Monday, June 23, 2008

Compromising Positions

Reformers who are always compromising have not yet grasped the idea that truth is the only safe ground to stand on. -- Elizabeth Cady Stanton

In This Week's Sift:

Remind Me Why We Elected Democrats. Congressional Democrats agreed to two compromises with the Bush administration: They wrote another blank check for Iraq and gave Bush everything he wanted with regard to FISA. And in exchange they got ... well, they must have gotten something.

Don't Get Sick in Mississippi. Mississippi's "moral refusal" law protects healthcare workers whose consciences keep them from saving your life. Creationism is back in Lousiana. And South Carolina offers Christian license plates.

Remember Iraq? Americans made up their minds about Iraq in 2007, and now they just don't want to hear about it.

Short Notes. The usual collection of torture, racism, pollution, and dictators. Plus a detailed Republican plan for our economic future. Enjoy.

Next Week: You'll have to sift for yourself. I'll be blogging on the web site of the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly from Fort Lauderdale. I'll post a link on my Free and Responsible Search blog. In the meantime, check out my latest column for UU World.

Remind Me Why We Elected Democrats
Two important bills got passed in the House this week. One provides $162 billion to keep fighting the war in Iraq, among other things. It's yet another blank check, containing nothing that might cramp the style of our Warmaker in Chief. The other revises FISA to make legal a lot of the domestic spying and wiretapping that the administration was doing illegally -- and by-the-way to make sure that the lawsuits against the telecom companies will be thrown out of court.

Described by the Democratic House leadership as "compromises," both bills were backed by the White House and passed with almost unanimous Republican support, while Democrats were split. Republicans voted for the FISA bill 188-1, Democrats against 128-105. Republicans voted for the Iraq funding bill 188-4, Democrats against 151-80. Both votes fit the definition of "bipartisanship" offered by Glenn Greenwald in January:
On virtually every major controversial issue -- particularly, though not only, ones involving national security and terrorism -- the Republicans (including their vaunted mythical moderates and mavericks) vote in almost complete lockstep in favor of the President, the Democratic caucus splits, and the Republicans then get their way on every issue thanks to "bipartisan" support. That's what "bipartisanship" in Washington means.
Sounding more like an innocent bystander than Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi said of the Iraq funding bill: "Let us hope this is the last time another dollar will be spent without constraint, without conditions."

Time magazine buys the "compromise" spin on the FISA deal and asserts that it "has drawn attacks from both sides." But the only attacks they mention come from the Left. By contrast the Right seems pretty happy. The New York Times quotes Republican Senator Kit Bond: "I think the White House got a better deal than even they had hoped to get."

What did the Democrats get? According to Time:
In negotiations with Pelosi's office, the telecoms offered a compromise: Let a judge decide if the letters they received from the Administration asking for their help show that the government was really after terrorist suspects and not innocent Americans.
But if the letters say "We want you to spy on ordinary Americans for us" -- then we'll really throw the book at them, I guess. Republican House Whip Roy Blunt says bluntly: "The lawsuits will be dismissed." I'm sure the plaintiffs will appreciate what a compromise that is from the administration's original position, which was that the lawsuits should be dismissed.

The problem with this I-had-a-note-from-my-president reasoning was summed up inadvertently by Kit Bond:
I'm not here to say that the government is always right, but when the government tells you to do something, I'm sure you would all agree that I think you all recognize that is something you need to do.
So, if that's our operating principle, what should happen if Bush tells Blackwater to assassinate someone? (A terrorist, naturally. Or at least someone that the government says -- in the letter that Blackwater will use to get court proceedings dropped -- it suspected to be a terrorist. I mean, it was a suspected terrorist they were really after. Those other people were just in the line of fire.) Digby calls this what it is: the Nuremberg Defense. It's OK that the telecoms broke the law, because they were only following orders.

So let me disagree with Senator Bond: When the government tells you to do something against the law, you say no. That's what it means to live under the rule of law.

The Senate hasn't voted on the FISA bill yet, but Barack Obama is not covering himself with glory. He says he'll try to strip telecom immunity out of the bill -- a symbolic effort likely to fail -- but generally supports the "compromise." He hasn't endeared himself to the bloggers who have been fighting this issue from the beginning: Emptywheel, Glenn Greenwald, and others.

So, in short, it's a complete, across-the-board Democratic cave-in. To an unpopular lame-duck president. Why? Time explains:
Pelosi wanted the issue off the table for the political campaign this fall. Despite anti-GOP sentiment in the country and record low popularity for President George W. Bush, Democrats still trail on national security and that could hurt them in Congress.
You may remember that this is exactly the reason the Democrats gave for passing the original Iraq War resolution in 2002: They were getting national security off the table, so that they could focus the fall campaign on issues where they felt stronger, like health care and the economy. In 2002 it worked so well that Democrats lost the Senate and didn't get it back until they found some backbone in 2006.

In The Political Brain, Drew Westen offers this contrary advice:
The question of when to avoid certain issues because "the poll numbers look bad" has an unambiguous answer: never.
Getting an issue "off the table" just cedes it permanently to your opponents. They make their case and you change the subject -- the voters are not going to be impressed. And by doing something against the fundamental principles of your party, you look untrustworthy. Because voters respond to candidates emotionally, and not by going down an issues checklist, the way to look strong is not to agree to positions that your opponents define as "strong," but to defend your own principles forcefully.

