Monday, February 18, 2008

The Weekly Sift: Got Death?

He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression. -- Thomas Paine

I finally got around to changing the name of this series. I'm working on designing a blog for it. Stay tuned.
Fearmongering Finally Fails
I can only hope that a few of you are still alive to read this. You see, the Protect America Act expired at midnight Saturday, so America is now unprotected. The continued survival of our nation has become a matter of luck. In fact, the Heritage Foundation has a ticking clock on its web site so that future generations will know just how long it has been since we all died.

Or something like that.

A little background: The PAA amends the FISA law to increase the government's power to spy. It was passed in a big panicked rush right before the Congressional recess last August -- what might have happened otherwise is too horrible to contemplate -- but in a tiny gesture of sanity Congress included a six-month sunset clause, which just expired. The last month or so has seen the most bizarre parliamentary maneuvering. Bush and the Republicans in Congress have threatened vetoes, stalled, filibustered, blocked temporary extensions, and done whatever they could to recreate the situation of August, with Congress up against a hard deadline and no choice other than surrender to the terrorists or give Bush everything he wants -- including retroactive immunity for the telecom companies who broke an unspecified number of laws in helping the administration spy on American citizens.

The Senate caved, convincing me that Chris Dodd should be majority leader. But the House refused to be stampeded and adjourned for a week without taking action. This is probably just a meaningless gesture of rebellion before they give in too, but we've got to enjoy it while we can.

A lot of people are writing about this situation, so I'll link to them rather than reproduce their arguments. Scott Horton wrote before it was clear what the House would do. Glenn Greenwald summarizes the issues and skewers all the right-wing fear-mongering. The best case for telecom immunity comes not from the administration but from liberal blogger Kevin Drum.

The administration's arguments are only impressive if you believe that they would never abuse secrecy or lie to us about the things we aren't allowed to know. They make lots of assertions, but the supporting details are classified, so if they told us they'd have to shoot us. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell wrote in the Washington Post: "Under the Protect America Act, we obtained valuable insight and understanding, leading to the disruption of planned terrorist attacks. Expiration would lead to the loss of important tools our workforce relies on to discover the locations, intentions and capabilities of terrorists and other foreign intelligence targets abroad. Some critical operations ... would probably become impossible." The Balkinization blog characterizes McConnell's article as: "The fox requests immunity for its previous guarding of the chicken coop."

The White House put out a myth/fact sheet on the PAA, but again the "facts" are either uncheckable assertions or pure statements of opinion. And, as Brian Beutler points out, sometimes the "fact" is a non-sequitur, because the administration actually can't deny that the "myth" is true. One "fact" says: "Companies should not be held responsible for verifying the government's determination that requested assistance was necessary and lawful" -- which caused Dan Froomkin to wonder: "But isn't that the very definition of a police state: that companies should do whatever the government asks, even if they know it's illegal?"

And then there's this from President Bush himself:

The American people have got to know that what we did in the past gained information that prevented an attack. And for those who criticize what we did in the past, I ask them, which attack would they rather have not permitted — stopped?.Which attack on America did they — would they have said, well, you know, maybe it wasn't all that important that we stop those attacks.

So apparently there's a secret list of terrorist attacks that didn't happen. We can't look at the list, but Bush challenges us to pick which of these unknown non-happening events we would have wanted to happen. Because it would have failed not to happen if not for ... wait, I'm lost. The whole thing reminds me of this old joke: Auditors are interviewing a big-city mayor about all the relatives he has on the payroll and what they do. When they come to his mother, the mayor explains that she protects the city from tigers. One auditor objects: "But there are no tigers for thousands of miles." And the mayor says: "Don't thank me. Thank Mom."

Who Are They Really?
Back in 2000, the media presented us with two very clear images of the presidential candidates. George W. Bush was a regular guy who'd be fun to hang around with. Al Gore, on the other hand, was a pretentious bore -- preachy, self-important, and generally not somebody you'd want to spend any time with.

Looking back, those images seem pretty ridiculous. Bush is a fun guy if you don't mind him giving you a humiliating nickname like "Turd Blossom" and if you never hint that he might have made a mistake. He's so charming that all his campaign stops in 2004 had to be invitation-only events. Otherwise hard questions from voters might have evoked the Furious George that we saw in the first Bush-Kerry debate.

