Gov. Mark Warner has proposed a $72 billion budget in Virginia for 2006-2008, a huge (20 percent) increase over the $60 billion 2004-2006 budget. If it seems that the popular, fresh-faced Governor is "spending like there's no tomorrow," there is a very good reason: He will be leaving office very shortly. The Augusta Free Press (link via Steve Kijak) notes the varied reactions of Valley area politicians and activists, ranging from sympathetic rationalization (State Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon) to mild indignation (Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave) to outrage (Phil Rodokanakis, the president of the Virginia Club for Growth. Hanger noted that the non-general fund budget (which includes entities such as public universities whose expenses are partly covered by fees) has been growing faster than the general fund in recent years. Some of the increase is not discretionary in nature, resulting from Federal (unfunded) mandates such as No Child Left Behind, and it wouldn't matter who was running the state government. Those factors cannot explain such a big increase, however. As in Washington, fiscal discipline in Richmond seems to be crumbling.
Since Warner is a lame duck, forbidden for running for reelection under the constitution of Virginia, there is no reason for him to refrain from dishing out all the goodies he can. Might this have something to do with pleasing key constituency groups as the entrepreneurial, Kennedyesque "New Democrat" prepares for the 2008 presidential campaign? After all, the tax hike of 2004 resulted in a big surplus in the state treasury, and one of the Prime Directives in the world of government is "use it or lose it." That's why I'm generally sympathetic to the tax-cutting cause, even though I cringe at the rigid dogmatism of some of those folks. I still say that if former Gov. Jim Gilmore had adjusted to economic conditions and delayed the scheduled car tax cuts in his final year in office, there would have been no budget crisis that led to the panicked overreaction in the 2004 tax hike. The fact that Governor-elect Tim Kaine is much more of a traditional tax-and-spend left-liberal than Mark Warner is means there will almost certainly be even more pressure on the state legislators to spend, spend, spend.
This is one of those touchy subjects about which commentary is mostly futile. The New York Times (via Glenn Reynolds) reports on growing discontent among conservative students who resent the leftist slant of many of their professors. It goes without saying that most college campuses have a left-leaning atmosphere, which is why hardly anyone in the know bothers to talk about it. It's a more-or-less permanent condition, like the physical landscape, so there's no point in aggravating people to no good end. (The question mark in the title is meant to be ironic, by the way.) Fortunately, however, the extremely dogmatic or overtly subversive Ward Churchills of the university world are the exception, not the rule. Most politically correct professors are simply risk-avoidant types who would rather pander to youthful rebelliousness than insist on critical thinking and open dialogue.
There is a big, unseen danger in attacking political correctness head on, however, as the new Students for Academic Freedom movement is doing. Like affirmative action programs, demands by conservatives for equal treatment on campus are likely to backfire. Such a campaign would only accentuate the politicization of higher learning, which is the real problem. Two wrongs don't make a right.
"Little Red Book" hoax
I strain mightily to avoid spreading unsubstantiated rumors, but my credulity got the best of me last week (scroll down). The story about the student being questioned by Federal agents for having checked out Mao Zedong's "Little Red Book" was false. University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth professor Brian Glyn Williams confronted a former student, who admitted it was a hoax but gave no explanation. Even though the case was cited by Sen. Ted Kennedy and others, "John Hoey, spokesman for UMass-Dartmouth, said the university did not expect to take any action against the student." See Boston Globe (via Instapundit, who wonders why the student's identity is being protected). In any reputable institution of higher learning -- an admittedly restrictive category -- such a high-profile fraud would be grounds for expulsion, or at least a one-semester suspension.
U.S. District Judge John E. Jones ruled that the school board in Dover, Pennsylvania was wrong to require that "intelligent design" be taught along with the Darwinian theory of evolution in public schools, on the grounds that it constituted an intrusion of religion into state affairs. The core tenet of I.D. is that "life is too complex to have developed without the guidance of a supernatural creator." See Washington Post. That tenet displays shocking ignorance of the major findings emanating from the various branches of science connected to Chaos theory. In any event, it is a welcome relief to see such a decisive ruling being handed down, and one would hope that it helps lay this whole silly matter to rest. The American contemporary education system is rife with various pernicious dogmas, however, and resorting to a lawsuit in what should have been an open-and-shut case is a troubling indication that socio-political divisions are undermining educational standards across the board.
McDonnell wins A.G. recount
Republican Bob McDonnell has won the recount in the Virginia attorney general race by a 360-vote margin over Democrat R. Creigh Deeds, according to the Richmond Times Dispatch. That is 37 more votes than his winning margin in the original count. "Landslide Bob," they'll call him. For the perspective of someone who was involved in monitoring the recount in the Augusta County courthouse in Staunton, see Chris Green's Spank That Donkey blog.
