Monday, March 31, 2008

Iraq as a Fractal

If you don't know where you're sailing, no wind is favorable. -- Seneca

In This Week's Sift:
What's Happening in Iraq? This week's fighting shows that even the factions have factions.

Three Economic Speeches. McCain, Clinton, and Obama all said what they'd do about the financial mess.

Alternative to American Idol. Where I look for good online video.

Short Notes. The irrelevance of peak oil. The political influence of Rev. Moon. Obama's foreign policy. What the candidates think about sex education. And what if the Bosnia video really looked the way Hillary remembers it?

What's Happening in Iraq?
The civil war in Iraq heated up again this week, and may or may not be settling down now that Muqtada al-Sadr has called for peace.

All sides are trying to spin these developments in their own favor, so it's been hard to sort things out. Here's the story as best I can put it together: From the beginning, Iraq's elected central government has only sort of been a government. Much of the country has been under the control of local militias who might or might not implement the central government's policies. We talk a lot of about three factions -- Sunni, Shia, and Kurd -- but in reality each of those factions has factions of its own, which may ally or fight depending on circumstances.

The main goal of the Surge was to change this situation by strengthening the central government's hand, so that the local militias would either negotiate a relationship with the government or be destroyed militarily. The showpiece of the Surge is the western provinces, where Sunni tribes switched sides, allying themselves with the U. S. instead of al-Qaida-in-Iraq (which is not necessarily the same thing as bin Laden's al-Qaida). That agreement hasn't quite resulted in bringing them into the government and may be breaking down, but it's not part of this week's story.

One of the fears from the beginning of the Surge was that Prime Minister Maliki, a Shiite, would only agree to the part of the plan that neutralized the Sunni militias, and would leave the Shia alone. That more-or-less has been the way things played out until recently. Last August, al-Sadr declared a temporary cease-fire for his militia, the Madhi Army, and the government has left the southern provinces and parts of Baghdad in the control of Sadr and a few other militias.

Last week the government opened an offensive to take military control of Basra, the biggest city in the southern provinces and the only port for Iraq's oil. The L. A. Times describes what happened:
Maliki staked his reputation on the crackdown, which began Tuesday, vowing to remain in Basra until law and order was restored. But the campaign instead revealed the strength of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, which fought more than 28,000 government troops to a standstill in parts of Basra and pounded Baghdad's fortified Green Zone with days of punishing rocket and mortar fire.
Over the weekend, Iran brokered a settlement between Sadr and a number of other Iraqi politicians, none of whom officially represented the government. The meeting took place in the Shia holy city of Qom in Iran. Sunday, Sadr issued his statement calling on his followers to stand down. As of Monday morning, the peace seemed mostly to be holding. The main question seems to be whether al-Sadr can control all his followers, or if they too are split into factions.

Initially, the Bush administration tried to spin this episode positively, as a sign of confidence by the central government that it could take on the militias. McCain has tried to distance the U. S. from the effort and spin it as a success. But in those terms the outcome of all this has to be counted as a failure. The government offensive did not take Basra, and it was Iran who restored peace, not the United States.

The New York Times quotes one Shia political leader, part of Maliki's coalition but not in Maliki's party, as saying: “The government now is in a weak position. They claimed that they are going to disarm the militias and they didn’t succeed.”

My favorite place to follow this story as it unfolds is on Juan Cole's blog.

Three Economic Speeches
This week all three major presidential candidates gave speeches on the economy: Obama, Clinton, and McCain. Salon's Andrew Leonard sums them up in a way that favors Obama:
Obama sounded like he understood what he was talking about. McCain sounded like he was reading a speech designed to make him look like he understood what was going on. ... Hillary went to Philadelphia and promised Pennsylvania voters a gift-basket of direct government assistance. Obama went to New York and made a case for long term, fundamental change, along with a smaller gift basket.
The NYT's Paul Krugman, conversely, is more impressed with Clinton. He characterizes Obama's proposals as "cautious and relatively orthodox." Jared Bernstein finds this assessment puzzling.

Leonard's McCain assessment is dead-on. McCain's speech reads like an undergraduate term paper. (I saw most of it on one of the cable channels, and he did not read it well.) It's superficially informative about how the mortgage situation got out of hand, but it's not a plan so much as a set of instructions that you'd give to somebody if you wanted them to write you a plan.
it is not the duty of government to bail out and reward those who act irresponsibly, whether they are big banks or small borrowers. Government assistance to the banking system should be based solely on preventing systemic risk that would endanger the entire financial system and the economy.
So government shouldn't bail anybody out -- unless it's necessary. No details about who exactly that would include.
When we commit taxpayer dollars as assistance, it should be accompanied by reforms that ensure that we never face this problem again. Central to those reforms should be transparency and accountability.
Transparency and accountability are impressively multisyllabic. McCain goes on to say that he is "prepared to examine new proposals" based on these principles. The only actual proposal he makes right away is to convene meetings of "the nation's accounting professionals" and "the nation's top mortgage lenders." And he appears to expect them to volunteer to do something. He mentions GM's offer of 0% financing on its cars after 9/11 -- as if that had been some patriotic gift GM gave to the economy rather than a marketing gimmick. That didn't give me a warm feeling. And my mouth fell open when he observed that 51 million of our 55 million mortgages are not in trouble and commented: "That leaves us with a puzzling situation: how could 4 million mortgages cause this much trouble for us all?"

Maybe because 4 million mortgages might be something like $1 trillion? Do the math, John.

And then comes the clincher: “our financial market approach should include encouraging increased capital in financial institutions by removing regulatory, accounting and tax impediments to raising capital.” Krugman is right to describe this as "selling the same old snake oil, claiming that deregulation and tax cuts cure all ills."

Clinton and Obama both expressed support for the Dodd-Frank bill currently in Congress. (Already that puts them miles ahead of McCain in terms of specificity and immediacy -- two multisyllabic words McCain should pay more attention to.) I'm not up on the details of that bill, which aims to prevent foreclosures by giving lenders an incentive to restructure the loan. Both Democrats propose something in addition to Dodd-Frank, and Leonard is right that Clinton offers the bigger "gift-basket of direct government assistance." That might be either good or bad, depending on details I don't know or understand.

To me, the impressive part of Obama's speech is what happens next. Assume we get past the immediate crisis. Then what? He gives a very simple framing of what went wrong: FDR built a regulatory structure appropriate for the banks of his day. When the banking industry started to change in the 80s and 90s, we just got rid of the old structure rather than figure out what a new structure should be. He lays the blame right at the feet of the deregulation movement, and he does it without saying that we should just go back to the old regulations.

What's he talking about? In the Depression, Roosevelt established the FDIC to insure bank deposits. But he also built a wall (the Glass-Steagall Act) that separated banks from the riskier investment banks. (That's why the Morgan-Chase bank is separate from the Morgan-Stanley investment bank.) The idea was that if the government was going to bail you out when you got into trouble, then you had to submit to government regulation that kept you from doing risky things.

Well, Glass-Steagall got repealed in 1999 -- which wasn't necessarily a bad thing; the banking world had changed and its particular restrictions didn't make a lot of sense any more. "But," Obama notes, "the $300 million lobbying effort that drove deregulation was more about facilitating mergers than creating an efficient regulatory framework." And the end result is that the Fed had to bail out Bear Stearns, an investment bank, because letting it collapse might have brought down our banking system. Because there's no wall between the two any more.

Obama does not have the new regulatory structure in his back pocket. At this point he resorts to McCain's tactic of giving instructions to a plan-maker. But his first principle is dead-on: "If you can borrow from the government, you should be subject to government oversight and supervision." That's exactly what went wrong: Bear Stearns was free to do as it pleased, and when it got into trouble the government had to lend it money.

This points to a difference in the way Clinton and Obama think, and may explain why people who like one often can't understand people who like the other. Listening the Clinton, the world seems to have an infinite number of small-to-medium-sized problems, each of which needs some special band-aid. (Bill was the same way.) Listening to Obama, the world seems to have a few big problems that all interlock -- the mortgage crisis interlocks with deregulation which interlocks with campaign finance corruption -- so you need a big-picture understanding to keep your individual solutions from messing each other up. If one view rings true to you, the other probably doesn't.

