 1 in 7) lack health insurance. Iowa has all the standard rust-belt problems with losing manufacturing jobs and not being able to find in-state opportunities for their talented young people. (I never seriously considered staying in Quincy.) Iowans are losing their civil liberties and their national honor at the same rate as all other Americans. And yet what really bothers large numbers of Iowans, particularly Republicans, is that states and cities far away from them have an illegal immigrant problem.

And the problems they attribute to the illegal aliens are almost entirely imaginary. For example, Romney's anti-McCain ad waves the red flag that illegal immigrants are going get Social Security benefits, when the real cash flow runs in exactly the opposite direction: Illegals often use fake social security numbers and end up paying taxes that give them no claim on benefits. Far from sponging off the rest of us, they subsidize us from their tiny earnings. They pay sales tax and a variety of other taxes, but they are afraid to use many of the civic services that those taxes pay for. Bill O'Reilly will run with any immigrant crime story he can find, but other than the original crime of coming to America in the first place, illegal immigrants are some of the most law-abiding residents America has. They work hard, save their money, and do their best to stay out of trouble. The vast majority of them would make excellent American citizens. The real scandal is that we have an underclass of long-term workers who can't vote.

I'll tell you what I think is going on in Iowa and elsewhere: Working-class Republicans, the people who listen to Rush Limbaugh and watch Fox News and join the NRA, can see that something is seriously wrong in America today. But the problem can't be with the president they put in office or with the conservative philosophy they hold. The problem can't be that Republicans started the wrong wars or gave tax cuts to the wrong people or expected the free market to do things that free markets have never done in the entire history of the world. It's got to be somebody's fault. But since they and everybody they know are struggling as best they can, the fault must lie with somebody they can't see, somebody over the horizon.

Conservative political operatives have been doing their best to fan that flame. In 2004 and 2006 gay marriage was a similar scapegoat issue, and it similarly played best in places where gays are least visible. If you know any married gays -- I go to church in Massachusetts, so I do -- you realize immediately that their happiness does not injure you in any way. Watching a gay man carry his son to Sunday School has never once caused me to question the validity or value of my heterosexual marriage. Why would it?

Probably it was the same with the German Jews in the 1930s. If you knew any, they were just people. When you tried to trace a path from their activities to your own problems, you couldn't. But if you didn't know any ... then who could say what evil they might be up to? Rounding them up and putting them somewhere probably sounded like the safest course.

More and more, I'm coming to the conclusion that the rest of us can't just stand back and shake our heads. We've got to start yelling "scapegoat" loud and long. There are a few genuine issues about securing the border, but they are technical and boring and have nothing to do with the problems of average Americans. The emotional appeal of the illegal immigrant issue comes entirely from the scapegoat aspect. If Republican policies were not failing across the board, Republican candidates wouldn't have to talk about immigration at all.

Year in Review

I love lists and countdowns, so this is a good time of year for me. Here are some you might otherwise miss: Bill Mahr's list of the Dickheads of the Year. Slate's countdown of the Bush administration's ten dumbest legal arguments. Glenn Greenwald's favorite quotes of 2007. Salon's self-selected list of best stories.

A couple of DailyKos' best bloggers look ahead to 2008 economically and politically. Jerome a Paris predicts:

the obvious strategy of the rightwing noise machine will be to claim, against all evidence, that all is well until the end of the year and then, brutally, to switch to relentless coverage of all that's bad - all that's been bad, but suddenly needs urgent action NOW.

TPM provides a list of administration officials beset by scandal. And of course we're all waiting for TPM to announce the winners of the Golden Dukes, which will probably be out by the time you read this. If not, you can still hear the choices of TPM founder Josh Marshall. Like Josh, I'm rooting for Alberto Gonzales to win the coveted "Best Scandal" award.
Short Notes

If you had never heard of Benazir Bhutto until she was assassinated Thursday, don't be ashamed to admit it. Juan Cole catches you up on Pakistan's current situation in an article on Salon. Pakistan is a good example of how we've gotten into trouble in a lot of countries over the years. Cole summarizes:

Pakistan's population is, contrary to the impression of many pundits in the United States, mostly moderate and uninterested in the Taliban form of Islam. But if the United States and "democracy" become associated in their minds with military dictatorship, arbitrary dismissal of judges, and political instability, they may turn to other kinds of politics, far less favorable to the United States.

Something similar might have been written about Iran during the reign of the Shah. We never learn.

New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg has scheduled a meeting to promote "bipartisanship" and the formation of a "government of national unity". The mainstream Washington press corps loves this kind of talk, but Chris Bowers at Open Left exposes the emptiness of it all by presenting the very short list of things Democrats in Congress have blocked over the last five years.

It would be nice, for once, if [those] decrying polarization, the lack of bi-partisanship, and gridlock in Washington would actually provide specifics on what legislation their hated polarization, partisanship and gridlock is blocking. Of course, they won't actually do that, because blaming national problems on vague, undefined concepts like "polarization" and "gridlock" is much easier than actually analyzing the contemporary political scene in America.

Scarecrow on FireDogLake points out the obvious: Reporters covering the presidential campaign are trying to push the "It's starting to get nasty" theme, but in truth it's only getting nasty among the Republicans. "Compared to the Republican trench warfare, the Democrats are having a tea party."

Another FireDogLake column collects more of the wonderful fake interviews of British comedians Bird & Fortune.

I wish I could say this is a comedy routine: The New York Times is giving Bill Kristol a weekly column. Kristol was one of the leading voices for invading Iraq, and he learned nothing from that disaster. Today he is one of the leading voices for invading Iran. His appointment by the Times is the best demonstration I can give of the complete lack of accountability in the mainstream media. Media Matters has compiled a list of the known falsehoods Kristol has put forward. Somebody should make a similar list of false predictions. In fact, it would be much easier to compile the opposite list: Kristol predictions that were not 180 degrees wrong. It's short; it might be empty. When I was a kid, game shows had "celebrity contestants." People my age had no idea what these people were celebrated for. Eventually, they were famous for being game show contestants and nothing else. Today, political pundits are in the same situation. No one knows what any of these people did to deserve national attention. But they've got it, and so they keep it.

Monday, December 24, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week: New Hampshire Counts Down

It is clearly easier for us to imagine ourselves living among better appliances than among better human beings. -- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Anybody who has been praying for a White Christmas in New England can stop now. We've gotten about two feet over the last week or so. If Sunday's rain had been snow, I'm not sure where the plows would have put it.

Fifteen Days To Go
It's weird to be in a state that has two countdowns running simultaneously: shopping days until Christmas and campaigning days until the primary. And like most New Hampshirites, I am ambivalent about both. There's so much to do before The Day, and I long for life to return to normal. At least Santa Claus isn't calling me three or four times a day.