Worst of all: What if your principles turn out to be right? Then, after the policies you capitulate to bring disaster, you can't capitalize because you're implicated. (Ask Kerry or Clinton about their 2002 Iraq votes.) Atrios makes this prediction:
Democrats will regret embracing the expansion of executive power because a President Obama will find his administration undone by an "abuse of power" scandal. All of those powers which were necessary to prevent the instant destruction of the country will instantly become impeachable offenses. If you can't imagine how such a pivot can take place then you haven't been paying attention.

Don't Get Sick in Mississippi
If you don't live in a state dominated by the Religious Right, you probably don't realize just how bad things have gotten.

Wednesday, Dogemperor on DailyKos explained Mississippi's "moral refusal" law paragraph-by-paragraph. The upshot: If the care you need violates the conscience of a healthcare worker -- doctor, nurse, pharmacist, ambulance driver, anybody -- that worker doesn't have help you, not even by directing you to some other professional whose conscience is less picky. The worker cannot be punished or reprimanded in any way, even if you die from lack of treatment. Even an insurance company can refuse to cover a claim by asserting an issue of conscience. (Insurance companies have consciences?)

The purpose of all this is to make it as difficult as possible to get an abortion in Mississippi, even if it's necessary to save your life. (And secondarily, to allow pharmacies not to fill prescriptions for birth-control pills.) But the provisions are general enough that you have to wonder about unintended consequences. What if I join one of those sects that objects to any medical intervention, and then I buy a Mississippi-based health insurance company and start refusing all claims on moral grounds? That's a business model that really works.

In other theocratic news: Christians in South Carolina will soon be able to get a special "I Believe" license plate, complete with a crucifix and stained-glass window. Three ministers, a rabbi, and a Hindu organization are suing.

Students will soon be learning creationism in science classes in Louisiana's public schools, if Governor (and rumored McCain VP) Bobby Jindal signs a new law, as expected. The Louisiana Science Education Act is part of the new "academic freedom" push creationists are making in the wake of the Dover decision against teaching intelligent design. The bill authorizes teachers to introduce "supplemental textbooks" that encourage "critical thinking" about "evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning." The anti-evolution Discovery Institute, which drafts models of laws like this, wants its own anti-evolution textbook, Explore Evolution, to be just such a supplement.

Morbo on the Carpetbagger Report considers moving this "academic freedom" argument from science to history classes: "Should we allow 'criticism' of the history of the Holocaust in the classroom? After all, some cranks write books saying it never happened. Shouldn’t our children hear both sides?" I think Morbo could pick an ever better set of cranks: the ones who claim Jesus never existed. How about helping our children learn "critical thinking" by "teaching the controversy" over that issue?

Remember Iraq?
Frank Rich has put his finger on an important point: The public and the media have increasingly tuned out of the argument about whether we're succeeding or failing in Iraq, and tuned out of any news about Iraq at all. The American public decided in 2007 that the war was a mistake, and they only want to know when it will be over. The latest suicide bombing, the latest offensive, the latest claim that we're winning or that we can't win -- not many people want to hear it. But in case you're still interested, here are some recent articles:

The giant oil companies are about to sign a new agreement with the Iraqi government. They have had no role in Iraq since Saddam threw them out four decades ago. From their point of view, mission accomplished.

Violence is down, but the militias are still well armed and capable of renewing their fight at any time. Agreement on Iraq's political future still seems far off.

Salon's Tom Engelhardt looks at the colossal bases we're building in Iraq, the ones the Bush administration wants to hang onto permanently. Since the permanence of our occupation is not something we like to talk about, the bases have largely gone uncovered by the media. Engelhardt finds this remarkable: "Imagine if just about no one knew that the pyramids had been built. Ditto the Great Wall of China. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The Coliseum. The Eiffel Tower. The Statue of Liberty. Or any other architectural wonder of the world you'd care to mention."

One reason that Iraqis are uncomfortable with a long-term American presence is that our Christian soldiers won't stop prosyletizing.

And if Iraq has passed off the front pages, what about Afghanistan? Since the start of that war, 531 American troops have died in Afghanistan. 56 of those deaths have come in the first half of 2008. That's about the same pace as 2007, our worst year so far, when 117 died.

Short Notes
A Senate report verifies the claims of the Vanity Fair article I told you about in April. The push for torture came from the top levels of the Bush administration and had to overcome resistance from the military. The idea that the administration just responded to the needs of interrogators in the field is the usual propaganda: Blame the guys at the bottom.

Another new report: Physicians for Human Rights examined 11 ex-detainees who claimed to have been tortured. The physical evidence PHR found supported the claims. Broken Laws, Broken Lives summarizes their findings. The preface is written by retired Major General Antonio Taguba, who is famous for overseeing the Army's internal investigation of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib. He writes: "there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account."
The poll-reading geeks at 538 see a trend toward Obama. Their current electoral map predicts a 339-199 Obama victory. They calculate the odds of an Obama victory at 75%.

Meanwhile, Brave New Films documents more McCain doubletalk in video. In These Times covers the same ground in print.

23/6 presents both the latest anti-McCain MoveOn ad and a humorous parody of it.