While we're on the candidates and the economy: The American Prospect has an article connecting the dots on some of the things McCain and his economic advisers have been saying over time. The conclusion comes down to this: If you're going to keep fighting expensive wars, keep cutting taxes, and not be fiscally irresponsible -- all of which seem to be McCain core principles -- the only way to do it is to drastically cut Social Security and Medicare. Keep that analysis in mind when you hear McCain use the phrase entitlement reform.

Alternatives to American Idol
One of the things I try to do on the Sift is point you towards not just good articles, but good video as well. In previous weeks I've found a lot of amusing stuff through Slate's Did You See This? blog. (This week I found a game of Tetris played out by having people in colored t-shirts move down the pews in a church. Don't try to picture it, just click the link.)

Salon has a site called Video Dog, where this week I found Scott Bateman's animation of the audio of Dick Cheney's response to the 4,000th American death in Iraq. (Whenever Cheney pauses, the text on the side suggests more honest ways he might finish the sentence. See an alternate view of Cheney's remarks here.) Video Dog trends more towards serious stuff than DYST, like their weekly series Big Think, where viewers submit questions for next week's interview with some interesting person. The recent interview with ACLU president Nadine Strossen is pretty good. A Noam Chomsky interview is in the works, and might show up today.

Of course, you could just skip the middleman and browse the Big Think website itself, where you'll find all kinds of stuff that Salon didn't pick up. For instance this two-minute talk by Islamic Studies professor Reza Aslan debunking the whole notion of a "clash of civilizations." (The name "Big Think" comes from the animals' slang in H. G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau. In this context it's ironic, implying that intellectuals are trying a little too hard.)

Another feast of wonkish delights is The basic idea here is simple: You get two smart people sitting in their respective offices, connect them with webcams, and let them talk to each other. The talks run 30-60 minutes, and afterwards they get broken into subject-related segments. (On TV it works the other way: "We've 45 seconds before the break. Tell me what you think about racism in America.") You can watch the whole discussion or just replay the segment you're interested in. Check out this 7-minute segment about race, gender, and generational politics between Dahlia Lithwick of Slate and Richard Ford of Stanford Law School. (If you examine the URL, you'll see that you can re-segment the video yourself just by changing the IN and OUT times.) Also take a look at Robert Wright and Robert Reich discussing the economy.

Short Notes
BarelyPolitical has doctored the Clinton Bosnia video to make it more like Hillary's description. And tripletee on DailyKos fantasizes The War Journals of Hillary Clinton.

Kevin Drum is getting fed up with the free ride the media keeps giving McCain. When McCain recently didn't seem to know that al-Qaida (Sunni) and Iran (Shia) are not natural allies, it got written off because McCain has "foreign policy cred". Drum goes on the list all the different kinds of "cred" McCain has with the media, and how it puts him beyond the criticism that would rain down on Clinton or Obama if they made comparable mistakes. Glenn Greenwald makes a similar point at more length.

Update from the Department of Cluelessness: The New York Times has discovered that young people email each other links to news stories. "In essence, they are replacing the professional filter — reading The Washington Post, clicking on — with a social one." Fleshing out that observation requires 20 paragraphs.

If we're going to talk about wacko religious figures and their influence on politics, David Neiwert on FireDogLake wonders why we don't start with the wackiest, most influential religious figure of all: Rev. Sun Myung Moon. In addition to being the Messiah, Rev. Moon has a day job as owner of The Washington Times, a key player in the right-wing media machine. Neiwert links to a video by John Gorenfeld, author of Bad Moon Rising. Among other things, the video shows a ceremony crowning Moon as King of America -- attended by some major political figures. Interesting detail: Since buying it in 1982, Moon has lost $3 billion on The Washington Times. That's like giving a $3 billion campaign contribution to the conservative movement. But strangely, no one on the Right ever has to explain that he's not a Moonie. Meanwhile, Mother Jones examines a McCain ally and "spiritual guide", televangelist Rod Parsley, who thinks we need to destroy Islam.

Comprehensive sex education works; abstinence-only sex education doesn't. Guess which one the Bush administration has been pushing? Dr. Rahul Parikh kicks off a new Salon health series Vital Signs by examining McCain, Clinton, and Obama's positions. But you can probably guess what they are.

After talking to Obama's foreign policy advisers (and pointing out that you'd have learned more in 2000 from looking at Bush's advisers than at what he was saying in his campaign) the American Prospect argues that Obama represents a fundamental rethinking of American foreign policy. An unnamed adviser says, "For a long time we've not seen much creative thinking from Dems on national security, because, out of fear, we want to be a little different from the Republicans but not too different, out of fear of being labeled weak or indecisive." The buzz-phrase is dignity promotion. "He goes back to Roosevelt," [Samantha] Power says. "Freedom from fear and freedom from want. What if we actually offered that? What if we delivered that in the developing world? That would be a transformative agenda for us." Meanwhile, the Washington Post analyzes whether Obama is an old-style liberal.

Joseph Romm has an excellent article on Salon about the irrelevance of the argument about whether oil production is peaking. Even if it's not, it can't keep up with the growth in demand. (If China and India reach the per-capita energy levels of South Korea, he says, they'll use as much oil as the whole world uses now.) And even if we found enough oil or alternative hydrocarbons, burning it all would be an environmental disaster. Romm thinks we need plug-in cars and and electricity grid powered by solar, wind, and nuclear.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Happy Anniversary

Every war when it comes, or before it comes, is represented not as a war but as an act of self-defense against a homicidal maniac. -- George Orwell

In this week's Sift:
Round Up the Usual Suspects. Five years into the Iraq disaster, we get commentary from the same people who caused the whole mess.

About That Surge. Did it work? Well, to paraphrase President Clinton, it depends on how the definition of work works.

The Speech. Obama talked to the American electorate as if we were adults. Are we? And what if Pastor Wright isn't as crazy as everybody says he is?

Self Promotion. Just in case you want to keep up with my non-political writing.

Short Notes. Senator Byrd's prescience. Calling a foul on ABC News. "Exporting" gays and lesbians. The poor die sooner. And the usual collection of randomly amusing stuff, including Stephen Colbert's plan to bring the unemployment rate down to zero.

Round Up the Usual Suspects
This week didn't just include my 24th wedding anniversary, but also the fifth anniversary of a much less fortuitous decision: the invasion of Iraq.

In a sane world, a disaster of this magnitude would be marked by a new set of experts reviewing what they learned from the mistakes of their disgraced predecessors. But our expert class -- not just the government, but the whole infrastructure of foreign policy and military and Middle Eastern specialists in think tanks, academia, and the media -- has changed not at all in the last five years. So instead listening to the people who were right in 2003, like Scott Ritter or Howard Dean (or Jim Henley's amusing parody), we were treated to a public game of hot potato, as one Very Serious Thinker after another explained why the blame belonged to someone else.

The most impressive collection of self-serving "experts" appears on the op-ed page of the New York Times.

Paul Bremer graciously admits that he was not forceful enough in demanding that other people fix their mistakes: "after arriving in the country, I saw that the American government was not adequately prepared to deal with the growing security threats. ... I should have pushed sooner for a more effective military strategy."

Richard Perle still thinks everything would have turned out fine if we had followed his original plan to set up Ahmed Chalabi as the new pro-American dictator: "The right decision was made, and Baghdad fell in 21 days with few casualties on either side." But then Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and George Tenet screwed it up, because they "did not turn to well-established and broadly representative opponents of Saddam Hussein’s regime to assume the responsibilities of an interim government while preparing for elections."

Kenneth Pollack (Brookings Instititution) wants us to forget his previous horrible advice and listen to his current horrible advice: "What matters most now is not how we entered Iraq, but how we leave it." Danielle Pletka (American Enterprise Institute) regrets that the Iraqis couldn't handle the great gift we offered them: "Looking back, I felt secure in the knowledge that all who yearn for freedom, once free, would use it well. I was wrong." Fred Kagan (American Enterprise Institute) has learned that you just keep proclaiming your own brilliance, no matter what the facts say: "I supported the 2003 invasion despite misgivings about how it would be executed, and those misgivings proved accurate." But as soon as we started using Kagan's Surge strategy "within a year, our forces went from imminent defeat to creating the prospect of success." (More about the Surge's "success" later on.)