But Santa isn't bringing celebrities to town either. I missed the Oprah & Obama show, but I did catch Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt doing a warm-up act for John Edwards a few miles from here. Foolishly, I figured I'd just link to the YouTube video, so I didn't bring a camera, a voice recorder, or even a notebook. But the video people at the Edwards campaign are too artistic to just set up a camera and feed the video to the Internet, so while there is a video with clips from the next night in Manchester, I can't show you The Best Stump Speech Going.

Actually, it's the second best. A few months ago I went to a stage production of All the King's Men, and Willie Stark had a better one. But the two speeches are similar, so if you rent the Sean Penn version on DVD, you'll get some idea of how Edwards sounds these days. Both men are trying to rally ordinary people to take the government back from the corporations who own it now. "Why don't we have universal health care today?" Edwards asks. (I'm pulling this quote from memory, so it may not be exact.) "Because of insurance companies and drug companies and their lobbyists in Washington."

Cynic that I am, I have to wonder if Edwards' anti-corporate rhetoric has something to do with the cold shoulder he gets from the corporate-owned media. Edwards' haircut has gotten much more coverage than his message. To watch TV or read newspapers these days, you'd think Clinton and Obama were the only Democratic candidates running. And yet, an Edwards win in Iowa is a distinct possibility. (The best horse-race summary for each party is at Open Left.) And since that would break the two-candidate media monopoly, he would get a bigger bump out of it than either Clinton or Obama. As we've seen with Huckabee and last time around with Kerry, things can happen quickly once they start happening.

This, by the way, is why the first primaries need to be in small states. In a big state, the corporations that own all the major media outlets could just freeze out anybody they don't like.

I Become a Gravel Delegate
Ultimately all these primaries are about electing delegates to the party conventions. Where do they come from? How do you get to be one?

I'm not sure how those questions get answered in the big campaigns where everything runs smoothly. But on December 1, Gravel campaign manager Elliott Jacobson sent an email asking if I wanted to be a Mike Gravel delegate. Each candidate needed to have a slate of delegates registered with the party by December 5, and the Gravel people were scrambling to get theirs together. I didn't notice the deadline until December 3, so I quickly had to go to the NH Democratic Party web site, download their delegate registration form, and race it to the post office (you can't email it) to get it in on time.

OK, I feel obligated to point out that it was unethical for me to do this. I had just written a column on Gravel for UU World -- arranging the interview was how I met Elliott -- and journalists should not be delegates for candidates they cover. Elliott shouldn't have asked me and I shouldn't have accepted. I know how I'd feel if I found out that a Washington Post reporter was, say, a Clinton delegate. (It would explain a lot, actually.)

But the temptation to see another part of the process from the inside was overwhelming, so I rationalized: The actual (as opposed to apparent) conflict of interest was minuscule. The column had been finished without any expectation of becoming a delegate. The odds of any of Gravel's delegates making it to the convention is vanishingly small. (He would need to get 15% of the vote and he's polling around 1%.) I haven't even taken the Edwards sticker off my car.

So I wrote an explanation to my editor, who put a disclosure notice at the end of my Gravel column. I've delayed blogging about this until the notice was posted.

I thought that was that. But around 9:30 one Saturday morning (December 15) I got a call from Elliott: The caucus of 2nd district Gravel delegates was happening that morning at 10 at Franklin Pierce University, about an hour's drive away. Democratic Party chair Ray Buckley had even sent me an announcement -- using exactly the same envelopes in which the NHDP sends their frequent pleas for money. It was sitting unopened in my stack of good-cause mail.

When you read Ray's letter, it's obvious that the delegate caucus process is designed for candidates for whom lots and lots of people want to be delegates. "Don't make the mistake of assuming that you can simply show up to the caucus and get elected. ... Most likely, everyone there was brought there to support someone. In order to be successful, you should reach out to your friends, family members, co-workers, and neighbors and bring them to caucus with you. In addition, you should produce signs, fliers, buttons or lapel stickers to promote your candidacy."

I found directions to Pierce on the internet, and hopped into the car. My wife was still in her pajamas. I didn't ask her to go.

Franklin Pierce University turns out to be a beautiful place. It sits across from Mount Monadnock on a small lake, which was frozen. Somebody was trying to ice-fish.

I arrived 45 minutes late. The local Gravel campaign leader and one other Pierce student were there. We chatted about a Gravel campaign video the other would-be delegate was planning to make for YouTube. Eventually two other folks showed up, at least one of whom was also a Pierce student. There were (if I remember right) seven delegate positions, and the rules say you have to be present to be elected. We had no signs, fliers, buttons, family members, or other campaign accessories. We skipped over the place on the agenda where the delegate wannabees give speeches, and went straight to the part where we all vote for each other. Our paper ballots were stuffed into a small cardboard box, which the guy from the campaign collected so that he could send the official vote tallies to party headquarters in Concord.

I didn't see the count, but I feel fairly certain I was elected. It's possible that (somewhere in my stack of good-cause mail) a notice from the New Hampshire Democratic Party has already arrived. I should look.

Now all I have to do is hope that Gravel gets at least 15% of the vote. Maybe I should take the Edwards sticker off my car. Or not.

Have You Heard of Nataline Sarkisyan?
I hadn't either, but her story is all over the liberal blogosphere. She's giving a human face to the health insurance problem. Not the problem of the 47 million uninsured, but the problem the rest of us have when we put ourselves at the mercy of profit-making insurance companies.

Nataline is (was) a 17-year-old who died while waiting for her family's insurance company (Cigna) to approve her liver transplant. (Well, that's not true, strictly speaking. The insurance company stalled, and then when the case became a public-relations problem they approved the treatment too late, hours before she died. Nataline was technically still alive when the approval went through.) Now, I don't know whether prompt treatment would have saved her or not, and I hate making policy by anecdote. But if the story of a pretty teen-age girl's death can break through the myths about our healthcare system, at least some good will come out of this.

One bit of rhetoric I've heard from several Republican presidential candidates is that you don't want your medical decisions made by government bureaucrats. Here's a quote from Rudy Giuliani's web site:
I believe we can reduce costs and improve the quality of care by ... empowering patients and their doctors, not government bureaucrats.
I don't want to pick on Rudy; you can find a similar quote from almost any Republican. They always contrast a government program with one where the power rests with patients and doctors. As if that were the choice.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Decisions today are made by insurance bureaucrats, and it would be a huge improvement to have them made by government bureaucrats. The government bureaucrat would be trying to balance the patient's interest against the public interest; the insurance bureaucrat is trying maximize his company's profits. I know which one I'd want making a life-or-death decision about me.

To bring that point home, Jerome a Paris on DailyKos tells about how the French healthcare system dealt with his 4-year-old son's brain tumor. Short version: They gave him world-class care and didn't ask for payment. And since public health and public schools are all part of the same government, the lingering handicaps from the brain tumor can be dealt with seamlessly through the school system.