In Sunday's New York Times, Donovan Hohn tags along on a mission to clean up Gore Point, Alaska. Gore Point is uninhabited and almost inaccessible, but when Hohn's team arrives, the beach is full of plastic crap. Think about that. Apparently the ocean currents have "convergence zones" where floating trash collects. Somewhere north of Hawaii, there's growing accumulation of floating trash that's currently about the size of Texas.

The Saudis are promising to increase oil production. This will be an interesting test of the Peak Oil theory, because there's been a lot of speculation that the giant Saudi oil fields are closer to exhaustion than the Saudis let on.

Thomas Friedman characterizes the Bush-McCain push for more drilling in America as: "Get more addicted to oil." Cartoonist Ann Telnaes makes the same point visually.

Jezebel is keeping a racism watch on the presidential campaign. If you haven't seen the Obama/CuriousGeorge monkey or the "If Obama is President ... will we still call it The White House" button -- well, here they are.

dday on Hullabaloo calls attention to Rush Limbaugh's spin of the Midwestern floods. Rush contrasts the midwestern response to "all the stuff that happened in New Orleans." It's an interesting look at how race prejudice creates its own evidence.

Thanks to all the people who have asked about my hometown Quincy, Illinois. Other than a narrow strip along the riverfront, the town sits on a bluff over the Mississippi, so my parents are high and dry. In response to Limbaugh I'll say this: Anybody who is a veteran of these midwestern river floods sees an immediate difference between them and post-Katrina New Orleans. When the water rises in Illinois, you retreat a few hundred yards to higher ground. You may lose your property, but you don't get encircled and cut off from food and drinkable water.

President Mugabe of Zimbabwe is holding onto power the old-fashioned way, by using violence to intimidate his opponent into withdrawing from a run-off election. "We will not ask people to sacrifice their lives by voting," said an opposition party spokesman. The run-off became necessary when Mugabe's election commission refused to admit that he had lost the first election.

Conservative columnist Robert Novak calls attention to the "Roadmap for America's Future" laid out by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. If you want to know the real meaning of those vague phrases entitlement reform and tax reform, it's all spelled out here in the kind of detail McCain and the other Republicans don't dare to go into.
  • Social Security is made "permanently solvent" through "a more realistic measure of growth in Social Security’s initial benefits and an eventual modernization of the retirement age." Translation: lower benefits beginning later. (There's a subtle class issue in "modernizing" the retirement age. Working beyond age 65 is easier for pencil-pushers and keyboarders than for bricklayers.)
  • Medicare is turned into a private insurance system, with government contributing "up to $9,500" annually to your personal medical savings account after you turn 65 (or whatever the "modernized" retirement age turns out to be). Medicare spending becomes predictable because all subsequent medical inflation is your problem, not the government's. And what you do if $9,500 isn't enough to buy coverage for your pre-existing conditions is a mystery.
  • A "simplified" tax system eliminates taxes on the non-working wealthy and on corporations: Interest, capital gains, dividends, and inheritances are untaxed. The alternate minimum tax (whose original purpose was to make sure the very wealthy didn't use loopholes to avoid taxes entirely) goes away. A national sales tax replaces the corporate income tax.
Novak's prediction: "After what is expected to be another bad GOP defeat in the 2008 congressional elections, Ryan [and like-minded youngsters] McCarthy and Cantor could constitute the party's new House leadership." He's looking forward to it.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Habeas Corpus Isn't a Corpse

If you don't include torturing helpless prisoners in your definition of evil, your definition of evil is meaningless. -- Tony Lagouranis, Fear Up Harsh

In This Week's Sift:

Hocus Pocus: The Court Makes Habeas Corpus Reappear. Justice Scalia says Americans will die for this. Newt Gingrich thinks it could cost us a city. What evil invention are they talking about? Habeas corpus, the foundation of human rights.

The Negative Campaign.
John McCain is behind in the polls and doesn't have a popular issue to run on. So he's going to have to make Barack Obama even less popular.

Short Notes. Obama comes to the town where I grew up, while McCain visits the town where I live now. The SOFA negotiations become uncomfortable. Governor Jindal, exorcist. Impeachment or hanging? And the surprising downside of loaning large sums of money to people in jail.

Hocus Pocus: The Court Makes Habeas Corpus Reappear
I've said this before, but it's worth repeating: Just about all of your rights as an American are founded on habeas corpus. The Latin is intimidating, but the idea is simple. If a government official arrests you, you can get a hearing before a neutral judge. The judge determines whether or not the government has a legal basis to hold you, and if not, you go free.

Most of your other rights concern what reasons the government can or can't use at that hearing. Your freedom of religion means that "He's a Muslim" is not a good enough reason to imprison you. Your freedom of speech means that "She called the president an ignorant jerk" is also not a viable reason. But if the hearing is never held -- if the government just arrests you and doesn't have to explain itself to anybody -- then even though your other rights may stay on the books, you have no way to claim them.

Worse, if any class of people is denied habeas corpus rights, that creates a hole in the system into which anyone else might fall. Say, for example, that non-citizens aren't allowed a hearing. "No problem," you say, "I'm an American citizen." But if the government says you're not a citizen, then who's going to hear you claim that you are?

Cutting corners on habeas corpus is especially dangerous when combined with the Bush administration's unitary executive theory, by which they interpret Article II of the Constitution to mean that all officials in the executive branch of government are "emanations of the president's will" (in David Rifkin's evocative phrase). So if somebody in the Pentagon accuses you of being an enemy combatant, and a military commission assesses the evidence against you, your accuser and your judges are all emanations of the president's will. If the president doesn't like you, you're pretty much screwed.