Meanwhile, Slate held a symposium for (mostly) repentant liberal hawks. Some of them are just as bad as the NYT's sorry cast. Jeffrey Goldberg regrets not realizing that the Bush administration would screw the war up so badly. William Saletan regrets that we may never get to invade Iran now: "The problem with dumb war isn't that it's war. The problem is that it costs you the military, economic, and political resources to fight a smart war." Kanan Makiya fights back against war critics by blaming the Iraqis: "Would we have had a moral war in 2003 if there had arisen an Iraqi version of Nelson Mandela, and are we now saddled with an immoral one because he did not appear? I cannot think like that." And Christopher Hitchens yields nothing: "We were already deeply involved in the life-and-death struggle of that country, and March 2003 happens to mark the only time that we ever decided to intervene, after a protracted and open public debate, on the right side and for the right reasons."

A few at least try to learn from their mistakes. Jacob Weisberg resolves "if I'm going to advocate occupying another country, I'd damned well better learn something about its history and culture." Andrew Sullivan has learned to take war more seriously: "[Saddam] was a monster, as we discovered. But what I failed to grasp is that war is also a monster."

I fear that Anne-Marie Slaughter (Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton) is more typical of our entrenched expert class. In a Huffington Post article, she resents that people keep bringing up her mistakes: "The debate is still far too much about who was right and who was wrong on the initial invasion ... until we can fix the mess we are in, everyone who cares about what happens both to our troops and to the Iraqi people should force themselves to face up to the hard issues on the ground rather than indulging in the easy game of gotcha." In other words, she and all the other "experts" should keep functioning in their expert role at least until the disaster they caused has been resolved. (Glenn Greenwald points out that we would never accept this logic from a surgeon.)

Here's how much Slaughter has really learned: She judges any plan for bringing the troops home by "the goals that the administration stated publicly as a justification for invading in the first place" even though she admits that "No policy can possibly achieve all of those goals." So we stay forever, in other words. Matthew Yglesias (answering to a Washington Post editorial based on similar assumptions) gives the correct response:
One gets weary of pointing this out, but over and over again we see withdrawal plans being judged by worst-case scenarios whereas staying scenarios are judged by best-case scenarios. The truth of the matter is that no matter what we do with the American military, the course of events in Iraq will ultimately be determined by decisions made by Iraqis. If we leave, they might choose poorly with disastrous results. But that can happen if we stay, too.
Of all Slate's experts, only Timothy Noah asks the right question: "Why should you waste your time, at this late date, ingesting the opinions of people who were wrong about Iraq? Wouldn't you benefit more from considering the views of people who were right? Five years after this terrible war began, it remains true that respectable mainstream discussion about its lessons is nearly exclusively confined to people who supported the war, even though that same mainstream acknowledges, for the most part, that the war was a mistake."

I wait breathlessly for the New York Times to call in a panel of the usual experts to discuss this issue.

About That Surge
Another ex-hawk, Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, notes what he calls a paradox: "We are told that the surge has worked brilliantly and violence is way down. And yet the plan to reduce troop levels—which was at the heart of the original surge strategy—must be postponed or all hell will once again break loose."

Let's review: President Bush announced on 10 January 2007 that we would send more troops to Iraq temporarily: "
If we increase our support at this crucial moment, and help the Iraqis break the current cycle of violence, we can hasten the day our troops begin coming home."

What has actually happened is more modest. The Surge slowed the RPMs on the cycle of violence, and the only troops coming home are the extra ones that were part of the Surge -- and they're only coming home because we don't have enough soldiers to maintain that level. American casualties rose initially, then dropped, and have stayed fairly steady since November: Around 30-40 American troops die each month now -- about 2/3 of the rate we had in early 2006. Iraqi deaths also declined, then leveled off: One (admittedly low) count places them in the 500-700 per month range since September, down from 800-1200 in early 2006 and a peak of around 3000 per month a year ago. The NYT summarizes a GAO report: "the conflict has drifted into a stalemate, with levels of violence remaining stubbornly constant from November 2007 through early 2008."

One thing we should have learned from 2003: Keep your eyes on the facts. Don't get carried away by endlessly repeated spin like: "The Surge has worked."

The Speech
If you've got about an hour, try this: Watch Barack Obama's speech on race back-to-back with as much as you can stand of President Bush's Iraq anniversary speech. ("The battle in Iraq is noble, it is necessary, and it is just. And with your courage, the battle in Iraq will end in victory." My link takes you to the text; from there you can click "video".)

Look at the president we have, and then look at the president we could have. What more is there to say?

Here are some reactions to Obama's speech. Frank Rich: "what impressed me most was not Mr. Obama’s rhetorical elegance ... the real novelty was to find a politician who didn’t talk down to his audience." Time: "Obama is taking a substantial risk. ... He is asking something from Americans rather than just promising things to them." Glenn Greenwald: "[the speech] eschewed almost completely all cliches, pandering and condescension, the first time I can recall a political figure of any significance doing so when addressing a controversial matter." Jon Stewart: "And so, at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, a prominent politician spoke to Americans about race as though they were adults."

Imagine what it would be like to have a president who, when a real issue appears, challenges us to face it, and doesn't just wave red flags to stampede us in the direction he wants us to go.

Meanwhile, some bloggers are starting to take a better look at those constantly-replayed Jeremiah Wright clips. If you want to do it yourself, Mr. Furious has posted links to much longer clips (about ten minutes each) that give some context. On FireDogLake, David Neiwert critiques the media's handling of this issue: "Their entire preoccupation, indeed, was with how Wright's remarks might discomfit whites -- while never examining the deeper questions of whether white complacence about race might be something worth challenging."

Speaking as someone who preaches a couple sermons a year, here's my reaction to watching the ten-minute clips: Wright's 9-11 sermon was damn good. It was based on one of the Bible's most disturbing texts, the conclusion of Psalm 137: "happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us; he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks." Wright used that reading to make a very good and timely point about the cycle of violence. If every minister in the country had preached a similar sermon after 9-11, we might have avoided Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.
Self Promotion
Mostly I try to keep my philosophical/religious writing separate from the Sift. But I do tell you where to find it. Today my bi-monthly column appeared on the UU World web site. This one is a meditation on the lingering effects of Christianity, both in my personal life and in Unitarian Universalism as a whole. And on my Free and Responsible Search blog I have a new piece called "Ego and Western Common Sense" where I claim that Eastern philosophies about transcending the Ego make more sense from a modern evolution-of-consciousness view than from the old Cartesian view that still underlies our "common sense" beliefs about self-consciousness.

I keep looking for space to include this book review on the Sift. But it has been squeezed out two weeks in a row, so I think I'll just link to it. Short version: Bad Samaritans is most down-to-Earth revolutionary book you're going to find. Speaking both theoretically and from his own experience growing up in South Korea, Cambridge econ prof Ha-Joon Chang explains in very simple terms why the dominant neo-liberal consensus in economics is totally wrong.

Short Notes
You don't have to be a Hillary supporter to call this foul: The first thing ABC News did after Clinton released her schedules from the White House years was to verify that she was in the White House on "stained blue dress day". The news value of those schedules is that they help us assess her claims of experience -- was she just cutting ribbons and doing photo-ops during those eight years, or was she a policy heavy-hitter? But answering that question would require work, and who wants to do that?

A few Iraq-anniversary moments were worthwhile: Salon reminds us of Senator Byrd's speech against authorizing the war. And the Daily Show once again does the best news coverage on TV with Iraq: The First Five Years.

Stephen Colbert knows how to bring the unemployment rate down to zero "without the time-consuming step of creating jobs." If all the unemployed would just give up hope, they'd soon be counted as "discouraged workers" rather than as "unemployed." Colbert also shows up in Huffington Post's run-down of the week's best late-night TV jokes along with Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jon Stewart, and Conan O'Brien.