My ex-college-roommate reported something similar from Australia. He has a handicapped son and spent one school year on sabbatical in Canberra. Even as a foreigner, his son's problems were handled seamlessly by the healthcare/school system. It was a major hit on their household to come back to America, where he and his wife had to push forms through the insurance bureaucracy and deal with school officials who didn't think healthcare was their problem.

As for empowering the doctors: Another Kossack, nyceve (a contraction of Eve from New York City, I think), passes on to us what a transplant surgeon wrote to her:
Insurers always qualify their denial letters with a sentence to the affect that the doctors must provide whatever care is necessary and that the payment is a separate issue. Insurers never deny CARE only the authorization for payment. To stall the actual delivery of care, insurers hold out an insincere promise to authorize payment if only the doctor provides more information. This leads the doctor on indefinitely, while insurers never says absolutely 'No' until the patient gives up or dies. ... If I do go ahead without approval, as I have on many occasions, the administrators in my hospital call me in to explain why so many of my patient's insurers are not paying and why am I performing surgery not approved by the insurer? No one rescues the patient and the family who face huge bills and bankruptcy.
Jerome concludes:
It's been tough enough to deal with a sick child; I simply do not want to imagine what it would have been like if I had to beg for care or to scurry around for money in addition. It's just inconceivable. And thus, I was happy to pay taxes before, and I'm really, really happy to pay taxes now to provide that level of care for those that really need it.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if Americans could take national pride in the care we give the sick? That's another part of the Edwards stump speech: "What if we asked Americans to be patriotic about something other than war?"

Short Notes
If you're not sick of Christmas music yet -- or maybe even moreso if you are -- you might enjoy this version of The 12 Days of Christmas by the a cappella group Straight No Chaser.

We got some good news on the FISA bill, which I reported last week was about to pass the Senate with the language giving the telcom companies amnesty for breaking the law and invading the privacy of their customers. Instead, Senator Dodd's parliamentary maneuvering made enough problems for Harry Reid that he delayed the bill until January. Senator Kennedy nailed the issue in this speech. Advocates of corporate lawlessness have racheted up the rhetoric by warning that the likes of ATT might be bankrupted if the rule of law prevails. (As if the outcome of our justice system were some random act of God rather than, say, the outcome of a justice system.) If you want to be aware of what you can do, sign up for action alerts at FireDogLake.

Tom Tomorrow begins his Year in Review.

If you thought conservative authors could not stoop any lower, you were wrong.

On the same theme, we finally get a clear-cut example of how oppressed conservatives are on campus and how biased administrators won't protect them from liberal brownshirts: A conservative organizer at Princeton was beaten in an attempt to intimidate him into shutting up. Except ... it turns out he staged the whole thing. And he did the same thing at prep school.

The blogger to watch as the whole CIA torture tapes story unfolds is emptywheel, a.k.a. Marcy Wheeler, author of Anatomy of Deceit. The thing Marcy does better than anybody is chronology: What can we figure out from when something happened? Why then? What was different from a day, a month, or a year before? What does that tell us about why it happened at all? It's hard to do this kind of analysis without veering off into tinfoil-hat territory, but Marcy manages. Her work is necessarily speculative, but it's very insightful.

David Corn goes back to look at a book Mike Huckabee wrote in 1998, as is disturbed by what he finds.

TPM summarizes the Sunday talk shows for you.

In general, I've been unimpressed by Obama's why-can't-we-all-get-along rhetoric. (When corporations are happy to profit over our dead bodies, or -- in the case of Blackwater -- over the dead bodies of innocent Iraqis, no, we can't get along.) But Mark Schmitt over at American Prospect has an interesting theory: It's "a tactic, a method of subverting the unified conservative power structure." I hope he's right.

Matthew Yglesias asks an interesting question: What do you do when the polls indicate that people want something that can't happen? For example, what if the people want to get out of Iraq quickly without losing? This is a situation, he says, where real leaders would be shaping public opinion, not just reacting to it.

The media is starting to see past the Surge-is-working stories. In July we have to start drawing down our troops, and what happens then? Is the country really in any better shape, any closer to a sustainable solution? The LA Times says maybe not.

Finally, the Concord Monitor makes an anti-endorsement: Mitt Romney for not-president. "If you followed only his tenure as governor of Massachusetts, you might imagine Romney as a pragmatic moderate with liberal positions on numerous social issues and an ability to work well with Democrats. If you followed only his campaign for president, you'd swear he was a red-meat conservative, pandering to the religious right, whatever the cost. Pay attention to both, and you're left to wonder if there's anything at all at his core."

Monday, December 17, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week: Religion in Politics

We often want one thing and pray for another, not telling the truth even to the gods. -- Seneca

Don't React. Check.
This week's cautionary tale begins with Pope Benedict's New Year message, which is already available at the Vatican web site.

Recent popes have a well-deserved reputation for being conservative on social issues like abortion, gay rights, and gender equality. But it's less well known that they've been quite liberal on economic, environmental, and military issues. (In 2005 I wrote this article analyzing the radical economic viewpoint of John Paul II, a subject I hope to return to. Short version: God created the Earth for everybody, not just for the people who own everything.)

So it was something of a shock -- a pleasant shock for anti-environmentalists and an unpleasant shock for the rest of us -- to find this headline in London's newspaper The Daily Mail: The Pope condemns climate-change prophets of doom.
Pope Benedict XVI has launched a surprise attack on climate change prophets of doom, warning them that any solutions to global warming must be based on firm evidence and not on dubious ideology. The leader of more than a billion Roman Catholics suggested that fears over man-made emissions melting the ice caps and causing a wave of unprecedented disasters were nothing more than scare-mongering.
In America, conservative bloggers jumped on the news and crowed about their high-profile new ally in the battle over global warming. At the Pirate's Cove blog, for example, Jebediah Murphy proclaims "The Pope Now a Climate Change Denier" and predicts "all them liberal climahysterics (also known as climahypocrites) are really going to hate the Pope and religion even more."

Right on cue, Pirate's Cove commenter Madmatt attacks the Pope: "This is a nazi, who is pro child molestor, and believes in an invisible man in the sky." If you're a devout Catholic reading this discussion -- or any of the others like it happening on other blogs -- you're undoubtedly offended by this. The popular frame about politics and religion -- religious people are conservative, liberals are against religion -- has been supported.

Except ... the whole discussion is based on nonsense. The Pope's message is about "the human family" as a metaphor for world peace. Of the 15 numbered paragraphs, only 7 and 8 are about the environment, and they express only the most unobjectionable principles. (That's what a good religious patriarch does: re-assert timeless truths and let the secular leaders fight over how they apply to the issue at hand.) Taken out of the conservative-spin context of the Daily Mail article, the parts they quote are pretty innocuous:
It is important for assessments in this regard to be carried out prudently, in dialogue with experts and people of wisdom, uninhibited by ideological pressure to draw hasty conclusions, and above all with the aim of reaching agreement on a model of sustainable development capable of ensuring the well-being of all while respecting environmental balances.
This is only against the global-warming activists if you imagine (as the Daily Mail reporter clearly does) that the Pope is wagging his finger directly under their noses when he denounces "ideological pressure to draw hasty conclusions." But nothing in the Pope's message indicates this. In fact, you can just as easily (more easily, I think) imagine the Pope wagging his finger under President Bush's nose when he says:
It is essential ... to choose the path of dialogue rather than the path of unilateral decisions.
So here's the moral of my story: When the media tells you that somebody said something surprising, don't react, check. Your first response shouldn't be: "How can he say that!" It should be: "Did he really say that?" Often the answer will be No.