This week the Supreme Court decided this is a bad situation, and is not consistent with the American tradition of constitutional law. That's the good news. The bad news: They decided it by one vote, 5-4. The four in the minority -- Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, and Alito -- are healthy, relatively young, and likely to stay on the court for many years. The next two or three retirements are going to come from the five. Senator McCain has mentioned Roberts and Alito as models for his court appointments, so this ruling could easily be reversed if McCain is elected.

As for what the new ruling says in detail, I haven't finished reading it yet. Glenn Greenwald (I keep forgetting he's a lawyer) summarizes it. So does Salon's James Ross. The Volokh Conspiracy extracts key quotes. So does emptywheel.

From the responses of conservatives, you might think that the Court had ordered the immediate release of everyone at Guantanamo, rather than just offer them a fair hearing. (Slate's Dahlia Lithwick: "The court merely said that the petitioners are entitled to some reasonable approximation of a habeas corpus proceeding, and that the jumped-up pretrial hearings known as Combatant Status Review Tribunals just don't substitute.") Bush said, "It was a deeply divided court. And I strongly agree with those who dissented." Presumably he meant Justice Scalia, who wrote that the decision "will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed." On Face the Nation Sunday Newt Gingrich raised the ante: "This court decision is a disaster which could cost us a city." McCain said it was "one of worst decisions in the history of this country." (By contrast, Obama supported the ruling, calling it "an important step toward re-establishing our credibility as a nation committed to the rule of law.")

Conservative commentators went even further. National Review's Andy McCarthy passes on a "practical response" suggested to him by "an old government friend."

Let's free all Gitmo detainees...on a vast, deserted, open and contested Afghan battlefield. C-130 gunship circling overhead for security. Give them all a two minute running head start.

Glenn Greenwald reports on a radio debate he had with conservative Jed Babbin:
The question I put to him again and again was one that he simply couldn't answer: how and why would any American object to the mere requirement that our Government prove that someone is guilty before we imprison them indefinitely or execute them?
And the bottom line is that many of them aren't guilty. That's the conclusion the McClatchy Newspapers came to in its Guantanamo: Beyond the Law series.
From the moment that Guantanamo opened in early 2002, former Secretary of the Army Thomas White said, it was obvious that at least a third of the population didn't belong there.

Of the 66 detainees whom McClatchy interviewed, the evidence indicates that 34 of them, about 52 percent, had connections with militant groups or activities. At least 23 of those 34, however, were Taliban foot soldiers, conscripts, low-level volunteers or adventure-seekers who knew nothing about global terrorism.

Only seven of the 66 were in positions to have had any ties to al Qaida's leadership, and it isn't clear that any of them knew any terrorists of consequence.

This conclusion would not surprise anybody who has read Fear Up Harsh, the account of an American interrogator in Iraq. (It sounds familiar because I put it on the Summer Reading List last week.) The book describes in detail a system focused entirely on sweeping up anyone who might know something, and not at all concerned with clearing the innocent.
It didn't occur to me at the time, but the patrol that discovered the IED had no reason to believe these two farmers had anything to do with it. But they were nearby, and so they were worth arresting. Then they were handed to someone like me, who really wanted to believe that the infantry had a good reason to pick them up.
So he moved them on to the next prison up the ladder. And so on.

The Negative Campaign: It's Starting
Securing the Democratic nomination gave Obama a bounce in the polls, and a small but definite lead over McCain. The 538 blog is currently predicting a 300-238 electoral college victory for Obama. 538 has a complicated technique for assessing the probabilities state-by-state, and they now give Obama a 62% chance of becoming the next president. That agrees with the Intrade market, where shares of Obama are trading at 62.

Pundits of all stripes are starting to agree on the general shape of the campaign: With an unpopular Republican president, an unpopular war, unemployment and gas prices rising, and an amazing 80% of the public agreeing that the country is on the wrong track, the only way for McCain to win is to tear Obama down. Ideally, as in all negative campaigns, the candidate himself will keep his hands clean. But the mudslinging is already starting.

A lot of it will revolve around race. In America today, you can't just campaign on the theme "Don't vote for the black guy." But you can raise racial fears and resentments indirectly, then provide a smokescreen argument for directing that fear and resentment at a candidate. This path was blazed by the 1988 Willie Horton ad, which never came out and said "Dukakis will let big black studs rape your womenfolk" but certainly raised that idea in viewers' minds. The 2006 "Harold, Call Me" ad against black Senate candidate Harold Ford again put forward an interracial sex theme -- deniably, of course. The beneficiary, now Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, was able to have it both ways. He could denounce the ad while claiming to be unable to stop the national Republican Party from running it. (Meanwhile, his own anti-Ford ad had African tom-toms sounding in the background.) Expect something similar from McCain.

Fox News is already trying -- sometimes with unintentionally comical ineptitude -- to connect Obama with anything dark and scary. The fist-bump greeting that Obama and his wife exchanged before his victory speech in St. Paul was characterized by Fox as a possible "terrorist fist-jab". Fox labeled Michele Obama as "Obama's Baby Mama" -- a slang expression for mothers of illegitimate children, more-or-less equivalent to calling the Obama daughters bastards. As with Willie Horton, the "baby mama" phrase triggers images beyond its literal meaning, connecting Obama with ghetto gangsters who father more children than they can keep track of.