A song parody that just had to be made: Remember Hey There Delilah by the Plain White T's? (I didn't know it by name, but as soon as the parody started I knew I had heard it a million times.) Well, the FUnny Music Project (FUMP) claims that PWT front man Tom Higgenson wrote the song about an actual Delilah who, in fact, never went out with him. That leads to Robert Lund's parody, a song to be sung by Delilah's lawyers -- Re: Your Song About My Client Delilah.

The Onion News Network has two new fake-news clips about Iraq. The first reports on the 3rd annual Bring Your Daughter To War Day, and in the second ONN's talking heads discuss how to make the Iraq War more eco-friendly. The Onion Radio Network reports that President Bush accidentally signed someone's cast into law. In their print edition, the Onion reports that "a loud black man approached a crowd of some 4,000 strangers in downtown Chicago Tuesday and made repeated demands for change." The story quotes a witness' response: "The last thing I need is some guy on the street demanding change from me. What he really needs is a job."

Here's the worst thing about leaving our immigration policy unresolved: Having an illegal underclass corrupts our system. Look at this story of immigration officials demanding sex from immigrants afraid of being deported.

People sometimes argue that the growing gap between rich and poor doesn't matter for one reason or another. Well, here's a stat that's hard to rationalize away: The rich live longer than the poor, and the gap is growing. So it's not just whether you can buy a Lexus or afford a vacation home on the beach -- it's how long you're going to live.

What's the sexual-preference equivalent of ethnic cleansing? A VP at the Family Research Council (founded by James Dobson) says he'd "much rather export homosexuals from the United States than import them into the United States." See the video online, because you won't see it on CNN -- our media elite knows that it's much more important that we focus all our attention on truly dangerous religious radicals like Jeremiah Wright.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Joy in Mudville

Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president. -- Theodore Roosevelt

In this week's Sift:

A FISA Win in the House
For once the Democrats stood up to the administration's bullying.

Obama's Pastor Said What?
The flap over Rev. Jeremiah Wright's old sermons, and how it relates to the Obama's-a-Muslim smear.

The Spitzer Case
The mainstream media can cover a story 24/7 and still not ask the right question: Does this have something to do with firing all those U.S. attorneys?

Short Notes
Fallon's resignation, the final word on Saddam and al Qaida, the financial meltdown ... it was an eventful week. And let's not forget leprechaun movies.

Somehow, We Win One
Liberal bloggers -- Marcy Wheeler, Glenn Greenwald, Josh Marshall, and Jane Hamsher come to mind but there were many others -- have devoted a huge amount of time to the Congressional battle to revise FISA, and particularly whether or not the final bill would contain telecom immunity. For this reason: Not only would a telecom immunity provision prevent Americans from suing the telecom companies for violating their rights, but it would also complete the Bush administration cover-up; probably no neutral authority would ever rule on whether or not the warrantless wiretapping programs are legal. With very little help from the mainstream media, who for the most part were content to repeat administration talking points without fact-checking them, bloggers kept the issue alive. Throughout that process, I think we all expected to lose. As recently as March 7, Glenn was reporting the Democrats' capitulation to President Bush as all but a done deal.

Someday I hope to hear the inside story of how it happened, but I know this much: Friday the Democrats in the House stuck together well enough to overcome unanimous Republican opposition and pass a FISA revision that leaves out telecom immunity and includes a bipartisan commission to study the secret wiretapping programs. Nobody knows whether the Senate will agree, or whether President Bush will really go through with a veto that makes a mockery of so much of his previous rhetoric. (He'd be proving the point Ted Kennedy made in December: "If we take the president at his word, he's willing to let Americans die to protect the phone companies.") But for today at least, there is joy in Mudville. Pelosi et al didn't strike out this time. We won one.

Why is that significant? This bill represents the first time the House has stood up to the President's bullying. And I think they will start wondering why they didn't stand up a long time ago. For years, the administration has used the same tactic: Do exactly what we say or the terrorists will kill your children. If that doesn't work any more, all kinds of things might change. I'm hoping Democratic senators will envy the strong sound bites coming out of the House and will wish that they too could stop being wimps.

The House Democrats' spines may have been stiffened by several recent revelations of the administration's abuse of its spying powers: Five years ago Congress thought it killed the Total Information Awareness program, which had the government sweeping up vast quantities of information about ordinary Americans and data-mining it to look for suspicious patterns. Well, apparently the administration just did it anyway in secret. And we got a second report of a telecom company security breach going straight to the government: two whistle-blowers at two different telecom companies are telling similar stories. And apparently the FBI has been abusing its Patriot-Act powers. And President Bush's new executive order completely eviscerates the only internal watchdog in the executive branch. It all fed into one basic point: Maybe Congress should figure out what people did before giving them immunity for it. There's this new theory called "checks and balances" that we might try out for a while.

A NYT editorial has the right framing: "The president will continue to claim the country is in grave danger over this issue, but it is not. The real danger is for Mr. Bush. A good law — like the House bill — would allow Americans to finally see the breathtaking extent of his lawless behavior."

Obama's Pastor Said What?
I wasn't going to write about the campaign this week, figuring that the back-and-forth between Clinton and Obama is going to get pretty stale between now and the next primary April 22. But everyone I run into seems to want to talk about Obama's minister. So, vox populi, vox Dei I guess.

First, what is the issue? The essence of the attack is in a Wall Street Journal editorial from Friday: Speaking at Howard University in January, 2006, Rev. Jeremiah Wright made comments that the Journal characterized as "venomous and paranoid denunciations of this country." Those comments range from uncomfortable truths like "We bombed Cambodia, Iraq and Nicaragua, killing women and children" to conspiracy-theory stuff like "We started the AIDS virus." The story got going the previous day, when ABC News found another sermon -- this one from 2003, but at least it happened at Obama's church rather than hundreds of miles away -- in which Wright said "God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme." Whether that counts as an uncomfortable truth or a paranoid denunciation, I suppose, is in the eye of the beholder. I'll just say this: When conservative preachers denounce America for, say, permitting abortion or tolerating homosexuality -- it's not a big deal, is it?

Wright is the recently retired minister of Trinity United Church of Christ, where Obama is a member. Wright was also on the Obama campaign's African American Religious Leadership Committee. The title of Obama's book The Audacity of Hope comes from a Wright sermon. Obama responded to the controversy here, and Wright has resigned from his campaign.

That's the story. Now let's back up and ask the question: Why are we talking about this? Paraphrasing the Thomas Jefferson quote I gave a few weeks back, what Obama's pastor said two or five years ago "neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." Why is it an issue now?

Over the past few weeks I've been talking about media narratives and how negative campaigns work. This is a good example of a general principle: A media narrative can justify an attack that otherwise would be out of bounds. In Obama's case, the narrative is that he's "unexamined". That permits an attacker to put him under an unprecedented level of scrutiny -- for balance, don't you see.

And this scrutiny really is unprecedented. Think about it: Do you even know John McCain's denomination? (I looked it up: Episcopalian.) I recall that the Clintons are Southern Baptists, but what's the name of their minister? Do you think ABC News knows what he or she was preaching in 2003? Mitt Romney faced questions about the doctrines of his religion (which he dodged, by the way, saying "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the savior of mankind" and nothing at all about his church's more controversial teachings or the Mormon history of polygamy and racism). But no one tried to make Romney responsible for his minister's political views.

The counter-argument, of course, is that Obama made Wright an issue by talking about him and about Trinity Church. But why did he have to do that? To counter the whispering campaign that he's a crypto-Muslim. The Wright flap, when you see it in context, is Round 2 of the Obama's-a-Muslim attack.

The secret-religion smear is not a new tactic. In Britain it goes back at least to Charles II, who was supposed to be a crypto-Catholic. A generation or two ago in this country, you might have heard rumors that Nelson Rockefeller or Franklin Roosevelt was secretly a Jew -- and not just in the worships-on-Saturday or wears-a-yarmulka sense, or even in the stereotypic cheap-money-grubber sense, but in the full racist Elders-of-Zion-conspirator sense. That's what Obama's up against -- a whispering campaign that he's running as some kind of Manchurian Candidate for al Qaida. Occasionally a piece of that campaign surfaces, as it did a week ago when a Republican congressman said al Qaida "would be dancing in the streets" if Obama were elected.