Conservatives Rediscover Frankenstein's Monster
This week conservative pundits have been trying to re-assert the natural order in the Republican Party.

The GOP is basically a pyramid: Neocons and plutocrats are the narrow peak, and evangelicals are the broad base. Evangelicals are supposed to stuff envelopes and make phone calls and turn enough working class voters against their own economic interests to get neocons and plutocrats into positions of power. In return, neocons and plutocrats offer a lot of symbolic gestures: mainly futile proposals of constitutional amendments to outlaw abortion or reinstate prayer in public schools. And judges, of course. Republicans appoint pro-business and pro-executive-power judges who also happen to be pro-life. Pro-life is like chrome bumpers or tailfins: It keeps the yahoos happy without interfering with the way the car runs.

That's been the deal ever since Ronald Reagan, and it works fine as long as everyone remembers his place in the pyramid. This year it has broken down, and that's why the Huckabee phenomenon was so predictable. The Republicans were supposed to unite around an evangelically credible plutocrat like George Allen or Bill Frist. But those guys self-destructed early, leaving candidates like Giuliani and Romney, who have cobbled together conservative social-issue platforms that directly contradict their records.

That doesn't fly among evangelicals, who look for authenticity, not a checklist of issues. Ronald Reagan was a good enough actor to fake authenticity, and W has been content to express his authentic evangelical sentiments while letting Cheney run the government. So everyone has been happy. But Giuliani and Romney don't have evangelical authenticity and can't fake it. So when a real evangelical like Mike Huckabee started looking like a credible candidate, the base of the pyramid revolted. "We've been loyal to the Party," the evangelicals are saying. "Why can't one of us be at the top?"

Leadership castes tend to come unglued when the plebians start believing their lip service. It's hard to tell them: "All that stuff we've been saying about respecting you: You were supposed to take it in, not take it seriously." But that's been the underlying message this week. In "An Overdose of Public Piety" Charles Krauthammer denounced Romney's attempt to pander to the evangelicals:

Romney has been faulted for not throwing at least one bone of acknowledgment to nonbelievers in his big religion speech last week. But he couldn't, because the theme of the speech was that there is something special about having your values drawn from religious faith. Indeed, faith is politically indispensable. "Freedom requires religion," Romney declared, "just as religion requires freedom." But this is nonsense

National Review's pundit Lowry was wistful about the notion that evangelicals had "matured" away from social issues and into a proper neocon focus on the war on terror. (How demeaning is that?) And he cautions evangelical Republicans against "Huckacide":
The GOP’s social conservatism inarguably has been an enormous benefit to the party throughout the past 30 years, winning over conservative Democrats and lower-income voters who otherwise might not find the Republican limited-government message appealing. That said, nominating a Southern Baptist pastor running on his religiosity would be rather overdoing it.
David Frum also worries about "overdoing it":
Conservatives have drawn strength from populism. But you can overdo any good thing -- and I am beginning to think that on this one, we've zoomed the car into the red zone. ... How exactly is it elitist to expect a candidate for president to be immune to obvious flim-flam? Or to submit his ideas to criticism--and change them if they cannot stand up? And yet it also has to be admitted: Many of us on the conservative side have fed this monster.
Frum used to write speeches for President Bush, who of course is famous for submitting his ideas to criticism and changing them if they can't stand up.

Off -the-reservation conservative Andrew Sullivan reads Krauthammer and Lowry and asks:
Where, one wonders, have they been for the past decade? They have long pooh-poohed those of us who have been warning about this for a long time, while cozying up to Christianists for cynical or instrumental reasons. But now they want to draw the line. Alas, it's too late, I think, for Charles to urge an openness toward atheism or non-religion in a party remade on explicitly religious grounds by Bush and Rove.
And Sullivan, to his credit, states the religion-politics relationship exactly right:
It may well be that support for a piece of social policy emerges from religious reasons. But in a secular society, it is vital that when making the argument for your position in public, you do not deploy arguments that depend on or invoke religiously-revealed truths. The essential civic discipline in a pluralist democracy is to translate your religious convictions into moral arguments - arguments that can persuade and engage people of all faiths or none.
Massive Cave-in in Congress
Remember a month or so ago, when the Democrats in Congress were going to dig in their heels against the worst excesses of the Bush administration? "The days of free lunch are over," Charles Schumer asserted. And Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi pledged there would be no Iraq funding bill this year without a withdrawal timetable.

Never mind.
In a string of setbacks last week, Democratic leaders in Congress yielded to Bush and his GOP allies on Iraqi war funding, tax and health policies, energy policy and spending decisions affecting billions of dollars throughout the government.
Also never mind about FISA. Reid's maneuvering in the Senate has all but guaranteed that Congress will pass a bill giving President Bush everything he wants, including amnesty for the phone companies that broke the law in order to cooperate with the government's law-breaking -- which we now learn started with a transition report the NSA wrote for the incoming Bush people in December, 2000, way before 9/11. (Glenn Greenwald does 'apoplectic' better than I do, so I'll leave the FISA issue to him.)

I guess giving-in is the spirit of Christmas. And Georgie has been such a good boy this year. Or something.

I'd love to be able to give you a better explanation. (And if you can explain it to me, please do.) Is it cowardice? Corruption? Some misguided notion of strategy? I'm totally at a loss.

Short Notes
Time lists the top ten editorial cartoons of the year. My favorite is #10.

The LA Times reports that Iraqi policewomen have been ordered to give up their weapons. Armed women -- it's just not proper. The article raises two questions: What is the life expectancy of an unarmed Iraqi policeperson, male or female? And without policewomen, who's going to search females to make sure they don't have bombs under those burkas?

TPM-TV reviews the high moments of saber-rattling before the National Intelligence Estimate said that Iran didn't have a nuclear weapons program.

Paul Krugman reads the latest economic reports so that you don't have to. He lifts the following statistics from a Congressional Budget Office report on taxes: During the opening years of the "Bush boom" (2003-2005 -- the most recent years for which the report has figures), the top 1% saw a 43.5% increase in their income. The bottom 20% got an increase of 2%. I'm hoping that this subject will be discussed by the ghosts who are scheduled to visit President Bush next Monday night.

Google has a plan to compete with Wikipedia. Rather than a community writing/editing process, articles will be written by individuals. Presumably the good articles will float to the top via some kind of community rating process.