Floyd Brown, the producer of the original Willie Horton ad, is raising money for an "independent" anti-Obama advertising campaign. His first ad pushed the idea that Obama was soft on gang violence, and his most recent one promotes the frequently debunked Obama-is-a-Muslim charge. Expect more. His group, the National Campaign Fund, maintains the web site.

The worst stuff, naturally, is in emails of no determinable source that people forward to their friends. Maybe you've gotten some.

Obama is showing early signs of responding more quickly and effectively than John Kerry did to the Swift Boat ads in 2004. His campaign recently put up a Fight the Smears web site to collect simple evidence debunking negative rumors. For example, in response to the charge that Obama won't say the Pledge of Allegiance, they have a tape of Obama leading the Senate in saying the Pledge on June 21, 2007.

At a fund-raiser in Pennsylvania Friday, Obama promised not to be a patsy. "If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun," he said. This line has been widely interpreted as a reference to the scene in The Untouchables where Sean Connery explains "the Chicago way" to Kevin Costner.

Maybe the best way to fight back is with ridicule, like this video in which people explain why they're voting Republican.

Short Notes
Saturday Obama was in my home town (Quincy, Illinois), which is bracing for the same flood waters that have swept through Cedar Rapids. He filled a few sandbags and called for his supporters to come out and volunteer to build up the levee. This is the right way for him to exploit the age issue. Obama wielding a shovel displays vigor in a way that McCain can't match. The call for volunteers is a clear contrast with President Bush, who won't ask average Americans for any sacrifice beyond going shopping. And anything about floods and levees is going to remind Americans of New Orleans, where the Bush administration failed in its pledge to protect American cities.

I saw McCain here in Nashua Thursday. He said pretty much the same things he said here in December, but I think I'm starting to understand him better now. I wrote up my observations on DailyKos and on my own Open Source Journalism blog. And if you happened to see this piece on CNN, the questioner was absolutely as boring and single-minded as they made him out to be.

Today is the first day for same-sex marriages in California. State officials think they might be busy.

The Bush administration's attempts to negotiate a status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) with the Iraqi government has run into problems. The administration has been very secretive about what it is proposing, but leaks from the Iraqi side indicate that the administration wants a large number of permanent bases in Iraq and free rein for American forces to do whatever they deem necessary, without Iraqi approval. Prime Minister al-Maliki says this would "violate Iraqi sovereignty." Smintheus on Daily Kos has a pretty good summary of what is publicly known.

Glenn Greenwald recalls when it was almost treason to accuse the administration of wanting permanent bases in Iraq:
What's striking is how those who pointed out that this was the administration's plan were totally demonized in our establishment political discourse -- Americans who said that long-term bases were the real U.S. intention in Iraq were scorned as anti-American, far Leftist hysterics, while Iraqis and other Middle Eastern Muslims who said this were mocked as primitive, Arab Street paranoids.

This week the Washington Post has a series (called The Bubble) about the housing mess. Here's a clip from Sunday's installment:
The young woman who walked into Pinnacle's Vienna office in 2004 said her boyfriend wanted to buy a house near Annapolis. He hoped to get a special kind of loan for which he didn't have to report his income, assets or employment. Mortgage broker Connelly handed the woman a pile of paperwork.

On the day of the settlement, she arrived alone. Her boyfriend was on a business trip, she said, but she had his power of attorney. Informed that for this kind of loan he would have to sign in person, she broke into tears: Her boyfriend actually had been serving a jail term.

Not a problem. Almost anyone could borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars for a house in those wild days. Connelly agreed to send the paperwork to the courthouse where the boyfriend had a hearing.

Who could possibly have foreseen that something might go wrong with such a sound business model?

Congressman Dennis Kucinich filed 35 articles of impeachment against President Bush this week. Read them all here. I think Bush should be glad that he's president of the United States and not Pakistan, where opposition leader Nawaz Sharif is calling for President Musharaf to be hanged. On the other hand, Kucinich should appreciate that he's not in Zimbabwe, where President Mugabe has brought treason charges against the second-in-command of the party that had the audacity to run against him. "We are prepared to fight for our country and to go to war for it," Mugabe said.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is sometimes mentioned as a McCain VP. So isn't it handy that he has experience as an exorcist? I can see it now: Vice President Jindal is presiding over the Senate when some crazy-assed thing Senator Inhofe says about global warming makes Harry Reid's head spin. As soon as Reid's eyes come around to the front again, there's Jindal with the Holy Scripture in his hand. "Out, demon, out!" he commands. graphs the changing party identification of people in Wisconsin: Democrats rising, Independents and Republicans sinking. This may not be a swing state any more.

A few weeks ago I linked to a video that compressed the Democratic presidential race so far into seven minutes. Well, now that the race is complete, it takes eight minutes.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Looking Towards November

Democracy without honest information creates the illusion of popular consent, while enhancing the power of the state and the privileged interests protected by it. -- Bill Moyers, speaking Saturday to the National Conference for Media Reform in Minneapolis

In This Week's Sift:

Two Eventful Weeks. Since my last Sift, the primaries ended and Barack Obama became the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party. Where the race is now, the best links for keeping track of it, and best guesses about what the Clinton supporters will do.

