Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Dead Certain: Reading Bush's Character

I just finished reading Robert Draper's book Dead Certain: the Presidency of George W. Bush. The book has been out for several weeks already and has already been reviewed in many places -- here and here, for example, and Draper has been interviewed here and here and here -- so I'm not pretending that I'm writing breaking news.

The reason to read this book is to get insight in to George Bush's character, not to find startling new behind-the-scenes information. There was a flap in the press about Draper quoting Bush as not remembering how the Iraqi Army got disbanded -- one of the most important blunders of the occupation -- but that kind of stuff is exceptional. What you get instead is the steady drip-drip-drip of Bush's reactions to events and the reactions of the people around him. If you consider Bush and his people bad company, you will not enjoy this book. (It's hard enough for me to relive the 2000 and 2004 campaigns through the eyes of Gore or Kerry. To see it from the Republican side was like scraping my fingernails on a blackboard.) But the accumulation of detail gives Bush a three-dimensionality that I haven't seen anywhere else.

So you can read the book and form your own impressions -- my conclusions don't always match Draper's, so yours probably won't match either his or mine. But here's the main stuff I gleaned about Bush's character:

He wants to do big things, but he doesn't want to work hard or sweat the details. I'm reminded of the song "Extraordinary" from the Broadway musical Pippin.
Give me my chance
And give me my wings
But don't make me think about everyday things.
It's so secondary
For someone who is very
Like me.
I remember feeling that way myself when I was about 12. (That's the point in Pippin as well. It's a coming-to-maturity play, and Pippin sings "Extraordinary" near the beginning.) I wanted to be a baseball pitcher. Now, if you're serious about that ambition, the first thing you need to work on is control of your pitches. So you need to find a pitching motion that seems natural and practice it until it's robotic. But at 12 I would much rather imagine on one pitch that I was Juan Marichal and do his high leg kick, while on the next pitch I'd be Kent Tekulve and do his submarine delivery. I would have thrown left-handed like Koufax if I could have managed it.

That's Bush in a nutshell. Not the variation, but the unwillingness to sacrifice fantasy to boring work. He doesn't want to "play smallball" as he puts it. He doesn't want to learn about Sunni and Shia, or why the Kurds don't get along with the Turkmen. He wants to be Churchill. He wants to be Truman. Let's just hope he doesn't decide to be Caesar.

If that sounds like I'm saying Bush in immature, well, yeah. His life is full of 12-year-old-boy concerns: How to prove his independence from his father, for example, or shaping his day around when he's going to ride his bike.

He thinks that a leader's job is to project certainty and confidence. Meanwhile his aides, the ones he's supposed to be inspiring with his certainty and confidence, think that their job is to protect him from harsh criticism and bad news that might disturb his confidence and thereby prevent him from leading.

That's what creates the weird dreamworld aspect of the Bush presidency. There's a mutual projection going on. Bush has projected his need to be perfect onto the troops and the other people he tries to lead. It's not for himself that he refuses to admit any mistakes. They need to believe he's perfect. How can he ask the troops to risk their lives for his policy if they can see that he's not sure it's the right thing to do? The people around him, meanwhile, don't look at the bad news because the president doesn't want to hear it and needs to be protected from it. And they know he won't dig it out on his own. That's how the administration could bungle Katrina so badly. The rest of us could just turn on our TVs and see the anarchy. But it took days for that information to penetrate the bubble around President Bush.

None of these people believe they're being self-serving when they put forward some nonsense like "we're kicking ass" in Iraq. Bush thinks it's his job to say stuff like that, and his people think it's their job to enable him to do it with conviction.

Bush's compassion is a free-spinning gear. It turns, but it's not connected to anything. Liberals often look at Bush's policies and speculate that he doesn't feel compassion, that he's totally self-absorbed and can't grasp that people are being hurt. It's more subtle than that. Draper's book is full of stories of his visits to wounded Iraq veterans in the hospital and his conversations with families of dead soldiers. He has strong emotional reactions to those visits. (So much so that sometimes the vets and the families seem to feel like they need to buck him up, not the other way around.) He admits to crying a lot. But somehow he never comes out of those visits thinking "I have to find a way to stop this." The emotion is an end in itself. The only action it leads to is Bush crying.

This pattern didn't start with Iraq. "Compassionate conservatism" has been that way from the beginning. In the old, bad, uncompassionate conservatism, the rich are rich, the poor are poor, and that's just dandy. If the poor had any talent or gumption, they'd be rich. But they don't, so they stay poor and it's their own damn fault. In the new compassionate conservatism, on the other hand, the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor, but the rich occasionally think about the poor and feel moved by their plight.

Folks who don't get this dynamic, like David Kuo, feel betrayed by what they see as a lack of follow-up or even as hypocrisy. That's because they started with the misconception that compassion is supposed to motivate you to help people. But the point of compassionate conservatism is to be therapeutic for the conservatives themselves, not for the objects of their compassion. The point is to break the icejam in the conservative heart and let those emotions flow. It's a healthier way to live.

And George W. Bush is nothing if not healthy. He regularly outruns or outbikes the young agents that the Secret Service handpicks to keep up with him. He doesn't drink any more. He watches his weight. He gets to bed by nine, no matter what kind of crisis might be popping somewhere.

He might live to a hundred. Maybe longer. Maybe instead of thinking that he's Churchill, he'll start thinking he's Methuselah and plan to live to be 969. He'll surround himself with people who tell him he can do it. And when he starts failing at 105, he won't admit it. Not because he's afraid of dying, of course, but because it would be too hard for his people to face.

Monday, September 24, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week: Questioning Ahmadinejad

Say His Name Fast Three Times
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in New York to address the UN this week, so Iran has been on a lot of people's minds. 60 Minutes interviewed Ahmadinejad: see the transcript and video on their web site. It's amazing to me what a hostile interview CBS' Scott Pelley does. Again and again, he repeats Bush administration talking points to Ahmadinejad as if they were the consensus views of the American people, and demands yes-or-no responses to them.