After telling voters during his 2006 Senate campaign that he wanted to "elect a Democratic president in 2008," Joe Lieberman has endorsed John McCain. You've got to wonder how many votes Lieberman would have gotten if he'd told Connecticut the truth: That he would support an escalation of the war in Iraq and he'd endorse a Republican for president.

Being a member of the Senate Intelligence Commitee, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has been able to read the secret memos that elucidate the Bush administration's interpretation of the president's constitutional powers. He boils them down to this:
1. “I don’t have to follow my own rules, and I don’t have to tell you when I’m breaking them.”

2. “I get to determine what my own powers are.”

3. “The Department of Justice doesn’t tell me what the law is, I tell the Department of Justice what the law is.”

Maybe I should have gone with this quote instead:
When an ostrich buries its head in the sand as danger approaches, it very likely takes the happiest course. – Charles S. Peirce

Monday, December 10, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week: Republican Watch

Time and reason must cooperate with each other to the final establishment of any principle; and therefore those who may happen to be first convinced have not a right to persecute others, on whom conviction operates more slowly. The moral principle of revolutions is to instruct, not to destroy. -- Thomas Paine

For some reason, I found myself focused on Republicans this week (plus Mike Gravel).

Presidential Candidates Up Close
The article based on my one-on-one interview with Mike Gravel is up on the UU World website. Gravel is a Unitarian Universalist, so I parlayed my status as an online columnist for UU World into an interview. It's the first time I've done something like that.

Interviewing Gravel is a hoot. He's willing to talk about anything you want and he's a great story-teller. You can get a little of that flavor by watching the panel discussion about the Pentagon Papers from the UU General Assembly last June. (Skip past the 2:30 of dead air at the beginning. Daniel Ellsberg comes on at the 10:50 mark and Gravel at 28:30.)

Saturday I saw John McCain in Nashua. My full account is here. One detail I left out of that article: When the question period ended, McCain started the hand-shaking aftermath by stepping off the platform in my direction, offering me his hand, and thanking me for my thoughtful question. (Naturally I had just turned off my recorder, so that little keepsake is lost.) That graciousness -- it wasn't a softball question -- is one reason why it's hard not to like McCain when you see him in person. I still disagree with a lot of what he says, and won't vote for him in January, but I like him. In 2000 I was mystified how Republicans could look at him and Bush and choose Bush. I'm still mystified.

Mitt is No JFK
It's hard to express just how disappointed I was in Mitt Romney's "Faith in America" speech Thursday. On October 15 I told you about an article by Steve Benen explaining why Mitt Romney could not have a "JFK moment" where he faced the Mormon issue directly. I summarized Benen's reasoning like this:
JFK defused the Catholic issue by embracing the separation of church and state. But the Republican base doesn't believe in the separation of church and state. So what's Mitt supposed to say to them?
Well, Romney answered that question. The way to paper over the differences between Romney's Mormonism and the evangelical Christianity of the Republican base is to unite believers against unbelievers. His speech is full of references to the villainous "some". As in:
The notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They are wrong.
Even a favorable review of the speech by conservative columnist David Brooks notes:
Romney described a community yesterday. Observant Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Jews and Muslims are inside that community. The nonobservant are not. There was not even a perfunctory sentence showing respect for the nonreligious.
That's not what JFK did. His speech was genuinely unifying and spoke to all Americans.
I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end--where all men and all churches are treated as equal--where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice
But in today's Republican Party it is rare for anyone to take a position that doesn't pit someone against someone else. Unbelievers, gays, illegal immigrants, liberals, Muslims, peaceniks, people on welfare -- there's always got to be a scapegoat.

Finally, I was disgusted by the way Romney cherry-picked his theology to pander to evangelicals. He hides behind noble sentiments to avoid discussing the less popular parts of Mormonism like this:
There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution.
But in the previous paragraph he said:
I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind.
So a religious test is appropriate if Romney can pass it. Otherwise it violates the spirit of the Constitution.

I started telling you about Mike Huckabee in early September. And on October 22 I made this prediction:
Huckabee could break into the top tier. The Evangelical Republicans haven't warmed to Fred Thompson yet, they've never liked McCain, Romney's Mormonism and past pro-choice and pro-gay-rights positions bother them, and Giulani's current social-issue positions (plus his multiple marriages) make him the least acceptable of all. The thing keeping the Evangelicals away from Huckabee is that he looks like a loser. If that starts to change, it could change fast.
Well, the Huckabee Surge is upon us. A Newsweek poll has him ahead of Romney 39-17 among people like to attend the Iowa caucuses. He has moved into second place in national polls. (The Huckabee line is the pointing-straight-up green one in this graph.)

Up until now, playing nice with Huckabee was part of pandering to the evangelical base. The other Republicans knew the the evangelicals liked Huckabee but weren't going to vote for him because he wasn't a serious candidate. So it made sense to show respect and not be mean. It's similar to the way the Democrats treated Al Sharpton in 2004.

Now that he's a serious candidate, the gloves are off. The plutocratic wing of the Republican Party is not going to accept Huckabee, and they're the ones with the real power. The Club for Growth has put out this ad. And suddenly Wayne DuMond is becoming Huckabee's Willie Horton. Oh, and he's said wacky things about AIDS and he doesn't believe in evolution. None of that is new, but suddenly people have to take it seriously.

And then there are the liberals. Here's Stranahan's hilarious suggestion for a Huckabee attack video.

Anyway, I'll make my next Huckabee prediction: The attacks will work. There's a hard-core evangelical vote in the Republican primaries that will net him 20-25% in a lot of states, but that's going to be the ceiling. As other candidates start to fall by the wayside, that 20-25% will stop looking so formidable.

News I Haven't Assimilated Yet
In a shock to everybody, the administration released a summary of the National Estimate on Iran's nuclear program. It's not that long, you could read it easily. (The actual content on is on pages 6-8.) "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program."

Suddenly, we're no longer headed for war with Iran. And dozens of other questions open up: Why was this NIE compiled? Why did the administration release it? Did President Bush know about this when he was threatening World War III? Speculation is everywhere; information is hard to find.

And coincidentally -- or not coincidentally, who knows? -- a scandal broke at the CIA. Tapes of some "harsh interrogations" were destroyed. (See TPM's collection of Sunday news show comments.)

And coincidentally -- or not -- a scandal broke in Congress. The top Congressional leaders, including Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Jay Rockefeller, were briefed about the CIA's interrogation techniques a long time ago. They knew and said nothing.

This is head-spinning stuff, and I'm sure we haven't heard the end of it yet. Instead of trying to make sense of it all, I'm going to recall the principle I want to uphold: the rule of law.

When something inexcusable comes out, the standard Republican tactic is not to defend, but to say "Democrats did it too." They seem to think we'll say, "Well, OK then." But this isn't about parties, it's about what America stands for. Torture is a war crime. Destroying evidence of torture is obstruction of justice. Keeping silent about it may be criminal conspiracy, and even if it isn't the voters should punish it politically. Everyone connected with torture needs to go down. Otherwise this country will never get back to being a force for good in the world.