They Lied. Not so long ago, saying "Bush lied" marked you as a resident of the Far Left. Now the Senate Intelligence Committee has come very close to saying it, with the support of two of its Republican members.

The Media Helped Them Lie. Scott McClellan says the media was "too deferential to the White House" when the Iraq War was being sold. ABC's Charles Gibson protests, but the facts don't back him up.

Political Summer Reading.
A few books that aren't exactly beach reading, but are worth a look if you have some time this summer.

I'm running over my voluntary 3,000-word limit this week, so I'll do without a Short Notes section. In the meantime, check out the most recent "Unearthed News" feature by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Brendan DeMelle on Huffington Post. Short Notes will be back next week.

Two Eventful Weeks
I'm going to assume that you do not live in a cave, and so you already know the basics of what happened in politics these last two weeks. It started a week ago Saturday when the Democrats came up with a compromise to resolve the Florida-and-Michigan issue. Not everybody liked it. The final primaries were held on Tuesday, and superdelegates finally started declaring themselves in large numbers. By Tuesday night, Obama had the support of a majority of delegates to the Democratic Convention in August, so he declared victory in a very good speech in the same arena in Minnesota where the Republican Convention will be held. Clinton gave a speech that night that did not include a concession, for which she was roundly criticized.

McCain also spoke that day, lamely enough that the contrast with Obama scared Republicans. The snarkiest response to his speech came not from some upstart liberal blog, but from the Economist, which noticed a resemblance to Batman's arch-villain the Joker in McCain's "terrifying death rictus grin-and-snicker after every joke line. I don't know whether Americans are ready to vote for Mr McCain, but I am prepared to pay him one million dollars not to release deadly Smilex gas over the New Year's Eve crowd at midnight."

Wednesday a conference call with her supporters in Congress convinced Clinton that the campaign was over and it was time to endorse Obama. On Saturday she that did just that. It was an emotional scene, and she handled it marvelously. I had grown increasingly suspicious of Clinton as the campaign wore on, so I watched closely for some hint that would undercut the main message; I didn't see one. She put her full effort into the speech and did her best to convince her supporters to get behind Obama.

Where Are We Now? According to the polls, McCain and Obama are more-or-less tied, with perhaps a slight advantage to Obama in both the popular vote and the electoral college. The conventional wisdom is a little more definite in predicting an Obama win.

The best place to watch the numbers is the 538 blog. (538 is the total number of electoral votes, with 270 making a majority.) 538 is to polling what Bill James is to baseball statistics. During the primaries, 538 (also known as the blogger Poblano) was uncanny at cutting through the pre-election fog -- figuring out who would actually vote, how the undecideds would break, and so on. 538 doesn't conduct polls, it just reanalyzes everybody else's data and tosses in everything else that seems relevant: a state's demographic profile, results from similar demographics in other states, how Bush and Kerry did in 2004, fund-raising numbers, and so on. It works.

538's current if-the-election-were-held-today guess is a 273-265 electoral college win for Obama.

The best place to watch the conventional wisdom is through the predictive markets. These resemble stock markets, but the shares correspond to candidates. A share of Obama will pay $100 if Obama wins, and people bid to determine what that share is worth today. Right now, Obama is trading at $61.80 compared to $35.90 for McCain. Originally, the wisdom-of-crowds folks believed that predictive markets might have uncanny prognosticating ability, but so far they seem to react to events more than predict them. (Last November-December, for example, shares of Huckabee went up more or less in tandem with his Iowa poll numbers.) It is a good way to quantify what people are expecting at the moment, though. Follow them through Slate's continuing "Why Vote When You Can Bet?" feature.

What's Obama's Advantage? If the polls are nearly even, you might wonder why the conventional wisdom is favoring Obama. I can't speak for all the conventionally wise, but here's why I expect him to win: I think the final days of the divisive primary campaign were a low point for Obama. The country is leaning towards the Democrats at all other levels, and as November approaches I expect the presidential level to align with that trend. In other words, there's a big pool of voters who support Democrats generally and Democratic positions on the major issues, but who right now are either undecided or leaning towards McCain. I think Obama will eventually get most of their votes.

In particular, I expect Obama to eventually win over two types of voters: moderates who mistakenly think that McCain is a moderate, and some Clinton fans who are supporting McCain out of spite.

Finally, McCain is pushing the same experience theme that failed Clinton in January. Experience works as an issue only until the public can see the candidates side-by-side. At that point, the experience difference has to be visible in their performance -- McCain needs to look like he knows what he's talking about while Obama doesn't. If the experience advantage is invisible -- and I think it will be -- the issue goes away. That's what happened in Kennedy vs. Nixon.

Moderates. Most politicians have a boom-bust cycle with the media. Obama, for example, got a lot of good coverage when he was emerging in December-January, and then March was 24/7 Jeremiah Wright. Through last summer and fall, Clinton benefited from the media message that she was inevitable. But immediately after Iowa pundits focused entirely on her failures, and then in the spring they exaggerated her chances of winning after Obama had built an insurmountable lead. Build-up-tear-down is the normal pattern.