The first set of questions is about Ahmadinejad's plan to visit Ground Zero in New York, which apparently is not going to be allowed. Bear in mind that Iran is Shia and Al Qaeda is Sunni, so they have no affection for each other. Also that the Iranian government made all the appropriate gestures of condolence after 9/11.
PELLEY: Sir, what were you thinking? The World Trade Center site is the most sensitive place in the American heart, and you must have known that visiting there would be insulting to many, many Americans.

AHMADINEJAD: Why should it be insulting?

PELLEY: Well, sir, you're the head of government of an Islamist state that the United States government says is a major exporter of terrorism around the world.

AHMADINEJAD: Well, I wouldn't say that what the American government says is the prerequisite here. Something happened there which led to other events. Many innocent people were killed there. Some of those people were American citizens obviously. We obviously are very much against any terrorist action and any killing. And also we are very much against any plots to sow the seeds of discord among nations. Usually you go to these sites to pay your respects. And also to perhaps air your views about the root causes of such incidents. I think that when I do that, I will be paying, as I said earlier, my respect to the American nation.

PELLEY: But the American people, sir, believe that your country is a terrorist nation, exporting terrorism in the world. You must have known that visiting the World Trade Center site would infuriate many Americans, as if to be mocking the American people.

AHMADINEJAD: Well, I'm amazed. How can you speak for the whole of the American nation?
It goes on like that. Go look.

While I'm on the subject, I think we screwed up by not letting him go to Ground Zero. If we show him every hospitality and he insults us, he looks bad. But if we show him disrespect because we're afraid to be insulted, we look bad. We should not put a country like Iran in a position to lecture us about free speech and freedom of expression.

Juan Cole's take on Ahmadinejad and the American government is on Salon.

The Best Graph of The Week
Until recently, Paul Krugman's excellent column was behind the firewall at the New York Times web site, so only subscribers could see it. (Brilliant marketing: We're going to assemble a great roster of columnists and then make sure they're seen by as few people as possible.) Now it's not only available, but Paul also has a blog "The Conscience of a Liberal" on the Times site. He kicked off his blog by posting a graph that is the proverbial picture-worth-a-thousand-words: The percentage of America's national income that has gone to the top 10%, from 1917 to the present. It's a simple concept, and it clearly makes the point that America used to be a much more egalitarian society than it is today.

Now There's a Word For...
... when people scan through blog comments looking for crazy stuff they can quote to characterize the other side as wackos. It's called nutpicking. Keven Drum identified the phenomenon in August, 2006 and had a contest to name it, but it has taken me this long to notice. Drum's Law goes like this:
If you're forced to rely on random blog commenters to make a point about the prevalence of some form or another of disagreeable behavior, you've pretty much made exactly the opposite point.
In other words, a movement is characterized by its leaders and by people who have public followings. If you can't demonstrate some wacko point of view by quoting them, it can't be very widespread or significant.

Republican Watch
Speaking of leaders whose statements might characterize a movement, Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani proposed expanding NATO to include Israel, which (as Matthew Yglesias puts it ) commits "the United States to the armed defense of the borders of a country that lacks internationally recognized borders." Glenn Greenwald calls it "the single most extremist policy of any major presidential candidate." Strange that John Edwards' haircut got so much more attention than this.

At the Values Voters Presidential Debate last Monday (I missed it too), the Grand Avenue Church of God choir sang, "Why Should God Bless America?" to the tune (naturally) of "God Bless America". People For the American Way has the lyrics and video on their web site. If you doubt for a second that there's a pro-conservative bias in American news coverage, try to imagine what would happen if a liberal group did the same thing: strung together a litany of America's failure to embody liberal values and perverted a patriotic classic to challenge America's worthiness. The outcry would last for weeks, like the bleating about the Move-On General Betray Us ad.

American Prospect editor Garance Franke-Ruta blogged a female point of view on Chris Matthews strange claim that Fred Thompson is sexy. The post ends by placing Tom Brady's Sports Illustrated cover next to a CNN picture of Thompson. "Any questions?"

I'm really starting to like the video they do over at TPM. Last Monday they examined John McCain's appearance on Meet the Press and spliced in video of the events that McCain was mischaracterizing. Why can't the TV news networks do stuff like this?

There's Still a War in Iraq
The Washington Post observes that the administration's plan to get the troop levels back to pre-Surge levels by July are not very solid. Quoting the White House's Stephen Hadley:
"What General Petraeus talked about was not a timetable, it was an expectation that if progress on security continues, he will be able to make some adjustments and drawdowns," Hadley said at a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations. Reductions, he said "will depend on the conditions on the ground," among which is "whether the Iraqi security forces will be able to take responsibility for more of the door-to-door population security."
So if violence spikes back up, or if the Iraqi security forces don't live up to the administrations' expectations, all bets are off. But that couldn't happen, could it?

That's why the argument about whether the Surge has been working is so important. If General Petraeus' evidence of progress is smoke and mirrors, then the planned troop withdrawals (minimal as they are) are smoke and mirrors too. And over at Democracy Arsenal, Ilan Goldenberg can't make General Petraeus' numbers play nicely with a report that the Pentagon just delivered to Congress.

The New York Times wrote about Iraq's internal refugees. Interesting point here: The refugees are not necessarily sorting themselves out along sectarian lines. Sometimes they're just going to neighborhoods that have more reliable electricity.

I need more time to figure out what's going on with the Blackwater security contractors in Iraq. I do know this much: One reason the number of American troops in Iraq looks as low as it does is that we also employ a lot of private contractors. A bunch of them are cooks and drivers and so forth (who make many times what a soldier makes -- that's the efficiency of the free market at work), but some of them are mercenaries who carry guns and do things like protect our diplomats. That's Blackwater and a few other companies.