Short Notes
Adam Klugman wants to start a campaign to rebrand the Democratic Party. Before you reject that idea, watch his video.

Marty Lederman at my favorite legal blog Balkinization recommends a working paper on the issues around FISA.

Nerdcore Rising's "Nerd of the Week" feature pays a visit to last summer's Yearly Kos convention. It's cute and informative, and if I studied each frame with a microscope I'd probably find myself somewhere.

It's just as bad as you think. Interrogators determined Murat Kurnaz was innocent in 2002. He finally got out of Guantanamo in 2006.

You know all those people who tell you that the troops and their families support the war and believe in the mission? Well, they're wrong.

TPM has put together a collage of all the TV ads of all the Republican presidential candidates. Enjoy.

Just in case you still need to fix that good mood you're in: Here's Cass Dillion and Billy Joel with Christmas in Fallujah.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

McCain in Nashua: Last Man Standing?

The last time I saw John McCain, he had just won the 2000 New Hampshire primary. My wife and I, to our own surprise and largely out of apathy with the Gore-Bradley race, had voted for him. As the returns started coming in and the magnitude of his upset of George W. Bush was becoming clear, I heard a CNN reporter sign off from the hotel where the victory party was starting. "That's just a few miles from here," I said. "We could go."

Nobody stopped us at the door and we shoe-horned ourselves into the crowd of people standing in the ballroom. Eventually McCain came out to make a victory announcement. I don't remember a word he said, just the buzz of hope and excitement in the room. Just a week or two before, the nomination of George II had been inevitable. And now it wasn't. Anything could happen.

That was a long time ago.

Saturday morning McCain was back in Nashua holding a town hall meeting. About 300 of us surrounded a square plywood platform six inches high and ten feet on a side. From my front-row seat, I kept worrying that McCain, older now and less steady, would back off the edge of the platform and fall. But he never did.

McCain is still a master of the town-hall format. He answers questions -- even hostile questions -- patiently and with empathy. ("Meeting adjourned," he announces in response to the first gotcha. The room erupts in laughter, and then he answers.) He tells corny jokes and at the same time manages to wink at you, as if the real joke is that you have to tell jokes to win the world's most serious job. He runs himself down, confessing to being fifth from the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy, saying that his candidacy proves that "in America anything is possible." And yet no one in the room forgets that he is John McCain, and he has survived things that would have destroyed any mere mortal. It is an amazing balancing act, much better than answering questions from all sides without falling off a plywood platform.

McCain's campaign centers on character. The warm-up video starts with his POW experience, and is full of testimonials from people who have known him for a very long time, concluding with his mother -- a surprisingly youthful woman -- telling us how lucky this country would be to have Johnny as its president. (I doubt my mom would describe my virtues with nearly so much conviction.) The same themes sound again and again: country before self, volunteering for the hard job, refusing to take the easy way out.

He is at his best when he can translate those character themes directly into issues like "the challenge of radical Islamic extremism." The other Republicans (besides Ron Paul) are running on a lesser-evil platform: We have to be bad because our enemies are worse. Strength means abandoning airy-fairy ideals and cutting corners on morality. But to McCain, idealism is strength. "We won the Cold War not with a tank battle on the plains of Western Europe. We won the Cold War because we were able to prove that we and everything we stood for were far superior to the forces of communism and the evil represented by the Soviet Union. That’s the way we’re going to win this ideological struggle over the long run. And that’s why I will declare we will not torture anyone in our custody and I will close Guantanamo Bay."

I came to watch the audience as much as the candidate. During the Bush years I have grown increasingly alienated from Republicans and suspicious of their base. The televised Republican debates seem like Saturday Night Live skits, as the candidates compete to see who can be nastier to illegal immigrants and more vicious towards suspected terrorists. (Romney promises to double Guantanamo's prison, not close it. He doesn't say who he will put there.) What kind of freak show, I wondered, is a Republican rally these days?

Not much of one at all, if this was typical. True, we were overwhelmingly white -- one black was there to collect signatures for Health Care Voters and the other was part of a class field trip from Tufts. But in New Hampshire even Obama doesn't draw many more. One lunatic question -- about par for the course -- promoted some conspiracy theory about the UN. Democratic rallies have their own lunatics, and the questions are different but no better. At worst everyone else sounded like someone you could have a reasonable disagreement with. A question expressing "rage" about illegal immigration got only a smattering of applause. (The round of applause I started in response to the no-torture pledge was louder.) The hot-button social issues -- abortion, gay marriage -- were conspicuously absent. McCain didn't mention them and neither did we.

No candidate is more identified with the Iraq War than McCain. Up to now it has worked against him, but (at least among Republican voters) it may be turning in his favor. Saturday he told the story like this: "I believed like everybody else did that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and I believed that we could win a quick initial military victory." He admits Saddam did not have WMDs, but defends the decision to remove him from power. And we did "win a lightning-like initial victory." But he blames Donald Rumsfeld's few-boots-on-the-ground strategy for botching the promise of that success.

He portrays himself as a consistent critic of that strategy, and sees the Surge as his vindication. "I went over there and I saw that the Rumsfeld strategy was not only not working, but it was doomed to failure. And I came back and I gave speeches and I said we’ve got to stop this. We’ve got to change the strategy to one that can succeed. … After nearly four years of failure we finally got rid of Rumsfeld and we got a new strategy. ... Now we are succeeding in Iraq. ... I’m the only one of those running for the nomination of this party that said Rumsfeld would fail and what we needed to do, who stood up while [the other Republican candidates] were either quiet or supported other courses of action. I did that because I’ve had the background and experience to make the right judgment."

I have scruples about questioning candidates I have decided not to vote for. (I'm voting in the Democratic primary this year, probably for Edwards.) I consider myself a guest at their rallies, so I won't ask a question just to embarrass them. But I really wanted to know, so I pushed McCain on Iraq: "I understand why you don’t want to set a date to get all our troops out of Iraq. But all the hopeful things I hear about Iraq seem awfully vague. And I want to know: Are we still going to be losing people there ten years from now, twenty years from now? Are we still going to be spending $10 billion a month ten years from now, twenty years from now?”

And he answered: “No. I understand your skepticism/cynicism. Because for nearly four years we were told ‘mission accomplished', 'a few dead enders', 'the last throes', 'stuff happens’ -- I’m sure you remember all those – while things were going bad in Iraq.” He pointed to the recent drop in casualties and other improving statistics as evidence that the Surge is finally the right strategy. He predicted that within months ("I can't say exactly how many months") General Petraeus would announce that the situation had improved to the point where we could start drawing down troop levels. (He'd better. There aren't any more troops to send.) From there, McCain expects the Iraqi army to take up more and more of the burden until American casualties are essentially zero. He leaves open the possibility of a long-term American presence in Iraq, but thinks the American people will accept that if we aren't constantly losing people.