For some reason, McCain has no cycle. Since he emerged on the national scene in 1999, he has received relentlessly positive coverage. As a result, people tend to believe that McCain agrees with them, even when he doesn't. Many pro-choice voters, for example, somehow have gotten the impression that McCain is pro-choice, when he actually takes a fairly extreme pro-life position. That's typical. McCain is a doctrinaire conservative. He's even more hawkish than Bush. He thinks the magic of the marketplace will solve our healthcare problems. He supports the Bush tax cuts and wants to focus new tax cuts on corporations, while balancing the budget through "entitlement reform" -- cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits.

Now, I understand that some people will never catch on. But more and more voters will start paying attention as the election gets closer, and many will be shocked by what they find.

Clintonites. There's a lot of anger among Clinton supporters right now, especially older women who see Obama as all the undeserving young men who ever got promoted over them. Until Saturday, Clinton did her best to fan that anger. The whole point of all the Florida-and-Michigan stuff was to create a narrative of injustice and paint Obama's victory as illegitimate. (If you buy this narrative, try to imagine it with the names switched: What if Obama tried to count a primary that he had won because Clinton's name wasn't on the ballot, and where many voters had stayed home because the Democratic Party had told them their primary was meaningless? Which way does the injustice go then?)

Lots of people have written about this group lately: Michelle Goldberg at The New Republic, Carol Lundergan at TPM Cafe, and Jane Hamsher at the Huffington Post, just to name a few. The BloggingHeads discussion between Jane Hamsher and Brink Lindsey is pretty insightful: Jane separates the Clinton-loyal women into two groups: politically active feminists and previously apolitical women who identify with Hillary personally. The first group will come home to the Democrats, she says, but the second may not. For them, it's not about abortion or the Supreme Court or the economy or the war; it's about Hillary. No Hillary, no vote.

That matches what I see on the blogs. As the campaign wore on, Democratic blogs became more and more segregated into pro-Obama blogs (like DailyKos) and pro-Clinton blogs (like MyDD). Neither completely eliminated its minority supporting the other candidate, but life was difficult for them. Already on Wednesday, though, peace started breaking out. The harsh feelings on either side are not entirely gone, but people who care about politics and progressive values realize what's at stake in this election. They aren't going to dwell on their disappointments or let personal animosity screw things up.

On the blogs specifically set up to support Clinton's candidacy, though, it's a different story. The outstanding example here is HillaryIs44 (a reference to the 44th president, the next one). These bloggers feel wronged by Obama and the Democratic Party, and they're out to take down anybody involved in denying Hillary the nomination, including Obama-supporting superdelegates like John Kerry. Clinton's concession speech made no difference to them, and many hang on to the fantasy that some Obama scandal will still break out and cause the superdelegates to change their minds. The key acronym here is PUMA (Party Unity My Ass).

These are the people McCain was pandering to at the beginning of his Tuesday speech, when he congratulated Clinton at length and said, "Pundits and party elders have declared that Senator Obama will be my opponent." He was implicitly pushing the message that Obama stole the nomination from the rightful victor, Hillary Clinton.

Nobody knows exactly how many HillaryIs44-type people there are, or if McCain can really keep their support. The measure to watch is not the tone of HillaryIs44 (which will never change), but its traffic level. Will this community of resentment hold together, or will its members defect one-by-one as November approaches?

Will Clinton Be VP? No. Forget all the arguments for and against, it comes down to this: Clinton said McCain would be a better commander-in-chief than Obama. If she's on the ticket, Republicans will run that video 24/7.

They Lied.
More people have changed their minds about George W. Bush than about any president in American history. Over the last seven years, his approval rating has done a falcon-dive from its historic high in the 90s after 9-11 to a Nixon-like 25% today. In the course of that long re-assessment, two events stand out: his administration's bumbling response to Hurricane Katrina, and its failure to find WMDs in Iraq. We didn't save New Orleans, and we didn't save the hypothetical cities that Bin Laden was going to destroy with Saddam's weapons.

No matter how messy, bloody, and expensive the Iraq War turned out to be, Americans would still support it if we thought it had prevented al Qaida from blowing up Atlanta or unleashing an anthrax plague on Chicago. That was the war President Bush sold us. If it had just turned out to cost more than he led us to believe, we'd have forgiven him.

But there were no WMDs. American cities faced no danger from Saddam. And if Bin Laden still has plans to destroy them, our troops in Iraq do not stand in his way.

Katrina was just incompetence, but Iraq has long carried an odor of deception. Did Bush and his people just get it wrong? Were they themselves fooled by incompetent intelligence services? Or did they lie to us?

The new report of the Senate Intelligence Committee adds weight to the case that they lied. The Senate report examines the public statements of Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, and Powell during the lead-up to the war, and compares them to the intelligence reports the administration was receiving. Conclusion: In regard to WMDs, evidence supporting their position existed, but they ignored contrary evidence and dissenting interpretations in the intelligence community. In regard to the relationship between Saddam and Bin Laden, they just made stuff up. The intelligence community had debunked the Saddam/Osama relationship, but the administration pushed it anyway. All of the committee's Democrats and two Republicans -- Chuck Hagel and Olympia Snowe -- approved the report.

The Media Helped Them Lie.
Almost simultaneously, Scott McCellan's new book What Happened was describing the Iraq deception from the inside, using the word propaganda to describe what the administration did.