It's not at all clear what law, if any, applies to these folks. If they were our soldiers, they'd be subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. And if they were Iraqis, they'd be subject to Iraqi law. But Blackwater exists in a legal gray area. So if they did indeed shoot up a bunch of Iraqis for no good reason, they may get away with it.

Brave New Films provides this jazzy video about Blackwater. The only thing I have to add is that my friend in the Marines tells me that the real soldiers hate these guys. They make a lot of money, they're accountable to nobody, if they get fed up they can go home, and when they get into trouble the real soldiers have to come and rescue them. The nastiness in Fallujah, you may remember, started with insurgents killing four Blackwater guys.

So I guess I can add one more item to the list of words I never thought I'd associate with America: torture, secret prison, pre-emptive invasion, and now mercenaries.

Want to Know. Want to Know.
Check out the Strokeland Superband's music video Colin Powell, which asks the musical question: "When will Colin Powell write his tell-all book?" I can't say I've ever had to rhyme "harsh interrogation".

Monday, September 17, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week: Iraq Week

This week was Iraq Week. Petraeus testified, everybody in the world commented, and then President Bush gave a speech magnanimously accepting the recommendations that he had hand-picked General Petraeus to make. This Mike Luckovich cartoon pretty much captures it.

Real People in Harm's Way
Much of the debate has been about whether or not General Petraeus cooked the books in the statistics he used to claim that the Surge is working. (I think he did.) But one reason we focus so much on statistics is that so many Americans have no direct connection either to our troops or to the Iraqis. As Philip Carter says on Intel Dump: "The burden of today's war is heavy, but it is not wide." We don't know the people who are dying, and the financial burden of the war is being passed on to our grandchildren -- who cares about them? -- so we talk about numbers. And some of us make callous comments like this. (Me? I have one friend and no close relatives in the military. My friend is stateside right now. And my taxes are lower than they were at the beginning of the war.)

A couple of the things I ran across this week at least reminded me of the real people in harm's way. First, a few weeks ago I linked to a New York Times op-ed written by seven soldiers in Iraq. It was called "The War as We Saw It" and it gave a profoundly less optimistic view than General Petraeus. Well, two of those guys are dead. Their unit was close to finishing its 15-month rotation, but they didn't make it.

Second, for years a young woman from Baghdad has written a blog called Baghdad Burning under the pseudonym Riverbend. She is a wonderful writer and observer. A lot of us in the blogosphere feel like we know her, even though we wouldn't recognize her in person. In some ways it's been as good (and as bad) as having a friend right there on the ground in Baghdad telling us how things look from the civilian point of view. Whenever there was a long gap between posts, the Internet would buzz with worry: Was Riverbend OK? If she died, how would we know?

Well, recently we got the good/bad news that Riverbend and her family have escaped to Syria. They're Sunnis, and they had been living in one of those walled-up neighborhoods that are either fortresses or gulags, depending on your point of view. They're safe now, but Riverbend has no idea whether she'll ever see her relatives and friends again, or if Baghdad will ever be safe to visit. The story of her escape is emotional and well worth reading. If you've never heard of Riverbend before, read a few pieces from the Baghdad Burning archives to get acquainted. Try this one or go back to 2003. (The earlier you go, the less bitter she sounds.)

Her story puts a personal face on the statistic that something like 4 million Iraqis are now refugees -- about half in Syria or Jordan or Iran and the other half somewhere inside Iraq. (I imagine that a lot of Baghdad Sunnis and Shia are now living with relatives in their tribal homelands.) That's from a pre-war population of about 27 million. Do the math; it's horrifying. It puts a different slant on Petraeus' testimony that some previously violent Baghdad neighborhoods are now "quiet". It also gives the strongest possible rebuke to the administration's frequently repeated claim that 50 million Iraqis and Afghanis "are free now" -- and to the rhetoric about bringing "freedom" to Iran. The Iraqis are so free now that hundreds of thousands of them -- not wild-eyed Islamist extremists, but educated westernized young women like Riverbend -- would rather leave everything they've ever known and live under dictatorship in Syria. Think hard about that.

And if you want a young woman's view of life in Iran, pick up the book Lipstick Jihad by Azadeh Moaveni. My favorite Afghan book is a little out of date now, but Come Back to Afghanistan is a good read. Both books succeed in making their countries more three-dimensional to us distant Americans.

Creative Responses
If you'd rather laugh than cry about the whole Surge hoopla, check out this video that reviews the Surge as if it were a movie. ("What's up with that Iran subplot?" a woman-on-the-street asks, and her date responds: "They're just setting up a sequel.") Or this video that advertises the Surge like a product. (The Surge-as-detergent segment has a fast-talking disclaimer: "Appearance of cleanliness may simply mask the foul stench of corruption.")

And if you'd rather just be distracted, watch this video of what a bench-clearing brawl looks like on the baseball fields of South Korea. But don't ask me to explain what they're doing.

About That Speech
Fred Kaplan did a good job taking Bush's speech apart on Slate. Kaplan's key point:
Let's be clear one more time about this claim: The surge of five extra combat brigades (bringing the total from 15 to 20) started in January. Their 15-month tours of duty will begin to expire next April. The Army and Marines have no combat units ready to replace them. The service chiefs refuse to extend the tours any further. The president refuses to mobilize the reserves any further. And so, the surge will be over by next July. This has been understood from the outset. It is the result of simple arithmetic, not of anyone's decision, much less some putative success.
Philip Carter (an Iraq war veteran who writes the blog Intel Dump ) called the speech "an effort to put lipstick, mascara, and a pound or two of pancake makeup on a really ugly pig."

James Fallows of The Atlantic, who has been in Asia for some while now, wrote a column giving what he calls the man from Mars view of Bush's speech and the responses to it. About John Edwards, who bought TV time to answer Bush with this statement, Fallows comments: "How long has John Edwards been sounding like this? Wow!"