Hazlett loses treasurer recount
In Staunton, incumbent treasurer Elnora Hazlett lost the recount to Rick Johnson by a margin of 35 votes, one vote closer than in the original tally. City Hall remains in a tense uproar over the difficult transition to the new MUNIS computer system, and the City Council voted to delay the mailing of property tax bills once again, which means they will not go out until January, when the incumbents (both Republicans), Commissioner of Revenue Ray Ergenbright and Treasurer Hazlett, are out of office. City Manager Bob Stripling actually ordered city employees to deny Ms. Hazlett access to the old (and relatively reliable) AS 400 computer system, so that she could not mail the property tax bills on time using it. See the Staunton News Leader. This level of distrust within the local government left me stupefied. What's the matter with Staunton?
Federal agents questioned a University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth student in October, after he requested a copy of Mao Tse-Tung's "Little Red Book." See southcoasttoday.com (hat tip to Connie). Good grief. Does this mean I have to dispose of my copy? [NOTE: This news item later turned out to be a hoax; for details, see my Dec. 27 blog post.]
President Bush's ongoing public relations offensive aimed at pointing to the progress that is underway in Iraq has begun acknowledging the difficulties and some of the past mistakes in his administration's policies. It is not the first time he has done so, but it is wisely timed to coincide with the apparently big success of Iraq's first parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, as Bush said, there are likely to be terrorist holdouts for years to come. This tacit redefinition of victory was clearly aimed at lowering expectations for a clear-cut, decisive military triumph, which I have long believed is necessary -- to avoid disappointing the faithful, pro-war segment of the population. In his televised speech on Sunday evening, Bush also made an unusual appeal to war opponents, saying that he understood their arguments. It was an appropriate gesture of respect for dissenters, many of whom, sadly, have not earned much respect. For Bush the Swaggerer, adopting a humble attitude does not come easily. Well, practice makes perfect. The best part of his lengthy, wide-open press conference on Monday was when he took on the argument of Rep. John Murtha that the presence of U.S. troops inflames terrorists. See whitehouse.gov for a full transcript.
From the standpoint of domestic politics, Bush's P.R. offensive is likely to convince skeptical folks in the middle that we are on the right general course in Iraq. On last Sunday's "Meet the Press," Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) repeated his argument that current U.S. war policy is headed in the wrong direction, but he also made several comments suggesting that he and other Democrats are no longer wedded to defeat. His hopes that the new Iraqi government might be able to take care of its own security in the near future could be interpreted as a first delicate step toward a semblance of a bipartisan consensus over Iraq war policy. Miracles do happen!
Outrage over "domestic spying"
Bush's momentum was slowed on Friday by the New York Times report that Bush had authorized domestic wiretapping without court approval soon after 9/11. It is hard to imagine that the publication of the story might have been unrelated to the vote to renew the PATRIOT Act. It is very worrisome, at least potentially, but legal shortcuts are a common feature of warfare in any age. In the present situation, rigid adherence to the letter of the law by intelligence operatives could handcuff their ability to track the movement of terrorists in this country. Bush's outrage about the leak by the Times is somewhat ironic given that his own administration stands accused of leaking the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame to the press. For more on Bush's response, see Washington Post.
Part of the dispute over such extraordinary security measures involves the question of whether or not we are at war. In time of war, the president does have broader discretion to safeguard the country, and Lincoln and FDR are among past chief executives who have wielded wartime power in bold, controversial ways. In strictly legal terms, however, there is some question as to whether the United States is at war, because Congress did not formally declare war, as is its constitutional prerogative. Today Rush Limbaugh tried to argue that the resolutions authorizing Bush to take action against states that were fomenting terrorism amounted to a declaration of war, but I heartily disagree. The resolution on Iraq in October 2002 was an explicit abdication of constitutional duty, passing the buck to President Bush. Both Congress and the White House share responsibility for this lapse, which hardly anyone besides me commented on at the time. Hopefully, the next time this country faces the decision to go to war, it will be decided upon in the halls of Congress, with a formal declaration of war if necessary. That way, there will be no "escape route" for wobbly-kneed politicians.