A secret-religion smear is hard to counter, partly because you risk offending the group that you're being associated with. (Picture a Roosevelt saying, "No, damn it, I'm not a Jew!") All you can do, really, is call attention to your genuine religion, your genuine church, and your genuine minister. And that makes you vulnerable to the next attack. (Cartoon parody here.)

Rikyrah on Open Left provides a black perspective on the Wright controversy: "The members of Trinity are not unlike the professional African-Americans in your office. The same middle-class, upper middle-class folks that you work you really believe that THOSE folks leave the office and turn into the second coming of Angela Davis and Huey P. Newton on Sunday morning?"

Spitzer Coverage: 24/7 and Still Missing the Point
Since last Monday, when the story broke that New York Governor Eliot Spitzer was caught paying thousands of dollars an hour for prostitutes, the news networks have been doing wall-to-wall coverage. As usual, though, they've mainly covered the sensational aspects of the story, and mostly they're just using Spitzer as an excuse to have lurid conversations about sex: How does a high-class prostitution scheme work? What does Spitzer's prostitute look like, and what's her life story? What drives a man like Spitzer to take such risks? (Lust? Just a guess.) What do you get from a $5,000 hooker that you can't get from a $100 hooker? (My favorite response was from WaPo columnist Harold Myerson: "I've given serious thought to this over the past day, and I'm not sure that I've even had a sexual fantasy that, if actualized, would be worth $5,500 an hour." If only more pundits would give serious thought to the issues of the day. Well done, Harold.) Why are wives to blame when their husbands go to prostitutes? (Seriously, I saw Dr. Laura do this riff on Hannity and Colmes Wednesday night. Men from coast to coast are filing that tactic for future use: "It's all your fault, Honey. Aren't you ashamed?") And so on. See the 23/6 parody. Or better yet, what Stephen Colbert had to say.

Most of the blogs I read are interested in another set of questions entirely. First, nobody's claiming Spitzer is innocent, but how did this investigation happen, exactly? We know it was federal, so we have a Republican Justice Department nailing a Democratic state governor. Was politics a factor? Philip Carter at Intel Dump, a lawyer whose opinion I respect on many issues, thinks not. I hope he's right. It's a shame we have to ask questions like this, but the whole point of the U. S. attorney scandal was to make the Department of Justice more of a political weapon and less of a ... Department of Justice. As Kagro X on Daily Kos wrote (pre-Spitzer, in reference to the case of Alabama Governor Don Siegelman): "Nobody indicted by the Bush-Cheney DOJ can possibly help but wonder whether they're being targeted by the White House political machine."

TPM has put together a chronology of events. In a separate post, TPM's David Kurtz looks at the timing: The federal wiretaps start in January, and accumulate "more than enough to bust all four employees and numerous johns." But they wait until they have something on Spitzer, then close the investigation. Usually the target of a prostitution investigation is business itself, not the customers. Was it different here? And how did Spitzer's name leak to the media so fast? Scott Horton at Harper's says: "All of these facts are consistent with a process which is not the investigation of a crime, but rather an attempt to target and build a case against an individual."

Even if there was no political abuse, JB on Balkinization reflects on the larger trends at work: "Whether you like or fear the National Surveillance state, it is not a utopia or dystopia of the future; it is already here. It is the way we will govern and be governed in the years ahead. Spitzer's crime is his own; the techniques of surveillance, collation and analysis that caught him are ours and they will be applied to all of us." See the paragraph on Total Information Awareness in the FISA article above.

Next question: What ever happened to David Vitter, the Republican senator involved in the D. C. Madam case? Oh, that's right, he's still in the Senate, eight months after his scandal broke in July. Same crime, completely different result. If Spitzer hadn't resigned, Republicans were ready to start impeachment proceedings within 48 hours. But Louisiana's Democratic governor would appoint a successor if Vitter resigned, so Republicans are fine with him serving out his term. In fact, Vitter's Republican colleagues gave him a standing ovation after he apologized to them in a private session. After Larry Craig (who also remains in the Senate) and Mark Foley, Republicans were probably just happy Vitter wasn't gay.

A few blogs segued into another obvious question: Why exactly is prostitution illegal? My favorite answer to this question came from a guy I knew whose light-induced migraines kept him housebound. The government turned down his disability application, explaining that he could still work as a telemarketer. At that very instant, he says, he changed his mind about legalizing prostitution.

Short Notes
Admiral William Fallon resigned not long after a flattering piece on him in Esquire highlighted his differences with the administration. He was commander of CENTCOM, which oversees both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Early speculation saw his resignation as a step towards an attack on Iran, which Fallon opposed. But later speculation focused on Fallon's hope to draw down forces in Iraq below what they were before the Surge.

The Defense Department has completed its study of 600,000 captured documents from the Saddam Hussein regime, and it has found "no direct operational link" between Hussein and al Qaida. Apparently out of sheer petulance, the Pentagon will not post the report on its web site. But it's not classified, and reporters who ask for it can get copies. So you can find the report on the ABC News web site.

A gay-bashing Oklahoma state legislator got caught on tape: "I honestly think it's the biggest threat our nation has, even more than terrorism or Islam, which I think is a big threat." I wonder if she's heard that Obama is a Muslim. But at least he's not gay, as far as I know.

Wes Clark on torture: "Today, in the struggle to finish off the extremists plotting against us, it won't be torture and fear that win the day for America. Far from it. Nations that torture end up despised and defeated. No, to win we'll have to live up to the values we profess, the belief in human rights, equal justice, fair trials, and the rule of law. These ideals are potent weapons. They will give us allies, friends, information, and security—but only if we live them." Meanwhile, William Safire provides a surprisingly frank report on the history of the term waterboarding.

I thought I was going to have to write my own primer on the financial meltdown that claimed the Bear-Stearns investment bank as a casualty today. But Jared Bernstein did it for me. It's gotten to the point where even a solid Wall Street guy like Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson wishes for more regulation. Maybe the best explanation of the financial chaos is still the Bird and Fortune comedy routine I mentioned in December: "... and then it's extraordinary what happens. Somehow this package of dodgy debts stops being a package of dodgy debts and becomes a structured investment vehicle." What could possibly go wrong with that?

The administration has won its battle to keep undeserving children from getting healthcare. After failing to override two vetoes, Democrats in Congress are giving up their attempt to expand the SCHIP program -- at least until reinforcements arrive in 2009.

This Sift needs some comic video to close on. So:

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Weapon of the Enemy

Fear was the year's biggest crop. It hung from the fruit trees instead of apples and peaches, and bees made fear instead of honey. In the paddies, fear grew thickly beneath the surface of the shallow water, and in the saffron fields, fear like bindweed strangled the delicate plants. Fear clogged the rivers like water hyacinth, and sheep and goats in the high pastures died for no apparent reason. -- Salman Rushdie

The Galadriel Test
Late in The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo offers the Ring of Sauron to the beautiful elf queen Galadriel. Tempted, she conjures a vision of herself becoming as great and terrible as the Dark Lord himself. Using the power of the One Ring, she could rule Middle Earth instead of joining her people's retreat to the Havens in the West. "All shall love me and despair!" she prophesies. But then, temptation conquered, she refuses Frodo's offer. The weapon of the Enemy, she realizes, cannot be used for good. "I will diminish," she accepts, "and go into the West, and remain Galadriel."

Two weeks ago, reeling from a dozen consecutive losses in primaries and caucuses across the country, Hillary Clinton faced the likelihood that she would diminish, go back to the Senate, and never become president. Instead of accepting that fate, she chose to use the weapon that the Republicans rode to victory in 2002 and 2004, and hope to use again in 2008: Fear.

Her ad Children, though not nearly as overt as the Wolves ad Bush ran in 2004, carried the same message: The world is a scary place, so you don't dare risk change. You need someone safe and familiar in the White House. (Arianna Huffington characterized it as "making no real argument about preparedness to lead, only the shadowy insinuation that bad things will happen to your kids if you vote for Obama.") Clinton coupled this ad with a new low in rhetoric: She praised John McCain over Barack Obama. She and McCain, Clinton said, have the experience to be commander-in-chief. Obama, she implied, does not.