In addition to the obvious conflict with the administration, McClellan's book touched off a discussion about the role of the press. A lot of the mainstream journalists -- NBC's David Gregory, for example -- took offense at McClellan's charge that the press was "too deferential to the White House."

NBC's Today morning show coincidentally had the three major network anchors on -- Katie Couric, Brian Williams, and Charles Gibson -- and asked them about it. Couric described the pressure the networks were under -- how the administration threatened to freeze CBS out of war coverage if they didn't change their tone. But Gibson claimed the right questions were asked and "there was a lot of skepticism" about Colin Powell's speech.

Unfortunately for Gibson, we have Google and YouTube now and can check his memory. Glenn Greenwald did the research, and discovered that in fact Gibson displayed precious little skepticism after Powell's speech.

"It is not our job to debate [the administration]," Gibson told the Today audience, "It is our job to ask the questions." Glenn goes on to nail this as the Stenographic Model of Journalism:
Real reporting is about uncovering facts that the political elite try to conceal, not ones they willingly broadcast. It's about investigating and exposing -- not mindlessly amplifying -- the falsehoods and deceit of government claims. But our modern "journalists" (with some noble exceptions) don't do that not only because they can't do it, but also because they don't think it's their job.
His post contains many links worth following, to discussions of how Phil Donahue's show got canceled despite its ratings, the firing of Ashleigh Banfield, and CNN correspondent Jessica Yellin's assertion that "the press corps was under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure that this was a war that was presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation and the president's high approval ratings."

Political Summer Reading List
Imagine that you're a what-the-hell kind of guy who loves foreign languages and cultures. You've been bopping through life with no discernible plan when in June, 2001 you get this amazingly brilliant idea: If you join the Army, they'll pay you to learn Arabic. Fast forward a couple of years, and life is not turning out exactly the way you planned. You're an interrogator at Abu Ghraib.

That's what happened to Tony Lagouranis. He begins his memoir Fear Up Harsh with one of the great opening lines: "I should never be mistaken for a hero." And then he goes on to tell a fascinating story of corruption and slippery slopes. It has a moral:
Once introduced into war, torture will inevitably spread, because ticking bombs are everywhere. Each and every prisoner, without exception, has the potential to be the one that provides the information that will save American lives. So if you accept the logic that we have to perform torture to prevent deaths, each and every prisoner is deserving of torture. ... We should be very concerned about this steady progression and where it will lead, because the essence of torture -- tyrannical control over the will of another -- is everything that a free and democratic society is supposed to stand against. We should be very skeptical of the idea that our use of torture overseas will never come home.

Martha Nussbaum is a philosopher whose new book Liberty of Conscience explores the boundary between philosophy, American history, and constitutional law with regard to the issue of religious freedom and the relationship between church and state. If that description sounds dense, academic, and unreadable, I've done her an injustice. Her book has a very simple point: Defenders of religious liberty screw up when they present separation-of-church-and-state as an end in itself. Separation is better understood as a means to this end: Every American should come to the public square as an equal, without hierarchies created by ranking one religion over another. Mixing church with state inevitably implies that some beliefs make you more (or less) American, and therefore they entitle you to a higher (or lower) level of respect from your government.

Nussbaum retells the history of religious freedom and oppression in America -- including the shameful parts -- from Roger Williams leaving the Massachusetts Bay Colony to present controversies about displaying the Ten Commandments, reciting "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, and same-sex marriage. Her ultimate conclusions resemble down-the-line ACLUism. But her arguments are founded on values that really are common to the vast majority of Americans, rather than values that we merely wish were common.

Have you ever noticed how the war party is full of people who dodged military service? The anti-gay party has an inordinate number of closeted gays? The family values party has a hard time finding candidates who can hold their first marriage together long enough to raise a child? (And do any of them have a daughter as pride-worthy as Chelsea Clinton?)

Glenn Greenwald thinks that's not just a series of unfortunate coincidences. In Great American Hypocrites, he makes the case that the true core value of the conservative movement is hypocrisy. And in a brilliant move, he takes his history-of-conservative-hypocrisy all the way back to the icon: John Wayne. I can't count the number of times I've heard somebody say that the Republicans are the John Wayne party. Well, Glenn agrees: Wayne ducked military service during World War II, when other actors of his era (Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable -- even Jane Fonda's dad Henry, for God's sake) enlisted. He philandered. He was married three times. He got hooked on prescription drugs. And all the while he strutted around like the epitome of male virtue. Yep, he's the model for the Republican party.

Like most of Glenn's stuff, this book repeats itself and could have been a lot shorter. But it's a fun rant, and will provide plenty of ammunition for arguments with conservative friends and relatives.

Every few months the blogosphere lights up with reports of some inspirational talk given by Bill Moyers. Well, now you can read them all in a book, Moyers on Democracy. Except for the talk he gave at the National Conference for Media Reform in Minneapolis Saturday. That one you'll just have to watch on YouTube. You can also watch the hilarious way Moyers turns the tables on an ambush interviewer sent by Bill O'Reilly. It takes nine minutes to play out, but it's worth it.

I haven't finished Drew Westen's The Political Brain yet, but I've seen enough to recommend it. His main point is that Democrats approach a campaign like a high school debate, while Republicans approach it like marketing. That's why Republicans win even when the Democrats' positions are more popular. He discusses how emotions and imagery influence political decision-making, and dissects political advertisements to explain why they do or don't work.