Former Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) died today at the age of 90. He earned a reputation as one of Capitol Hill's fiercest critics of government waste and incompetence. He first rose to national fame in 1968 when, in his capacity as chairman of the Joint Economic Subcommittee, he exposed the huge cost overruns on the C-5A "Galaxy" military transport jet. For more on this case, see globalsecurity.org.) In the years following, Proxmire became a relentless crusader for good government, attacking "waste, fraud, and abuse" wherever he could find it. Woe be unto any complacent, gluttonous bureaucrat who stood in his way! Proxmire was not a demagogue, however, and I was among the many people who held him in high esteem for taking on the privileged fiefdoms of the Federal bureaucracy in Washington. [For a full obituary, see CNN.com.]
Proxmire was among those in the late 1970s who took the lead in popularizing jogging as a way to improve physical conditioning and health. I even saw him once or twice jogging down Massachusetts Avenue, heading to work. His wiry frame, thinning hair on top, and glasses made it easy to recognize him.
I also had a rather remarkable one-on-one encounter with him, over the telephone, back when I was a junior bureaucrat. This was in 1980, or thereabouts. Someone on his staff apparently thought they had caught an error in the text of the monthly Producer Price Index news release, which I used to help write, and Proxmire was going to call attention to what he thought was a bureaucratic screw-up by making an example out of some hapless underling: me. I took a telephone call on the day of the PPI release, when our office was regularly inundated with inquiries from journalists and businessmen, and was told that Senator Proxmire wanted to talk to me. You cannot imagine the icy shivers of terror I felt as I waited to be chewed out by an official of his immense stature. Somehow I composed myself as the senator got on the line and read to me two separate sentences from different paragraphs of the news release. One pertained to the Producer Price Index for Finished Goods, and the other pertained to the Producer Price Index for Finished Consumer Goods. He thought those two categories were the same thing, but the latter excludes Capital Equipment such as machinery, heavy trucks, and tools. When I realized that his big "gotcha" was a mistake on the part of his own staff (failure to read the text closely enough), I got a big smile on my face and politely explained why the two indexes were slightly different. "Oh, I see." I don't recall his exact words, but I'll never forget the feeling of triumph I had in facing down one of the most feared public figures in Washington.
I'm not the kind to indulge in hand-wringing or finger-pointing, but the recent electoral setback by Virginia Republicans, and the troubles on Capitol Hill and in the White House, warrant serious reflection. So, here are some of the more valid criticisms I've come across:
Andrew Roth lists some instances in 2005 "when the GOP abandoned the ideals of economic freedom and pro-growth policies": (via Instapundit)
Death Tax Repeal (NOT! -- even Russia and Sweden repealed theirs)
Highway Bill ("6000 earmarks totaling over $24 billion")
Social Security Reform (at least Bush tried)
Sugar and CAFTA ("should have been a cake walk")
Windfall Tax (even Hastert played demagogue on oil)
Reinstating the Davis-Bacon Act (Hurricane Katrina)
I was among the few people who posted a comment about an especially touchy topic:
The failure to recognize and act upon the obvious connections between illegal immigration, national security, moral corruption (getting used to turning a blind eye to those who flaunt labor laws with impunity), and the welfare / entitlements quagmire is indicative of a party that is intellectually comatose. If GOP party leaders had half as much vision and guts as they have lust for reelection, they would act upon all of those problems simultaneously as part of an integrated national reform agenda, recapturing the spirit of 1994 and saving domestic freedom. As things stand, however, they are becoming more like the Democrats every day. P.S. I'm tired of all the whining about "RINOs." Show us true, ethical conservative leaders, and the troops will fall in line!
Roth curiously omitted immigration, and I think I know why: Today's Washington Post notes that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is bitterly opposed to any restriction on or increased enforcement of current laws, and has threatened to stop campaign contributions to any Republican legislator who dares vote in favor of such measures. This illustrates one of the biggest vulnerabilities in the Republican coalition: the growing tension between conservative values and the interests of corporate America. The fundamental social norm in board rooms is "don't rock the boat," and any policy change that seriously curtails the plentiful source of cheap, unorganized labor is anathema to those for whom the bottom line is all that matters.
I want my digital TV!
In last Thursday's Washington Post, George Will derides a $3 billion program for creating a fatuous "Inalienable Right to a Remote." The House and Senate have passed bills (reconciliation pending) by which every American will be guaranteed subsidies to be able to purchase digital television converters by 2009, when all U.S. broadcasting is scheduled to switch to digital signals. He suggests that the act be titled, "No Couch Potato Left Behind." We don't want to lose the low-brow vote, of course! The entitlements mentality has truly run amuck in the "conservative" party.
Politics and religion
Andrew Sullivan had a very apt "quote for the day" (from an English rabbi), which began:
Politics turns into virtue what religions often see as a vice -- the fact that we do not all think alike, that we have conflicting interests, that we see the world through different eyes.