Gore, meanwhile, becomes more fascinating all the time. He starts companies. He makes movies. He turned around public opinion on global warming. Already in 2000, you might have read Earth in the Balance and seen a guy with wide-ranging curiosity who used his political status to see a lot of interesting things and talk to the smartest people in the world. I'd love to have a chance to sit down with Gore one-on-one.

The purpose of that history lesson is to wonder: Is the same thing happening now? Are lazy journalists fitting the facts into simplistic narratives that lack any foundation in reality? Yeah, I think they are. Let's take the remaining candidates one-by-one.

Obama. Here's the media narrative about Barack Obama: He's an inspiring speaker, but he lacks substance. His way with words is all fuzzy abstraction that masks his lack of detailed understanding.

The "inspiring speaker" part is true. But I saw him answer questions at a rally last summer, and his command of details is as good as anybody's. And if you chase the links on the issues page of Obama's web site, you'll find quite a bit of detailed policy commitment. His health care plan, for example, is a lot more specific than John McCain's -- even though McCain has been able to exploit the media narrative by saying: "To encourage a country with only rhetoric rather than sound and proven ideas ... is not a promise of hope. It is a platitude."

So Wednesday when Obama gave a speech in Janesville, Wisconsin specifically to outline his economic plan, it should have been a man-bites-dog moment, right? If you had the expertise and resources of, say, the New York Times or the Washington Post, think of the service you could offer your readers: You could examine his proposals in detail, get experts to assess whether they would help anybody, figure out what they'd cost, and so on. Readers aren't set up to do that kind of analysis for themselves -- and neither am I, to tell the truth (at least I provide the links) -- but you're a big news organization. It's right up your alley.

Well, maybe not. The Post sort of mentioned that Obama had made some economic proposals, but their article was totally focused on the political tactics behind the proposals: the up-coming Wisconsin primary, Clinton's advantage with working class voters, and on and on. If you want to know what Obama actually proposed, good luck to you. (Matt Yglesias took the Post to task here.) Ditto for the Times: They note that Obama is "adding detail to his oratory", but they treat "detail" as an ingredient, like salt. You don't need to know what the details are, just that he's adding them. And of course, you get a long tactical analysis about why he's adding details and what he hopes they'll do for him with certain kinds of voters.

Here's the upshot: Obama can spell out as much as he wants, but if the Times and the Post are sitting between him and the voters, nothing's going to get through. And even if you're a faithful reader of both the Post and the Times, when the guy in the next cubicle at work says: "That Obama -- he sounds good, but there's nothing there" you won't know enough to argue.

Clinton. In the musical 1776 John Adams doesn't want his personal unpopularity to sink the cause of independence. So he goes from one member of his committee to the next, looking for someone else to write the proposed Declaration. After several rebuffs, he approaches Robert Livingston.

Mr. Livingston, maybe you should write it.
You have many friends, and you're a diplomat.

FRANKLIN: Oh, that word!

Whereas if I'm the one to do it,
They'll run their quill pens through it.

He's obnoxious and disliked.
Did you know that?

LIVINGSTON: I hadn't heard.
Today, you'd have to be as diplomatic as Robert Livingston to claim you hadn't heard this about Hillary Clinton: She's unlikeable. She's cold and calculating and doesn't care about anything but power. Even her supporters don't like her. Women vote for her because she's a woman. Men support her because they have something to gain out of the Clintons' return to power, or because they're racists who don't like Obama, or because they're afraid she's going to win anyway so they want to get on her good side.

Now, I can't claim to have spent quality time with Hillary Clinton. But when I did see her in person at a New Hampshire Democratic Party dinner last March, I didn't find any support for the stereotype. She seemed quite likable to me, and I found one particular part of her message very moving: She talked about all the people who are invisible to the Bush administration, and she promised that as president she would see them.

I've talked to some of those older women who are Hillary's primary base of support. (My mom is one.) You know what? They like her. They don't just support her because she's a woman. They support her because they know the kind of crap a woman has to take to succeed in a man's field. Those women see Hillary sailing through the crap-storm with her head high, and they just admire the heck out of her.

McCain. Clinton supporters often claim that Hillary gets bad coverage because a strong woman threatens the manhood of male pundits like Chris Matthews. They're missing the bigger story: John McCain gets good coverage because he threatens the manhood of male pundits like Chris Matthews.