Other Voices
David Enders at In These Times explains Why Iraq Is Getting Worse. He writes this from Najaf, where the civil war is not between Sunni and Shia, but between different factions of Shia. If you're watching Fox News, you might as well watch Al Jazeera too. Here's what they're saying. (Is it just me, or do they sound more reasonable?) One issue I didn't hear in General Petraeus testimony: the cholera epidemic in northern Iraq. George Packer has an article in The New Yorker asking the questions that we really ought to be focusing on: How are we going to pull out of Iraq? What will happen when we do? Post Global, which seems to be a joint effort of the Washington Post and Newsweek, identifies the following mid-range trend: the Iraq War is responsible for a major decline in the United States' ability to lead the world.

Greenspan Jumps From the Sinking Ship
This week former Federal Reserve Chief Alan Greenspan joined the long list of conservatives who now claim they never really supported what President Bush was doing. Paul Krugman points out that this is all nonsense: Like all the other ship-jumpers, Greenspan supported Bush when it counted, back when he was cutting taxes for the rich and ignoring the deficit.

In retrospect, Mr. Greenspan’s moral collapse in 2001 was a portent. It foreshadowed the way many people in the foreign policy community would put their critical faculties on hold and support the invasion of Iraq, despite ample evidence that it was a really bad idea. And like enthusiastic war supporters who have started describing themselves as war critics now that the Iraq venture has gone wrong, Mr. Greenspan has started portraying himself as a critic of administration fiscal irresponsibility now that President Bush has become deeply unpopular and Democrats control Congress.

Glenn Greenwald was already compiling a list of dishonest ship-jumpers back in June. Add Alan to the list. Can no one on the Right just say: "I was wrong"?

Gonzales Replacement
Today it has been announced that Judge Michael Mukasey will be nominated to be the new attorney general. Lest you imagine that the liberal blogosphere is knee-jerk anti-Bush, Glenn Greenwald supports Mukasey.

Monday, September 10, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week: Waiting for Petraeus

It seems almost silly to comment on a week that ends just as General Petraeus is giving his long-awaited testimony, doesn't it? But it's not like we can't guess what he's going to say. People spent the whole week guessing, and they mostly agreed with each other: Petraeus would say we'd made military progress since the Surge started, but that the political situation of the Iraqi government hadn't improved. He'd ask for more time.

Surge Statistics
The big debate all week has been whether the Surge has reduced violence in Baghdad or anywhere else. Josh Marshall over at TPM has been all over this issue. Basically the story is that the Pentagon's numbers differ from those compiled by AP, the GAO, the Iraqi government, or pretty much anybody. And how they get those numbers is classified. Josh sums it up:

In other words, it's not just a matter of getting the numbers from Petraeus and his staff and deciding whether you believe them or not. They won't even tell us what the numbers are -- let alone how they came up with them. All they'll say is that they're very good. Or in some cases that there's X percentage drop over the course of the surge. Or an isolated number here or there. But actual hard numbers? Going back over the last couple years? For some reason we're not allowed to see those.

The low point in the week was the article by Michael Gordon in Saturday's New York Times. For those who don't remember, Gordon is a former co-author of Judith Miller, the Times reporter who wrote all those false stories about Saddam's WMDs in the lead-up to the invasion. Well, Gordon is at it again, reporting the Pentagon's spin on the Surge as if it were the only word on the subject. Josh takes it apart here.

Several bloggers discussed the "moving goalposts" of the Surge. The best job was by Tim Grieve at Salon's War Room blog. He goes back to the statements President Bush made when he introduced the Surge, and traces the story from there:
for a lesson in setting goal posts when it's politically necessary and then moving them when the ball falls short, watch how the White House first embraced the idea of "benchmarks" as a test for the "surge" and then tore them down once it became clear that they wouldn't be met.
In a second excellent post, Grieve explains the maneuver by which the administration makes sure that it's never the right time to criticize them.
The pattern is now clear: Demand that everyone else withhold judgment on Iraq until some new assessment arrives, announce that you're doing whatever you want to do no matter what, declare the ensuing debate to be too late, and then start the whole process over again six or nine months down the road by demanding that everyone withhold judgment again.
What's Going On in Anbar?
Beyond the hype, I found a couple good on-the-ground articles about what's going on in Anbar province. Over at the Small Wars Journal there's an article by Dave Kilcullen, the Australian who is one of the top theorists about counter-insurgency. I disagree with his support of the Surge, but I thought his article was interesting anyway. He gets down into the dynamics of the relationship between Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Sunni tribes.

A second interesting article is The Myth of AQI by Andrew Tilghman at Washington Monthly. He looks at the question: How big a deal is Al Qaeda in Iraq? Are they as big as we're being told? Have they done all the things they've been given credit for? He examines the pressures inside our military to interpret any ambiguous incident as the work of AQI.

Looking Back at Gore's Press Coverge
Vanity Fair takes a look back at how the press covered Al Gore when he was running for president in 2000. They review how innocent statements turned into "I invented the Internet" and a bunch of other bogus stories that got woven together into a serious character flaw.

This is an important story, and not just because Gore might run for something again someday. (I don't think he will. I believe Al is happy with the life he has now, and he's not going to screw it all up by becoming a candidate again.) We need to understand how the distortion process works, so that we can spot it when it happens again in 2008. Because it will.

Don't Vote Until You See the Whites of Their Eyes
This week I took advantage of my God-given right as a New Hampshirite to see presidential candidates close up. I wrote about Fred Thompson in a separate post. And I got another look at John Edwards on Friday.
Bush Books
A bunch of new books about the administration have come out recently. I'm going to tell you about them over the next few weeks. This week I read Charlie Savage's Takeover: the Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy. Savage is the Boston Globe reporter who got a Pulitzer Prize for drawing attention to the signing statements President Bush has been attaching to bills the Congress passes, and to how those statements differ from those of previous presidents.

Nothing in Takeover seemed new to me, which actually speaks well for Savage. I hate it that Bob Woodward keeps writing in the Washington Post but saves the good stuff for his books. Savage apparently has been telling us what he knows all along.