I'll let Gary Hart explain why you don't unfavorably compare a rival in your own party to the other party's nominee. But why shouldn't Clinton -- or any Democrat -- invoke fear? It's a good question, and (despite a good response by DailyKos' Bob Johnson), I'd like to take my own crack at answering it.

Sometimes things get clearer as they recede into the past. Let's go back to the 1996 State of the Union address, when Bill Clinton was gearing up for his re-election campaign. The big sound bite from that speech was: "The era of big government is over." It was a very well-written and well-delivered line, Clinton got some good press out of it, and of course he beat Bob Dole in the fall. But the Republicans held on to both houses of Congress and even increased their majority in the Senate by two seats. Any hope of progressive legislation in Clinton's final term was dead.

Why did that happen? Well, the phrase big government means more than the dictionary would have you believe. Republicans had been working on that phrase for decades, so by 1996 it evoked an entire picture: wasteful spending, lazy bureaucrats, welfare cheaters, and red tape that makes sure nothing is ever accomplished. When the leader of your party starts talking about big government, you can't segue into advocating national health insurance, it gets very hard to explain why you don't want to privatize Social Security, and you can't defend the kind of regulations that might have avoided the Enron debacle or today's subprime mortgage mess. With the progressive agenda off the table, it became hard to explain why voters should cast a ballot for any Democrat other than Bill Clinton.

That's what Hillary is setting us up for in the fall. "National security will be front and center in this election," she announced. "We all know that." Do we? Maybe by November the recession will be front and center, or the tumbling of dominoes in our banking system. Maybe it will be the trillions of dollars we're wasting in Iraq, or the tens of millions of Americans with no health insurance. Maybe our government's illegal spying. Maybe the environment. Maybe our energy policy. Maybe another bridge or two will have collapsed and our neglected infrastructure will be front and center. If the public is paying attention to any of those issues, not only will a Democrat win the presidency, but we'll toss out a lot of those Republicans who went to the Senate during the first fear campaign in 2002.

The only chance that McCain and the Republicans have is to make this a one-issue election, framed exactly the way Clinton is framing it now: Who's going to protect your children from the evil-doers? And the Republicans won't stop with the suggestion that you want someone safe and familiar (like all their incumbent senators), they're going to ask: "Who's willing to do whatever it takes?" Who's willing to torture? to gut the Constitution? to spy without warrants? to stretch our military to the breaking point? to attack more countries that haven't threatened us -- but might sometime in the future? They're going to tell you that any Democrat who isn't willing to do those things isn't serious about protecting your children. Democratic congressmen who are (for the moment) standing firm against telecom immunity are probably already wondering what will happen to them if Clinton gets nominated and keeps echoing the Republican fear-rhetoric.

If enough free-floating dread gets generated, it might save my senator here in New Hampshire, John Sununu, who is well behind in the polls. It might save New Mexico's Pete Domenici, Minnesota's Norm Coleman, Alaska's Ted Stevens, and all the other endangered Republicans.

The weapon of the enemy has been carefully forged to achieve the enemy's purposes, whoever wields it. Galadriel understood that. If only the Clintons understood it too.

The Art of the Empty Scandal
In the days leading up to the Texas and Ohio primaries, I kept hearing about Obama's "ties" to a shady businessman named Tony Rezko, whose trial for something-or-other started that Monday. But the stories never spelled out exactly what Obama was supposed to have done, so I made a mental note to check it out before writing this week's Sift. As so often happens when I make such notes, Glenn Greenwald beat me to it:
I spent several hours yesterday morning reading every "Rezko" article I could find in an attempt to understand as much as possible about the allegations. The point isn't that there is no credible evidence of any wrongdoing on the part of Obama, although that's unquestionably true. It's far beyond that. There aren't even any theoretical allegations or suggestions as to what he might have done wrong at all. ... The only substantive connections Obama and Rezko have is that the latter was a contributor to Obama's campaign and was a partner in a standard residential real-estate purchase which nobody suggests, at least in terms of Obama's conduct, was anything but above-board.

... It's precisely the empty nature of the "scandal" that makes it impossible to resolve. The more he addresses it, the more he fuels it; conversely, the more he refuses to address it, the more he will be accused of "stonewalling" and not being forthcoming. It's just illusory innuendo that, by design, can never be satisfactorily addressed because nobody can ever apprehend what the substance of the "scandal" is.
Glenn compares this to the Clinton Whitewater "scandal" which was investigated to death by Ken Starr without any charges being brought. The Clintons were never even accused of profiting, yet the term Whitewater appeared in countless news articles as if it referred to some specific accusation of corruption on their part.

Glenn references a Digby post that explains what empty scandals all have in common:
They are based on complicated details that make the casual reader's eyes glaze over and about which the subject has to issue long confusing explanations in return. They feature colorful and unsavory political characters in some way. They ... tend to be written in such a way as to say that even if they aren't illegal they "look bad." The underlying theme is hypocrisy because the subjects are portrayed as making a dishonest buck while pretending to represent the average working man. Oh, and they always feature a Democrat. Republicans are not subject to such scrutiny because a craven, opportunistic Republican isn't "news." (Neat trick huh?)

No single story will bring down a candidate because they have no substance to them. It's the combined effect they are looking for to build a sense [of] overall sleaziness. "Where there's smoke there's fire" right?
Glenn examines the double standard in more detail. Enron's Ken Lay, a major Bush supporter,
committed one of the most massive frauds in American corporate history. The President's own brother, Neil, has been involved in numerous accusations of serious impropriety and yet continues to be paid by multiple sources for virtually nothing other than being George Bush's brother. The central cog for the GOP fundraising machine, Jack Abramoff, is now imprisoned as a serial felon. Led by his involvement in the Keating Five scandal, John McCain has been linked to some of the sleaziest figures around.

Yet somehow, the standard in those cases is that, in the absence of specific allegations of wrongdoing on the part of the political official, merely being linked -- even intimately -- to thieves and felons won't be held against the political official.
And that's the same standard that should apply to Obama and Clinton. Any time someone tries to tell you about some "scandal" involving either candidate, ask for a specific allegation. If they can't come up with one, look down your nose at them and walk away.

Oh, and the "NAFTA-gate scandal," where Obama was supposed to have told the Canadians not to take his anti-NAFTA rhetoric seriously? That doesn't check out either.

Short Notes
Glenn Greenwald reports that the House is about the cave in to Bush on telecom immunity and pass the Protect America Act. Julian Sanchez takes apart a Weekly Standard editorial line-by-line to demonstrate that even an aggressive spin of the truth isn't sufficient to support Bush's PAA position -- you have to get the facts egregiously wrong to have any hope of justifying it. In a comment on the Sanchez post, a telecom engineer remembers his training in the 1980s and says: "There is no question in my mind that everyone at the phone companies who gave away all the information without even warrants from a secret court did knowing full well they were breaking many many Federal and State laws governing communications." And a new report by the Department of Justice's Inspector General says that the FBI has been regularly abusing the powers given it by the Patriot Act. Glenn is shocked: "If unchecked power is vested in government officials, they're going to abuse that power ... who could have guessed? How come nobody warned us about the dangers of 'unchecked government power' and the need for checks and balances?"

Feeling poorer this year? According to the Federal Reserve, the total net worth of American households dropped by $533 billion in the fourth quarter of 2007, an annual rate of 3.6%. Adjusted for inflation, household net worth dropped for the entire year of 2007. In 2007, the equity Americans have in their homes fell below 50% for the first time since such statistics have been kept, to a low of 47.9% by the end of the year.

Josh Marshall stays on top of the McCain/Hagee issue.

There's been another case where a female Halliburton employee is being forced to arbitrate her rape accusation because of the agreement she signed when she was hired. The rape allegedly took place in a Halliburton barracks in Iraq, so it's an internal corporate matter. FireDogLake imagines the Halliburton sexual harrassment briefing: "Now folks, we're not encouraging you to commit sexual assault, but if you do, please have the decency to do so on company premises."