We'll see. That story can keep working through the primaries. But some further visible improvement will be necessary by November.

I was pleased to hear McCain take global warming seriously. In the 2000 campaign, he admits, "I didn't know anything about climate change." But he credits Senate committee hearings with making him realize "there is an overwhelming body of scientific opinion that climate change is real and that it can have devastating effects on our planet. ... We’ve got to develop green technologies. We’ve got to go back to nuclear power. We have to emphasize wind and solar. We also have to practice conservation. … We should be able to develop a battery that will take a car 200 miles. We should go to ethanol – all kinds of ethanol. Not just corn-based, but sugar-cane-based and other biofuels. We can do it if we give it the priority it deserves. My friends, green technologies are good." He insists that nuclear power is safe, and points to the French, who get 80% of their power from nuclear plants. “They’re closer to their Kyoto goals than any other country.”

When a woman holding an infant asked what a McCain administration had to offer her children, he answered: "A cleaner planet. A government that they can trust in. A safety net system that will be there for them of Social Security and Medicare, and a nation that is a beacon of hope and liberty and freedom and a shining city on a hill."

McCain's status as the early Republican front-runner is long gone. He's in single digits in Iowa and in the teens in New Hampshire. And it's getting late to turn things around. But the Republicans have been playing whack-a-mole with their candidates lately. Scandal is draining Giulani's always luke-warm support. Romney has never had much of a national following, and his Iowa-based strategy seems to be failing. Thompson never caught fire. Huckabee is the surging candidate, but the party's plutocrat wing has no more stomach for him than the evangelicals have for Giuliani. The plutocrats' knives are out now, and we'll see over the next few weeks whether Huckabee can fend them off.

McCain may yet be the last man standing. Evangelicals prefer him to Giuliani. Plutocrats will take him over Huckabee. And I keep waiting for Republicans to notice that only McCain can deliver the full anti-Hillary message. Romney can't make the case that she's phony and calculating, because who is more phony and calculating than Romney? Giuliani can't point to the Clinton scandals, because the Clintons are a model family next to the Giulianis. Huckabee can't fear-monger about terrorism, because Hillary's security credentials are better than his. If Republicans want to deploy the complete Clinton Attack Armada, they need McCain.

Years ago, McCain's electability was undeniable. His candidacy would have drawn overwhelming support from moderates and even from a few liberals willing to choose character over ideology. But like Colin Powell and Tony Blair, John McCain co-signed for Bush's war and has been left holding the debt. If he's going to make it to the White House now, he's going to need a lot of help from Baghdad. The news has to be good from now to November.

That would take a ridiculous run of luck, both for McCain and for America's war effort. I wouldn't bet on it, but I think he would. "I'm the luckiest guy I've ever known," he says on the campaign video. "I've never known anyone as fortunate as I am."

Monday, December 03, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week: Why Bloggers Resent Journalists

Only the supremely wise and the abysmally ignorant do not change. -- Confucius

Mainstream Media: Not Liberal, Not Objective
It's an article of faith among right-wingers that the mainstream media has a left-wing bias. And it's an article of faith among mainstream journalists that bloggers (left and right alike) criticize them because they're objective. We're partisan, they're not, so we don't like them.

If only. This week gave us examples of liberals getting slammed in two egregiously bad articles by once-proud journalistic institutions: The Washington Post and Time Magazine.

On the front page of Thursday's Post was Foes Use Obama's Muslim Ties to Fuel Rumors About Him. You really should click the link and read the story, because it's hard to capture in a few quotes just how bad it is. The article contains no actual news. Instead, it passes on the unfounded rumor that Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim, lets people from the Obama camp deny it, and gives poll results to indicate how bad it would be for Obama if people believed the rumor. (No wonder he denies it.) If you hadn't heard the rumor before, the Post makes sure you know it now. And if you had heard it, the Post tells you nothing new. (CBS then compounded the problem by quoting the Post in an Obama Dogged By Muslim Rumors article.)

Not only doesn't the Post article add anything new to the story, it doesn't even summarize what is already known: Back in January, CNN sent someone to the "madrassa" school that Obama is supposed to have attended when he was growing up in Indonesia, and they discovered that it isn't a madrassa at all. In other words, rather than just spread gossip CNN did some actual investigating, disproved one of the rumor's main checkable details, and said so. Ten months ago.

Here's what would have been front-page news: The Post might have figured out who has been spreading this smear and traced a connection to some other campaign. Or, on the other hand, they might have uncovered some fact to give the rumor credence. Maybe they could have caught Obama on a prayer rug facing Mecca or fasting during Ramadan or something. Either way, it would be journalism. But it also would be work, and who wants to do that? Not The Washington Post. No wonder Columbia Journalism Review concluded:
This pathetic story has no place on the front page—or any page—of a paper like the Post. If a worse campaign-related story comes out this year, we don’t want to see it.
And then The Post dug in its heels and refused to admit it did anything wrong: The real problem is blogger outrage, not anything the Post did. (Their cartoonist Tom Toles, though, seems to get the point.)

The same pattern of laziness compounded by stubbornness showed up at Time. And again, it all goes to the disadvantage of Democrats. In a column titled Tone Deaf Democrats Time's columnist Joe Klein used the House's version of the proposed FISA bill as an example of how the Democrats in Congress were being "foolishly partisan" and letting civil liberties get in the way of defending the country. (The link is to the "corrected" version of the column, not the version that went out in the print magazine.) The Democrats' bill, Klein said "would require the surveillance of every foreign-terrorist target's calls to be approved by the FISA court," which in effect "would give [foreign] terrorists the same legal protections as Americans."

Only one small problem: Klein didn't read the bill. His impression of what it said came from Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra, and Klein repeated the Republican spin as fact without checking. Glenn Greenwald, who writes every day rather than doing weekly columns, checked. The bill actually says the exact opposite. In English.
Sec. 105A. (a) Foreign to Foreign Communications- (1) IN GENERAL - Notwithstanding any other provision of this Act, a court order is not required for electronic surveillance directed at the acquisition of the contents of any communication between persons that are not known to be United States persons and are reasonably believed to be located outside the United States for the purpose of collecting foreign intelligence information
OK, that's bad, but we all make mistakes. Klein then produced a series of pathetic responses on Time's Swampland blog. First he tried to claim he was really right (without mentioning Glenn or anyone else who said he was wrong or what exactly the criticism was). Then he said the bill could be interpreted a lot of different ways. Then he said it didn't matter, because the bill would never become law anyway. And then he said -- and this is not out of context -- "I have neither the time nor legal background to figure out who's right." That would be work, I suppose, and work gets in the way of a superstar journalist lifestyle.