What's valuable in Takeover is to see the whole story laid out end-to-end. In the presence of such an all-pervasive propaganda machine, subjects often come up surrounded by one apparent set of facts, which later turn out to be false. It's hard to keep track of what was true when. So, for example, when we first heard about Guantanamo, we were assured that the people being kept there were "the worst of the worst" and far too dangerous to put through any ordinary system of justice. Much later we found out that we had paid bounties to our Afghan allies for Taliban members, and that a lot of people they sold us were probably just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The story looks completely different when the facts are put in order from the beginning and you don't have unlearn a set of lies.

Savage's book does a good job of documenting the precise difference between this administration and previous ones. I've heard conservatives claim that Bush is doing nothing that other presidents didn't do, and that the buzz about it is all partisan politics. When you see the whole story in one book, that's a hard position to maintain. It's more accurate to say that the Bush administration combed history for the worst excesses of all previous administrations, and looked for ways to extend those precedents.

I also got a much better appreciation of the power of lawyers in the executive branch, especially the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department, which interprets the laws for the rest of the executive branch. If they're willing to say that up is down and black is white, and if they can keep the resulting issues out of the courts by invoking secrecy or through some other method, then anything can happen. If the OLC wrote a secret memo saying that the government can shoot you, and if the administration convinced the courts that producing any evidence about your shooting would violate the state secrets privilege, well then you could be shot and that would be the end of it. Do you understand now? That's how an innocent man like Maher Arar could be tortured and not even get an apology from the U.S. government.

Savage makes it clear that expanding executive power has been Cheney's agenda for 30 years. What he never says is why. And I don't know why either. Is it just power for power's sake? Or does an imperial presidency serve some worthy purpose in Cheney's mind? I have no idea.

Other Bush books in the queue: The Terror Presidency by Jack Goldsmith, who used to work for the Bush administration in the aforementioned OLC. And Dead Certain by Robert Draper, who I mentioned last week.

Online Humor
Every watch Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central? in his segment "The Word," a text box constantly runs counterpoint to what he's saying. It's a great gimmick, but why just apply it to Colbert's parody of Bill O'Reilly? Why not do it to Bill himself? That's the idea behind Stalking Points Memo over at the News Corpse web site. They take some clips of O'Reilly's "Talking Points" and run their own text box next to it, just like Colbert's.

What's Fred Up To?

I went to Fred Thompson's rally in front of City Hall in Nashua, NH Sunday afternoon. Maybe rally is the wrong word. I'm not sure what I saw. He stood on a platform and talked to maybe 100-150 people, but he didn't make any attempt to "rally" us. I'm not sure what he was doing.

Early on, he told us he wasn't going to give us a lot of applause lines, that he had come to talk to us "seriously about serious things." And for about an hour we were a serious, somber crowd. (There might have been more of us if it hadn't just rained.) And maybe we were skeptical. It was hard to tell. Look at the expressions in this picture:
Does that look like a rally to you? People are listening, but they don't look very rallied, do they? Even the woman up front holding the Thompson sign looks bored.

If that were a Democratic candidate's crowd, I'd think "He just outlined his eight-point tax plan again." But that's not what's going on either. Fred makes Obama look like a wonk. His slogan is: "Security. Unity. Prosperity." And that's what you get -- big themes, not plans and programs. He doesn't like bureaucracies and regulations. He wants to keep taxes low. He is committed to doing "whatever it takes" to win the war on terror. He wants to fix the entitlement programs now, before the problems get worse. He wants to stop all the partisan bickering in Washington and have America show a united face to the world.

If you want any more detail than that, raise your hand and hope he calls on you. He does answer questions, and although you still won't get an eight-point tax plan, he seems to be an intelligent man who has a basic grasp of the issues (unlike certain presidents I could name).

He's not claiming to be "somebody who has all the answers." Instead, he's making the same kind of pitch Ronald Reagan made: He has solid conservative values, so you can trust him to do the right thing. (That a candidate can run this way is a tribute to the long-term marketing of the conservative brand. If a candidate ran as somebody with solid liberal values, nobody would know what the heck he was about.)

I wonder how this is going to play out over the next few months. I'm guessing the "seriously about serious things" theme is going to be part of a larger plan to differentiate Thompson from the other Republican candidates. Maybe that's how he proves he's not a "politician" like these other guys. But he'd better get that script out to the media soon, because otherwise they're going to be talking about his unenthusiastic crowds.

Full disclosure: This is the first Republican event I've attended since McCain's original Straight Talk Express back in 2000. I'm solidly a Democrat and I've already decided to vote for Edwards, so I had to come up with a set of ethics for being at Republican rallies. I decided that I'm not going to try to pass for a supporter, but I'm not going to heckle or otherwise embarrass the candidate. I'll only ask a question if there's something I really want to know. Nothing popped to mind while listening to Fred, so I wandered around taking pictures rather than raising my hand and trying to get his attention.

For months I've been planning to start seeing Republican candidates and not getting around to it, but this was just too easy. City Hall is walking distance from my apartment and the Patriots already had a big lead, so I turned off the TV, grabbed my camera and went.

Fred's bus was about 45 minutes late, which isn't that unusual. It had rained on us in the meantime, but people kept arriving and I didn't see anybody give up. Some people accepted the Thompson stickers that were being offered, but many didn't. As often happens at New Hampshire presidential events, a lot of people were there to publicize their causes. There were about a half dozen anti-war protesters, and maybe an equal number of people from Health Care Voters, plus a few other groups. The sound system played some classic rock to keep us amused. (Suggestion: If you're trying to divert attention from your candidate's lobbying career, leave "Taking Care of Business" off the soundtrack next time. The idea that Fred might be "taking care of business, every day; taking care of business, every way" is exactly what worries a lot of us.)

In New Hampshire, a Republican rally crowd looks a lot like a Democratic rally crowd. Except maybe for the guy standing next to me, who wore a full collection of Harley stuff. And I saw a guy in an NRA jacket. No blacks or Hispanics, but I haven't seen a lot of them at Democratic events either.