Think more Americans should vote? Researchers have discovered a way to increase turnout by 8.1 percentage points, but you may not like it. It relies on the fact that whether or not you voted (not who you voted for) is a matter of public record. So the experimenters sent letters to voters listing whether their neighbors had voted in the past two elections -- and implying that the neighbors had all gotten similar information about them. The letter promised that a follow-up letter would go out after the next election. Neighborhoods that received the letter had a 37.8% turnout compared to 29.7% in the control group.

Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University and a frequent TV talking head on legal issues, wrote an L. A. Times article about Mukasey's Paradox, which he describes like this: "Lawyers cannot commit crimes when they act under the orders of a president -- and a president cannot commit a crime when he acts under advice of lawyers." He derives this paradox from two instances of Attorney General Mukasey's testimony before Congress. Turley concludes, "Mukasey's Paradox, if adopted, will result in administration officials being effectively beyond the reach of the law."

Democrat Bill Foster won the special election to replace Dennis Hastert in Congress after the former Republican Speaker of the House resigned. Foster is a physicist and we can expect him to be a pro-science vote in Congress. Glenn Greenwald points out what should be the obvious lesson: Opposing telecom immunity (which Foster's well-funded opponent tried to make an issue) does not hurt a Democrat at all, even in a red district. Glenn concludes: "There is not, and there never has been, any substantial constituency in America clamoring for telecom amnesty or warrantless eavesdropping powers." [Disclaimer: I gave money to the Foster campaign and I've eaten at an ice cream shop owned by his opponent Jim Oberweis. It was good ice cream.]

The little girl in Hillary Clinton's Children ad turns out to be Casey Knowles. She's 17 now, and the Clinton campaign got the footage of her sleeping from Getty Images, which has owned it for years. Clinton wouldn't have gotten it from Knowles: She was an Obama precinct captain in the Washington state caucuses. She's hoping Obama contacts her to make a counter-ad.

The Onion News Network reports what we all suspected: Bullshit will be the most important issue in the 2008 elections. "What a candidate wears at public appearances," ONN's expert gives as an example, "is crucial to the bullshit-conscious voter." Thanks to the Internet, he notes, there are pages and pages of bullshit on all candidates. And the anchor inquires: "How can we in the news media do a better job focusing on bullshit and really hounding candidates on these petty issues?" In another report, ONN wonders if the government is doing enough to keep the nation's 1.5 million paranoid schizophrenics safe. Perhaps round-the-clock video surveillance is needed, or monitoring devices implanted under their skin.

Answer to the February 25 Sift challenge: The title Fear Strikes Out came from the 1955 autobiography of Red Sox outfielder Jimmy Piersall, who suffered from bipolar disorder. It was made into a movie of the same name starring Anthony Perkins. Several people got it.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Does Hillary Survive the Alamo?

If the liberties of America are ever completely ruined ... it will in all probability be the consequence of a mistaken notion of prudence, which leads men to acquiesce in measures of the most destructive tendency for the sake of present ease. -- Samuel Adams

The worst prediction I made this primary season was that Obama's big win in New Hampshire would lock things up. That's the problem with writing on Mondays: a Tuesday surprise might be right around the corner. Well, this Tuesday we have the Ohio and Texas primaries, which Hillary Clinton has called a "firewall" after ten straight Obama victories. Bill has said that she has to win both. If she's going to catch up in the delegate count, she needs to win big. At the moment the polls predict two close races, with Obama favored in Texas and Clinton in Ohio. Will that finally clinch the nomination for Obama?
Is Sexism Stronger Than Racism?
Pundits have already started performing autopsies on the Clinton campaign. Some blame her message: The Clinton campaign has a lot of positions, but it has no theme. Others point to the hostility of the media and its contrasting worship for Obama, as parodied on Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show. There's certainly something to this, but I should also point out that a vicious cycle of bad coverage is always part of a front-runner's fall. Failure leads to stories about dissension within the campaign, falling poll numbers, staff shake-ups, and poor fund-raising -- which leads to more failure. Giuliani went down that way, and McCain endured a similar stretch of bad news last summer, even though the press is famous for liking him.

The numbers say this: Obama has consistently increased his support among whites, while Clinton has consistently lost support among men. But why? Is sexism is a stronger prejudice than racism? Speaking as a white male, set up by birth and culture to have both prejudices, I've got my doubts. Let me try to explain how I see prejudice working inside myself, and why Obama is avoiding it better than Clinton.

Like most people these days, I don't have an absolute I-won't-vote-for-an-X kind of prejudice. But think about how negative campaigning works in general. The point of a negative campaign is to plant the thought: "That candidate isn't like me, doesn't get me, and isn't even talking to me." It can be subtle. Bill Clinton's famous, "I feel your pain" reminded you that Bush Sr. was a patrician, and it put the idea in your head that Bush couldn't get you because he had never suffered.

Any difference can be exploited -- McCain is too old to understand you, Edwards is too pretty -- but race and gender are big, obvious differences. So it's important for a candidate to speak across those gaps, reminding voters: "I get you. I'm talking to you."

Obama -- if my racial prejudices are anything to judge by -- has been brilliant at presenting himself to whites. His campaign never trips the land mines that racism has put in my mind. Watching Obama, I never have to stamp out thoughts like, "Oh, that's why he says stuff like that. He's black. He's not talking to me." Instead, Obama gives me constant subtle reminders that blacks and whites don't have to be that far apart. Oprah helps -- imagine if he'd done that campaign swing with Al Sharpton instead. Obama's voice and cadence make me think of Martin Luther King, not a gangster rapper. Stuff like that shouldn't matter, but it does -- especially in a contest with so few policy differences. The result is that when Obama says "Yes we can" I feel included in that we.

Clinton, by contrast, seems to have no idea how she sounds to men, so she trips the sexist land mines in my head all the time. When she waved Obama's anti-Clinton pamphlet in the air and scolded, "Shame on you, Barack Obama," I'll bet every man in America cringed. She sounded like Obama's mother waving the Playboy magazine she'd found under his mattress.

Another land mine of sexism is captured by those t-shirts that ask: "If a man speaks and no woman hears, is he still wrong?" It's the feeling that a woman is disagreeing just to be disagreeable, and that nothing you could possibly say will be right.

For me, Clinton tripped that mine during Tuesday's debate in Ohio. The evening was already at a low point: Tim Russert had just asked Obama to answer for Louis Farrakhan's endorsement, which Obama has neither sought nor used. Obama did a fairly creditable job of handling a low-blow series of questions -- once again without tripping any of my racial land mines. He denounced Farrakhan's anti-Semitism, recalled how important Jews were to the civil rights movement, expressed his support for Israel, and promised to keep working to repair the black/Jewish relationship. And he deftly cut Russert off before he could read a list of Farrakhan's most offensive statements.

Then Hillary started to speak. For a moment I thought she was going to do the right thing. (Josh Marshall's live-blogging of the debate records a similar hope at 10:13.) She might have aimed her scolding voice at a person who had it coming: Russert. She might have pointed out that right-wingers say outrageous things every day, and Republican candidates are never expected to denounce them. Ann Coulter has said "Jews need to be perfected" and has claimed that the Jersey-Girl widows were happy that their husbands died on 9/11. And yet her candidate (Mitt Romney) did not have that thrown in his face during a debate. Pat Robertson has called for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, has suggested that our own State Department should be nuked, and has urged his flock to "Pray that additional vacancies occur within the Supreme Court" -- pray that liberal judges die, in other words. And yet Robertson's endorsement was described by Fox News as "a coup for the Giuliani campaign." But Democrats are expected not just to disagree with their supporters who go over the line, but to insult them as well. (See the piece about McCain and John Hagee below.)

In short, this was a chance for Clinton to rise to the occasion, to be the leader of the Democratic Party, to defend all Democrats rather than attack the one who was in her way. (She could even have gotten a dig in: She voted against the Senate resolution denouncing MoveOn, while Obama didn't vote.) But no: She joined Russert and piled on. Obama had eaten a little crow, but he hadn't cleaned his plate yet. He hadn't, she pointed out, used the word reject. He needed to specifically say that he rejected Farrakhan's support.

Underneath his smile, Obama wore an expression any man could recognize and empathize with: Just tell me what I need to say. You want reject? Fine. I'll say reject. Clinton looked triumphant after that exchange, but she wasn't. She had just lost more male votes, and she didn't even know.