Time as an institution did no better. Eventually Time acknowledged Klein had made a mistake, but the mistake (which has been fixed in the "corrected" online column) is that Klein should have balanced the Republican spin with a Democratic denial, making the whole thing a he-said/she-said article. (Kind of like the Post's Obama-Muslim piece.) This apparently is what Time believes journalism is: You write down what people tell you. "Balanced" journalism is writing down what people on both sides tell you. (And balance is the key thing: That's why Time balances a "liberal" columnist like Klein with conservatives like Charles Krauthammer.)

Just to balance this report, I should point out that some people believe in a thing called "reality," and even think that reporters should check people's statements against this "reality" before reporting them. But I have neither the time nor the philosophical background to figure out if they're right.

This story has been banging around in the blogosphere all week. Glenn writes about it in a bunch of articles. My favorite is here. Kos chimes in here. Just about every major liberal blogger commented on it somewhere. Satirist Jon Smith draws the appropriate conclusions in Journalism 101. His second rule of journalism is: "There are two sides to every story and a journalist must give both sides equal weight even if he or she knows one side is completely false."

So anyway, that's what the "liberal" and "objective" media has been up to this week. Mainstream journalists never seem to catch on to the real reason bloggers don't like them. It's not ideological, it's personal: Many bloggers have comparatively few readers and work very hard for them. So when journalists with millions of readers are incredibly lazy, it stirs up resentment.

America's Changing Image in the World
I guess you can't go fascist and expect no one to notice. That's the lesson I draw from the following two stories.

Thursday, a Canadian court invalidated a three-year-old agreement between Canada and the US about how refugees are handled. To make a long story short: If you're a refugee from country X who shows up in Chicago and then later claims asylum in Montreal, the Canadians will send your asylum case back to Chicago. And vice versa.

The judge threw that agreement out because he ruled that the US is no longer a safe country to return refugees to. The agreement, he claims, is predicated on prior treaties like the Convention Against Torture, which the US is violating. We say we're not violating it, of course, but we're not fooling anybody. The judge noted the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who we kidnapped while he was changing planes in New York and sent to Syria to be tortured. He turned out to be innocent.

Meanwhile, according to Sunday's Times of London, the US government has argued before a Court of Appeals in the UK that we have the right to kidnap British citizens wanted for crimes in the US. Naturally, we'll follow the formal extradition procedures if it suits our purpose and we're feeling nice that week. But because this came up during the extradition hearing of a businessman wanted for bank fraud and tax evasion -- not terrorism -- the Times predicts that this American claim "will alarm the British business community." The article has comments attached to it. Apparently the Times' readers, perhaps under the illusion that they are citizens of a sovereign nation, are ticked.

Sex and the Married Mayor
It's hard to know how to feel about Rudy Giuliani's week. In general I hate sex scandals, because I don't think a person's sex life tells you much about how they'll govern. (You'd think the Clinton/Bush comparison would have laid that argument to rest for good, but apparently not.) A bunch of this isn't new: We already knew Giuliani was having an affair with his current wife while he was still married to his previous wife. And the city was responsible for Giuliani's security when he left town, even for personal reasons. What we're left with is a scandal about accounting: Legitimate security expenses were hidden in odd parts of the city budget, presumably to cover up the affair. If there weren't a sex story in here, nobody would care.

A secondary part of the story is the NYPD providing personal services to Giuliani's mistress (now wife), including walking her dog. Again, as long as he doesn't claim to be the family-values candidate, it doesn't bother me that he had a mistress. But the sense of entitlement here is worrisome. One big problem with the Bush administration is that no one can tell the difference between government employees and political operatives. If Giuliani thinks it's appropriate for the NYPD to be walking dogs for friends of the mayor, that's not likely to change. But again I have to admit that sex is what gives the story legs. If the NYPD were walking dogs for Giuliani's mother, no one would care.

On the other hand, a lot about Giuliani is legitimately disturbing, and it doesn't get much coverage. His actual record around 9-11 was pretty dismal. He cut a good figure on TV, but a lot of firefighters died because the city had screwed up buying their radios. (Apparently the firefighters' radios didn't pick up the order to evacuate the World Trade Center. The police radios did, and they got out.) And the reason he looked so dashing wandering the streets issuing commands was that he had over-ruled the experts who told him not to build his emergency command post inside the WTC. That mistake left him nowhere to go after the towers collapsed.

Finally, Giuliani has all of Bush's character flaws: He surrounds himself with yes-men who maintain his bubble. He never admits a mistake. He gets angry when people question him. He believes in secrecy and executive power rather than consensus building.

So I'm happy to see Giuliani have a bad week, and I'm not going to cry for him if this messes up his candidacy. But when are we going to grow up about sex? (OK, OK, it makes for great humor. Here's Tom Tomorrow's take. And TPM's fake Giuliani ad.)

Short Notes
Speaking of sex, the Idaho Stateman has new evidence that Senator Larry Craig is gay. Color me shocked. (Craig pledges to keep working for the people of Idaho despite these "baseless" accusations. Presumably he thinks a gay senator would be incapacitated in some way.) Given that lying and hypocrisy aren't against the law and the guy's term runs out next year, can't we just agree to ignore him until he goes away?

The Giuliani thing brings this question to mind: How many people in America receive round-the-clock police protection? In view of the occasional assassination attempts, I reluctantly accept the idea that the President has to live in a security bubble. But how many people are we talking about? Governors? The mayor of New York? The mayor's wife and mistress? Are all these people really in danger? (Attention murderers and kidnappers: Mayor Bloomberg's girlfriend isn't protected.)

On the Washington Post/Newsweek "On Faith" site, Eboo Patel makes an important distinction: The really significant "faith divide" isn't between believers and unbelievers, it's between pluralists and totalitarians. "Pluralists are people who want to build societies where people from different backgrounds live in equal dignity and mutual loyalty. Totalitarians are people who want only their group to dominate and everyone else to suffocate."

Rolling Stone has a great article called "How America Lost the War on Drugs". It's a fairly long and detailed history, but it comes down to this: The heart of America's illegal drug problem is that Americans want to take illegal drugs. You can't solve that problem with troops in Columbia or ships in the Caribbean or a big fence along the Mexican border. You can't even solve it by locking up drug dealers in this country, because it's a demand problem, not a supply problem. As long as Americans demand drugs, the market will supply them. (You'd think that would be obvious to free-market conservatives, wouldn't you?) So we've spent about half a trillion dollars and have nothing to show for it. Meanwhile, the focus on "winning" a "war" keeps us from doing simple things that would lessen the problem and mitigate the violence associated with it.

If you want a humorous-but-accurate introduction to the current financial mess and its causes, listen to this fake interview of a London investment banker by the British comedy team Bird and Fortune. It reminds me of some of the interview routines Peter Cook and Dudley Moore did many years ago.

The National Republican Congressional Committee put out a request for amateur attacks ads against the Democratic Congress (with prizes no less), and got five entries -- one of which is a Democratic parody of a Republican attack ad. (It's pretty good.) Bottom-up creativity just doesn't seem to be a workable model on the Right. I wonder why.