Fred arrived around 4:30. (I could have watched the end of the Patriots' game after all.) His stump speech is mostly biographical, which is fairly typical at the beginning of a campaign. I haven't checked whether any of the details are true. He presents himself as coming from parents who had to sacrifice to give him a chance to succeed. He went to law school and became a prosecutor. He downplays any hint of personal ambition beyond that. His acting career just sort of happened: He got involved in an interesting case and was asked to play himself in the movie. ("I figured they couldn't tell me I was doing it wrong," he said. "But sometimes they did.") The opportunity to run for the Senate opened up, and he saw this as a chance to stand up for those values he'd been talking about: low taxes, less regulation, free enterprise. He got out of the Senate because he believes in term limits, and went back to the "real world" (i.e. Hollywood and lobbying), plus occasionally doing jobs for the administration, like shepherding John Roberts' nomination through the Senate.

He was asked the same kinds of questions that the Democratic candidates get:
  • universal health care. "If it means the government taking over the health care system, I'm against it." He made the usual conservative comments about waiting for service in countries with a national health service, and poked fun at Michael Moore and Cuba. He made no specific proposals, but talked about using the tax system to help individuals buy their own insurance. He sees the health care problem as one of cost control, and doesn't believe either the insurance bureaucracy or a government bureaucracy can control costs as well as individuals would. (Bureaucracy is a bogeyman in Thompson's rhetoric. He doesn't say it with the venom that some people do, but whenever the word bureaucracy shows up in a Thompson answer, you can be sure that's where he's going to put the blame.) He talks vaguely about changing the rules to encourage more free market competition, which he believes will make health care cheaper. (Maybe it's just me, but this approach doesn't sound nearly as persuasive as it did before two terms of Bush-Cheney.)
  • jobs going overseas. "We're not going to tell companies what they can and can't do." Because he's about "freedom," including freedom for giant corporations. He frames this as a problem of competitiveness. Jobs are "going to other countries for a reason." If we could cut down on our taxes and regulations, then we'd be competitive and jobs wouldn't leave. (This also doesn't sound as persuasive as it used to.)
  • social security. He didn't use the word privatize. He did say that we have to make changes now, because if we wait it will be much more painful. He criticized "the other side" for wanting to solve the problem with higher taxes. And he did open the possibility of people being allowed to invest some of their social security money themselves, a.k.a. privatization.
  • paying for Iraq. The questioner claimed to have been against the invasion, but seemed resigned to the idea that our troops would be there through the next administration. The question was how to pay for it, not how to stop it. Thompson acknowledged that it's not honest to pay for the war off-budget with supplemental appropriations. He didn't say what he would do differently other than presumably budgeting it more honestly. His assessment of Iraq was that already in 2003 we had a choice between two bad options. He painted a dire picture of the alternate timeline where we left Saddam in power. He refused to say definitively that this option would have been worse, but just that it wasn't a good option either. Again, he made no specific proposal about what to do now, but he seemed to think it was important not to lose the war. He kept saying that the rest of the world was watching to see what the United States would do. I think he meant that showing weakness would have dire consequences.
Interestingly, no questions about the issues that Republicans think favor them: Nothing about immigration. Nothing about keeping us safe from terrorists. Nobody worried about "the death tax."

Here's my assessment: Fred Thompson is a smart guy who is intentionally suppressing any hint of intellectuality. Sometimes when he answers questions, the polish rubs off and a wonkish word slips out of his mouth -- he doesn't want terrorist suspects to have the right of "discovery" at their trials, for example -- but he'll get that fixed soon. He's running on the not-a-politician platform -- just a regular guy who sees that his country needs somebody to stand up for common sense and the things that we all know are right. It's totally an act, but maybe no more so than what the other candidates are doing, and Dwight Eisenhower was a lot more sophisticated than the Ike character he played on TV, so I'm not going to judge Fred too harshly for that. (If Fred doesn't make it, the credit might go to whichever liberal blogger dubbed him "Fredrick of Hollywood.")

I'm undecided about how well this "seriousness" thing is going to work for him. I think he's trying for an image as a guy who really lays it on the line rather than going for cheap applause and phony solutions. It needs work. I almost didn't get it. When you go to a campaign event, you expect to be whipped up and come home enthusiastic. You expect to feel hopeful or angry or revved in some other way. When you don't, and the people around you don't either, your first thought is that the candidate didn't do his job.

But maybe he's got something up his sleeve, some way to make that image stick. I wouldn't underestimate Fred Thompson. I think that's what he wants.

Monday, September 03, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week

The usual suspects: Iraq, Iran, and a bunch of other stuff. And oh, in case you didn't know, the rich are getting richer, but no one else is.

The Iraq War news this week was bad in both senses. The war is not going well, and Congress is not going to do anything about it. Check out the year-over-year graph of U.S. troop deaths here. The National Security Network has a summary of reports on the cooked statistics the administration is feeding us.

It's increasingly looking like President Bush is going to try to continue the Surge far into 2008. That explains why he has increased his appropriation request from $150 billion to $200 billion. When the Democrats caved in to Bush in July, the glimmer of hope was that in September some key Republicans would start coming around. No sign of that so far. And no sign of the Democratic leadership growing a backbone.

When pressed, Democratic leaders will explain that it takes 67 votes in the Senate to sustain a veto, so Republican support is needed to pass a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq. In truth, we just need 41 senators who are willing to filibuster any Iraq appropriation bill that doesn't have a timetable in it. Or a bare majority in the House who will refuse to pass a bill without a timetable. Either total could be achieved without a single Republican vote.

A number of Democratic presidential candidates are in the Senate: Clinton, Obama, Dodd, Biden. This would be a fine time for one of them to demonstrate their leadership qualities, don't you think?

In addition to money, you need soldiers if you're going to keep a war going. The generals are increasingly worried that our current strategy is breaking our soldiers down. See here, here, and here. Or listen as war-supporter Bill Kristol gets an earful from a military wife.