So if Obama wins, I don't think it proves any conclusion stronger than this: A deft handling of racism beats a clumsy handling of sexism.

John Hagee: McCain's Farrakhan
Speaking of endorsements by offensive religious leaders, John Hagee just endorsed John McCain.

Hagee is a leader among those Christians who support Israel so that they'll be on the right side during the Battle of Armageddon. (Listen to his NPR interview.) Later in their interpretation of the prophecies, the Jews either convert to Christianity or are annihilated -- so the claim that Hagee is "pro-Israel" needs an asterisk. Hagee has also referred to the Catholic church as "the whore of Babylon" from Revelations.

In the wake of the Obama/Farrakhan flap, the liberal blogs are trying to turn this into an issue for McCain, who (unlike Obama with Farrakhan) actively sought Hagee's endorsement and has made public appearances with him. So far McCain's response has been that he welcomes Hagee's support although he doesn't "agree with all Pastor Hagee's views." Like maybe the view (expressed at the 22:35 mark of the NPR interview) that New Orleans was destroyed by God's wrath for its tolerance of homosexuality? McCain didn't say.

Anyway, the McCain/Hagee relationship has drawn the wrath of another vengeful patriarch: the Catholic League's Bill Donohue. FireDogLake couldn't resist illustrating this story with a picture of Godzilla battling the three-headed King Ghidorah.

As of Sunday, the blog efforts were starting to bear fruit: Wolf Blitzer grilled McCain supporter Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson about Hagee, though still not to Josh Marshall's satisfaction.

Marching Toward Hell by Michael Scheuer
This new book makes me wish I were an editor. Michael Scheuer was the head of the CIA's Bin Laden unit from 1996-1999, and in general has one of the best understandings of Al Qaeda I have found. His previous book Imperial Hubris was one of the main sources for my Terrorist Strategy 101: A Quiz. He understands things that I wish more people understood.

But if you read this book on my recommendation, you'll be annoyed with me. Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq is undisciplined. It's like listening to a crusty old uncle rant his way through Christmas dinner: Scheuer hates multiculturalism; he thinks Ronald Reagan won the Cold War single-handedly; he can't mention the Europeans without getting apoplectic; he believes that American values rest on Christianity and that secular liberals oppose those values. There's more along those lines, but I've put it out of my mind. None of it has anything to do with what Scheuer really knows and understands, and you don't have to agree with any of it to get the book's main point. A good editor would have made sure it wasn't in the final draft. But there it is.

What is that main point? This: From the moment Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States in 1996 he has pursued the same strategy, and that strategy is working. Our leaders of both parties have told us a lot of nonsense about Al Qaeda, and as a result our policies are doomed to failure.

The stupidest thing we are told about bin Laden and his allies is that they hate us for our freedom and democratic values. Actually, rage at the satanic American culture was Ayatollah Khomeini's attempt to inspire jihad a generation ago, and it didn't fly. It turns out that the average Muslim just can't get that worked up about Americans drinking beer, voting, and letting their women run around in short skirts. They may disapprove of those things -- well, not the voting so much; they'd like to do that themselves -- but they're not willing to kill or be killed about it.

Bin Laden's real message is that America is at war with Islam and has been for decades. War against Islam is something that Muslims do get worked up about. That war, bin Laden claims, is why America has propped up corrupt secular dictators like Mubarak in Egypt and Musharraf in Pakistan, and corrupt traditional autocrats like the House of Saud or the Emir of Kuwait. That's why we support foreign occupations of Muslim lands, like Israel in Palestine, Russia in Chechnya, India in Kashmir, and China in its western Xinjiang province. Bin Laden doesn't denounce our democratic values, he uses them against us by blaming us and our puppet governments for the lack of freedom in the Muslim world.

By declaring a Global War on Terror and defining Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir, and Xinjiang as part of that war -- and enrolling new autocratic allies in places like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan -- we ratified Bin Laden's thesis. And every time we threaten, bomb, invade, or occupy another Muslim country, Muslims all over the world nod their heads and say, "Osama was right."

Bin Laden's strategy against America is to strip away our allies, stretch our military thin, and break our economy. It worked on the Soviet Union and it's looking pretty good against us too. Our debts and our war expenses go up every year, with no turning point in sight.

I'm more impressed by Scheuer's diagnosis than his prescriptions. But there is at least a logic and coherence to his strategy that our current strategy lacks. Long-term, Scheuer would invest heavily in energy independence so that we don't need to control the Middle Eastern oil, and then he would stop messing with the Middle East, Israel included. (He sees our alliance with Israel as resting on domestic politics, not on any vital national interest.) In the meantime we should not be afraid to use force to defend our safety, but against Al Qaeda that means raids, not occupations. Scheuer's wars would be short and vicious. We should have gone into Afghanistan with our own troops rather than local proxies, gotten Bin Laden and his confederates as quickly as possible, and then pulled out. Don't worry about collateral damage; don't worry about nation-building; don't worry about what the subsequent government does about democracy or women's rights. Just get it over with fast.

The scariest part of the book is his survey of the Muslim countries most of us aren't paying attention to. Watch Nigeria. There's a Christian/Muslim civil war there, and a lot of oil. That might be our next intervention.

Short Notes
The Marine I wrote about in Supporting My Troop is on his way back to Iraq. He might be there by now.

A few weeks ago I told you the amusing story of the Oval Office painting that Bush thinks is a Methodist circuit rider, but actually is a horse thief. Well, Jacob Weisberg, who did the research for his book The Bush Tragedy, tells the story even better in this video.

The Onion News Network reports that a "minor software glitch" has caused Diebold voting machines to reveal the winner of the November election too early. (It's McCain.) A disappointed citizen asks: "If you can't trust your shadowy overlords to keep a secret, what is the purpose, really, of voting in a public democracy?"

The makers of the OutFoxed DVD put together real clips from Fox News to make this fake ad for Fox News Porn.

The FCC scheduled a public hearing in Boston to listen to public concerns about net neutrality. One issue is that media giants like Comcast might block their Internet customers from downloading video that competes with Comcast's cable offerings. So what did Comcast do? It hired people to take all the seats 90 minutes early, blocking the public from complaining to the FCC. That's got to build your confidence in their good intentions.

We're #1! With 2.3 million people in prison, the United States leads the world in the number of people behind bars. U-S-A! U-S-A!

Josh Marshall had a good week on TPM-TV. He gave a clear explanation of McCain's problem with the campaign finance laws. His weekly assessment of the state of the election campaign was excellent: The first half brings you up to date on the Obama/Clinton race, and the second half explains how McCain plans to run against Obama. And the Weekend Extravaganza of all the week's most embarrassing clips is hilarious, particularly the last one: Republican Congressman Jack Kingston appears on MSNBC claiming that Obama isn't patriotic because he doesn't wear a flag pin. And then host Dan Abrams points out that Kingston isn't wearing a flag pin. Oops.

House Resolution 888 bears watching. It appears to be one of those harmless praise-mom-and-apple pie resolutions that Congress passes all the time: It proclaims the first week in May to be "American Religious History Week." What's wrong with that? Well, it also has a long series of "whereas" clauses that list historical "facts." Except that they aren't facts: They're myths that Christian supremacists spread to argue that the Founders intended America to be a Christian nation, without separation of church and state. Chris Rodda debunks many of them. If the resolution passes, Christian supremacists will take it to their local school boards and argue that these myths are "findings" of Congress.

Wonder why the Obama campaign resembles the Santos campaign from the final season of West Wing? There's a reason. And Reese Witherspoon makes a convincing young Hillary Clinton in this splicing-together of news clips and the movie Election. Jack Nicholson spliced together some of his old movie clips to make a Clinton commercial, which as far as I know appears only on the Internet. It's over the top, but it makes me wonder: What if there had been a humorous "Real Men Vote for Hillary" campaign months ago?

The Austin Lounge Lizards have a bouncy animated video promoting the fictitious drug Progenitorivox in The Drugs I Need. ("If death occurs, discontinue use of Progenitorivox immediately.")

Finally, Russ Feingold sums up the FISA debate very succinctly.