I feel something similar myself. Like most of the male talking heads on TV, I live in safety and comfort. My physical courage, my ability to think clearly when threatened, that whole Hemingway grace-under-pressure thing -- it's never really been tested. Given the chance, would I be a hero? Would I scream and faint like a little girl? Nobody knows, least of all me.

The intimidating thing about John McCain is that he's been tested and he passed. He knows. That gives him an alpha-dog aura that makes untested men want to follow him around like puppies. When he called on me during the question period at his town-hall meeting, I felt a little thrill that I normally don't. I felt honored. It's irrational, but very effective.

That's why McCain's media narrative is so positive: He's the straight talker. The maverick. The guy who says what he thinks and follows his conscience.

The truth -- and this really shouldn't be so controversial -- is that he's a politician. Not an outstandingly devious or dishonest one, but still a politician. When his target voters don't like one of his positions, he changes it or soft-pedals it or somehow makes it go away. Brave New Films put together a collection of his flip-flops. But you know, the striking thing about those waffles and self-contradictions is how ordinary they are. If not for the straight-talk myth, they wouldn't be noteworthy.

He's also not that much of a maverick. He has made a few independent noises over the past seven years, but when it comes time to vote he gets in line with all the other Republicans. This week he even backed down on his signature issue: torture. But again, that shouldn't shock anybody. There are no Republican mavericks. The breed is extinct.

The one downside of McCain's image -- his temper -- is also overblown. What strikes me about McCain's temper is that he gets over it. No campaign in recent memory was as nasty as the one Bush ran against McCain in South Carolina in 2000. But McCain has put it behind him. (A questioner took him to task for this at the town meeting I attended. McCain shot right back: The American people care about issues and getting things done; they don't want to hear about his ancient feuds.) He made up with Jerry Falwell. He even went back to Vietnam. Try to imagine George W. Bush doing anything similar. If you piss off W, you can go to Hell; he's done with you. McCain isn't like that.

The YouTube Election
When they get around to writing the history of YouTube's influence on politics, they'll start with the Jim Webb senate race in 2006. And then they'll say that it was a harbinger of the presidential election of 2008, when political viral video really came into its own.

Just look at all this stuff. Start with the inspirational music video made from Obama's "Yes We Can" speech. Then look at the parody about McCain. Then look at this other parody about McCain. (Weirdly, when I went there the page had a McCain advertisement.) And then check out the three commercials made by Brave New Films, where ordinary Americans call U.S. Customer Service to try to get the Iraq War charge taken off their monthly bill.

Those are just the beginning. This year will produce an amazing outpouring of political creativity, and overwhelmingly it will favor the Democrats. Why? Well, Erick Erickson, editor of the biggest and most influential conservative blog on the Internet, has it all figured out: Liberals have more free time. You see, conservatives "have families because we don't abort our kids, and we have jobs because we believe in capitalism."

That's got to be it, don't you think?

Short Notes
Michael Scheuer used to be the head of the CIA's Bin Laden group, and he still understands terrorist strategy better than any writer I know. In this article, he imagines what Bin Laden must be thinking now: "Thanks be to God, brothers, America is hemorrhaging money and ruining its military by trying to fight al-Qaeda's mujaheddin wherever they appear -- or, more accurately, wherever U.S. officials imagine they appear."

McCain's identification with the Surge may have worked this winter in Republican primaries, but next fall will be a different story. I was planning to write something on that theme, but now I don't have to -- Joe Conason did.

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer connects the dots: The states tried to regulate against predatory mortgage lending, and the Bush administration stopped them. Remember that the next time somebody tells you that government regulations are bad for the economy.

One of the best news/comedy sites on the Internet is 23/6. This week Ian Gurvitz tried to imagine the reaction if Jesus came back and entered the presidential race. My favorite reaction came from McCain, who found "blessed are the peacemakers" in one of Jesus' old speeches and commented: "Sounds like a guy who's soft on defense, my friends, and I'm not sure this is who we need as commander-in-chief in these troubled times." And not all the barbs on 23/6 are aimed at Republicans. Check out Clinton Campaign to Replace Clinton.

Patrick Cockburn of the British newspaper The Independent gives an on-the-ground view of post-surge Baghdad. He compares it to Lebanon during the various lulls in its decades-long civil war "when everybody in Beirut rightly predicted that nothing was solved and the fighting would start again. In Iraq the fighting has never stopped, but the present equilibrium might go on for some time."


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