The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh has been claiming for a long time now that the Bush administration was going to attack Iran. The number of people who agree has been going up lately. The Times of London reported Sunday that the plans for a massive air attack are all in place. Ordinarily I don't get worked up about "plans" because it's standard procedure in the military to plan for everything. But these reports come in the context of heightened rhetoric. President Bush Tuesday:
Iran's active pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust. Iran's actions threaten the security of nations everywhere.
Notice he says nothing about who would start such a nuclear holocaust. I'll bet a lot of people in the Middle East noticed. Whether Bush intended to make a nuclear threat or not, he did.

Same-Sex Marriage in Iowa
My summary of the case got so long that I finally wrote a separate article about it. Judge Hanson's opinion is a very good statement of the current legal logic in favor of same-sex marriage. Conservatives have been getting outraged about it, but not answering its points.

Census Data
The Bureau of the Census put out a press release Tuesday summarizing economic data from 2006. The headline numbers were OK: real median household income was up for the second year in a row, and the poverty rate went down for the first time in this decade. But the underlying numbers were disturbing.

While household income was up, the real median income of people who worked full-time all year was down for both men and women. So working people made less money, but more people worked, with the net result that household income increased a little.

The number of people without health insurance reached an all-time high of 47 million. The number of children without health insurance increased from 8 million in 2005 to 8.7 million in 2006.

The really depressing thought comes when you put these numbers in a larger context. There's a business cycle in the U.S., which (to oversimplify greatly) is that the economy grows for about seven years and then contracts for a year. 2006 was Year 5 of this expansion, and economists are debating whether the housing-loan problems are going to tip us into recession a little early. So we should be near the top of this cycle.

The right way to look at numbers like the ones above isn't to compare one year to the last, but to compare to a similar point in the previous economic cycle. Think about it this way: Your bank balance on payday is bigger than it was the day before, but the more interesting question is how it compares to last payday.

To make that kind of comparison you have to dip into the detailed report that the press release summarized. And there you see that all these numbers were at their best in 1999. Median income was higher, the poverty rate was lower, fewer people lacked health insurance. In fact, the poverty rate bottomed in 1973. That's more than 30 years with no progress in the fight against poverty in America.

How does all this square with the rosy statistics you hear about the economy as a whole? It's simple: All that increased income is going to the people at the top. The long-term trends on the income of the people in the middle (that's what median income is) are flat or down.

My current bit of wishful thinking is that Mike Huckabee's candidacy will take off among Republicans. Huckabee is getting some national attention from finishing second in the Iowa straw poll -- a ridiculous event that Romney won and McCain, Giuliani, and Thompson were smart enough to stay out of.

The interesting thing about Huckabee is that he is the only Republican candidate whose campaign has positive content. He' s not just posturing about getting tough with terrorists and illegal aliens. The Washington Post quotes him as saying, "I'd like to think the people of the country are looking for somebody that's not running because he's mad and angry." And: "The pro-life movement has often been castigated for its focus on the child in the womb, and once the child got out of the womb, he was on his own. My point is, for us to show true credibility, we must show as much compassion for the child sleeping under the bridge or in the back seat of the car as we do for the one in the womb.

That's what pro-life really means."

He has taken Obama's one-America message and translated it into conservative language: "I'm so tired of thinking our goal is to beat Democrats. No. Our goal is to lift up America. And if we lift up America, people will elect us." I saw him on C-SPAN talking about "the vertical dimension" -- not whether the country goes right or left, but whether it goes up or down.

Now, he's definitely no liberal and I'm not thinking about voting for him myself. He's a hawk on Iraq. He's pro-life. He doesn't believe in evolution. And he wants to replace all income and inheritance taxes with a federal sales tax. But a Huckabee campaign might actually discuss those issues rather than demonize Defeatocrats. A Huckabee vs. Obama race would stand a good chance of lifting the level of debate in this country.

But I believe Republicans would lose a debate like that, and I think they know it. Their only chance is to fearmonger and demonize, and Huckabee is not the right candidate to do that. I don't think a reasonable voice has a chance at the Republican nomination.

But I'd like to be proven wrong.

Bush's legacy
In Sunday's New York Times is an article In Book, Bush Peeks Ahead to His Legacy. It's about an author who got to interview President Bush extensively, and it's scary for a number of reasons. For example, when asked about disbanding the Iraqi army -- now considered one of the major blunders of our occupation strategy -- Bush remembers wanting to do the opposite, and can't remember why that didn't happen. And it apparently doesn't bother him that he can't remember. "Hadley's got the notes on all of this stuff," he says. Think about what that means about his thought process.

Another tidbit: "Mr. Bush said his top commander in Iraq, Gen.David H. Petraeus, would perhaps do a better job selling progress to the American people than he could." Now you know the purpose of General Petraeus' upcoming report: Not to tell us honestly what's going on, but to "sell progress" to us.

And consider this:
Mr. Bush said he believed that Mr. Hussein did not take his threats of war seriously, suggesting that the United Nations emboldened him [Hussein] by failing to follow up on an initial resolution demanding that Iraq disarm. He [Bush] had sought a second measure containing an ultimatum that failure to comply would result in war.
Bush appears not to remember that the arms Saddam was supposed to get rid of didn't exist. How exactly could he "comply" in order to avoid war? And how could the UN have "emboldened" him not to comply when there was no way to comply?

The general picture I get is of a man only tangentially in touch with reality. And possessing the power of the presidency for another 16 months.

Craig Resigns
The most over-hyped story of the week was the fall of Senator Larry Craig of Idaho. In case you spent the week on Mars, it came out this week that back in June an undercover cop arrested Craig in a bathroom in the Minneapolis airport for what he interpreted as an attempt to solicit sex. Craig pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and paid a fine. This incident confirmed rumors about Craig that came out last October and had been steadfastly denied. After a few days of defiance, Craig announced his resignation from the Senate on Saturday.

My reaction: Why is it news that a family-values conservative is gay? And not loving-relationship-gay like the couples suing for the right to marry in Iowa, but seeking-scuzzy-meaningless-sex-gay? We did this story already with Ted Haggard, and it was better then because it had a drug angle.

The Republican spin on the story -- somebody must have gotten a prize for this one -- is that it proves that Republicans clean up their act. If Craig had been a Democrat, I heard again and again, he wouldn't have been forced to resign. My reaction is: If he'd been a Democrat, he could just be gay. He wouldn't have to be all repressed and self-destructive about it.

The Democratic spin is to point at David Vitter, the Republican senator from Louisiana who has been implicated in the D. C. Madam scandal. He's not resigning, and his seat doesn't come up until 2010. The difference? The governor of Idaho is a Republican and will replace Craig with a Republican. The governor of Louisiana is a Democrat and would replace Vitter with a Democrat. That's the real reason why the Republicans want Craig to go and Vitter to stay.

Other Interesting Stuff
Time did a mostly positive article on John Edwards. TPM video realized we soon won't have Alberto Gonzales to amuse us any more, so they put together their top 10 Gonzales moments. I think this video proves beyond reasonable doubt that Gonzales is either dishonest or brain damaged.

Over at the Balkinization blog, David Luban discusses an article by Emma Schwarz in U.S. News and World Report about the growing number of attorneys in the Justice Department's civil division who are unwilling to be involved in the Guantanamo detainee cases.
It seems unlikely that the civil division lawyers are objecting to the Guantanamo cases on moral grounds. ... Schwartz's story suggests that they find the [Bush administration's] legal position too farfetched to sign off on; remember that lawyers are prohibited from making frivolous arguments. That raises the rather urgent question of what that legal position might be; presumably, we will find out soon enough.

Same-Sex Marriage in Iowa

When you think about strongholds of gay rights, Iowa is not the first place that comes to mind. So I thought it was pretty significant Thursday when a District Court in Iowa ruled in favor of same-sex marriage. The Judge quickly put a stay on the ruling pending appeal, but two Iowa men managed to jump through the narrow window of opportunity and get married anyway. (I have to promote my denomination: The ceremony was performed the Rev. Mark Stringer of the First Unitarian Church of Des Moines.)

The mainstream media did a remarkably poor job of telling us what the judge actually ruled and why. So I thought I'd plug that hole. Judge Robert Hanson's ruling is a well-written summary of where the same-sex marriage issue stands.

Six same-sex couples (three male, three female) who live in Polk County, Iowa sued the Polk County Recorder who would not issue them marriage licenses. Prior to the trial, each side asked for a summary judgment in its favor. Here's what that means: Before a trial, the two sides throw paperwork back and forth to identify which facts everyone agrees to and which facts are in dispute. The purpose of a trial is for an impartial party (either a judge or a jury) to settle the disputed questions of fact. A summary judgment essentially says: "We don't need to have a trial." Either the undisputed facts are enough to settle the case, or the evidence that one side intends to present is irrelevant to resolving the disputed facts. Judge Hanson issued a summary judgment in favor of the couples (the plaintiffs).

The heart of the Judge's logic, like the Massachusetts judgment in 2003, is a rational basis test concerning the couples' right to equal protection under the law. In other words, democracy isn't about the majority doing whatever it wants. (This is a point we're trying to make the Iraqis understand, so we really ought to get clear about it ourselves.) If the point of a law is just to persecute some unpopular group, the legislature has exceeded its constitutional power. The state has certain legitimate interests, and every law that treats some group of people differently than the rest needs to have a rational connection to those interests.

So the question is: Does banning same-sex marriage have a rational connection to any legitimate interest of the State of Iowa? Or is the point just to stick it to gays and lesbians?

The defendants argued that the rational connection is this: Traditional marriage provides the best setting for raising children, and the State has a legitimate interest in seeing to it that children are well raised. So the State has an interest in defending traditional marriage.

The Judge could not find any meaning in the phrase traditional marriage beyond the specific one of not being same-sex marriage.
Marriage in the United States is virtually unrecognizable from its earlier common law counterpart, having undergone radical, unthinkable changes in laws governing who may marry, when marriages may end, and the legal significance and consequences of marriage for the individuals involved. ... When Iowa's first marriage law was passed ... married women were essentially chattel; they were not considered legal "persons" who could exercise rights, hold property, earn money, or deny their husbands access to their bodies.
So what is traditional marriage, anyway? Does defend traditional marriage mean anything more than just stick it to the gays? The Judge didn't phrase it that crudely, but his conclusion was essentially that it doesn't.

So the Judge wasn't interested in generalities about traditional marriage. Instead he wanted to see some specific empirical evidence about how well same-sex households raise children. The defendants weren't offering any, while the plaintiffs were. The Judge wrote:
Children raised by gay and lesbian parents are as well adjusted and as psychologically, emotionally, educationally and socially successful as children raised by heterosexual parents. This has been documented by numerous studies conducted over 25 years by respected researchers.
And the Judge noted that the marriage laws are a weird way to accomplish the alleged purpose of supporting Iowa's children. Convicted child molesters can get married in Iowa, but not gay and lesbian couples. Gay and lesbian couples can legally adopt children in Iowa, but not raise them in a married household. He noted that more than 3,000 Iowa children are being raised in households of same-sex couples. Clearly these children are being harmed when their parents are excluded from the legal benefits of marriage. Which children are being helped?

So, looking at the whole situation, Judge Hanson could find no rational relationship between the goal of providing a supportive environment for Iowa's children and the "remedy" of preventing gay and lesbian couples from marrying. Gay and lesbians couples are denied marriage rights because the majority disapproves of them, and not because exercising those rights would interfere with any legitimate purpose of the state.

In the conservative objections to the ruling that I have seen so far, there is a lot of outrage, but no substantive answer to any of the logic in Judge Hanson's ruling.