It's called pluralism, folks. Getting over the fact that our neighbors are different from us is how we maintain a peaceful, civilized society.
Former Senator Eugene McCarthy died today at the age of 89. He gained sudden fame as an anti-war presidential candidate in early 1968 as the Tet Offensive undermined the Johnson administration's credibility. McCarthy came a very close second place in New Hampshire primary, which was enough to persuade Lyndon to pull out of the race, turning the responsibility for incumbency over to Hubert Humphrey. This was when I first became strongly aware of national politics, and I even went door to door handing out campaign literature on McCarthy's behalf. Then Robert Kennedy joined the race, and soon took effective lead of the anti-war movement until he was assassinated in Los Angeles in May. This came soon after Martin Luther King's assassination, of course, spurring race riots that made 1968 one of the bleakeast years in U.S. history. McCarthy refused to support Humphrey, believing that the old bosses running the Democratic Party (most notably, Chicago's Mayor Daley) stole the nomination, and he was probably right. McCarthy was really too idealistic and aloof to be an effective politician, however, and it is frankly hard to imagine him serving as president. Although he did run again for president in the 1970s, his stature shrank almost as quickly as it had grown. What is important to remember about McCarthy, especially for anti-war activists today, is that he was a decent, admirable person whose positions were a matter of conscience, not political expedience.
By now most people have heard the rumor that Sen. Joe Lieberman may replace Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense next year. It would be a very astute political move (dreamed up by Karl Rove, perhaps?), but I'm not sure about Lieberman's qualifications. Nominating a friendly member of the opposition party would be quite similar to the decision by Bill Clinton after winning reelection in 1996 to replace SecDef William Perry with Sen. William Cohen (R-ME). This was interpreted as a either gesture of conciliation to the Republicans, or as a ploy aimed at coopting GOP moderates. Which leads us to the present situation and the possible "outreach" by Bush to sane Democrats. The mere suggestion that Lieberman might get the SecDef post has created quite a dust storm among leftists: MarKos says he and Rumsfeld are "two peas from the same pod," and Atrios says it "would serve the little quisling right." Now, now, let's try to be nice! As for the Right, Glenn Reynolds wryly observes, "John Kerry has jumped on the bandwagon, which makes me suspect that it's not going anywhere."
GOP regroups at the "Advance"
I did not attend the Virginia "Advance" (an annual conclave of GOP faithful) at the Homestead resort last weekend, so I can't comment on what actually transpired there. In yesterday's Washington Post (Virginia Extra), Michael Shear observed that many Republicans in Virginia think Kilgore lost because he was "not conservative enough." I certainly felt that Kilgore strayed from conservative principles when he pandered to populist sentiment (e.g., saying gasoline prices were "too high"), but my line of criticism diverges from that of some other Republicans. For example, the Post article cited complaints by Phillip Rodokanakis, who just posted a commentary on the GOP "Leadership Vacuum" at the Virginia Club for Growth Web site. I would agree that there was a breakdown in party leadership and communication during the 2004 budget showdown, possibly the fault of Speaker William Howell, but to my dismay, Rodokanakis recycles the self-defeating "RINO" rhetoric, blaming everything on GOP "liberal ... turncoats" (!?) who put a premium on fiscal prudence. (I mentioned that group's involvement in the fall campaign in my blog post of Nov. 7.) I detest impugning others' motives on the basis of honest differences over policy.
As for that Post article, which seemed to hype the degree of tension between factions of the Republican Party, what I found annoying is the presumption that virtually all GOP activists and bloggers are blindly loyal hard-core doctrinarians. In fact, there are various strands of conservativism in America today, distinguished primarily by different short-term priorities, and there is a healthy internal debate about how best to achieve our common long-term goals. Those who sow division, whether on the inside (intolerant "movement" purists) or from the outside (the press), may end up ruining hopes for true conservative reform. If that happens, a policy vacuum will result, much like the early 1990s when Ross Perot gained prominence. Those who attempt to portray political leanings as falling somewwhere along a one-dimensional right-to-left scale simply do not grasp the underlying political dynamics in this country, specifically the latent impulse for fundamental reforms and the intriguing drama about who will capitalize on it.
Finally a couple of other individuals who impressed me this weekend were folks that might have their eyes on a statewide run in '09 or later. One was US Attorney for the Western District of Virginia, John Brownlee. ... The others were Delegates Ben Cline and Chris Saxman. [emphasis added] These two Shenandoah Valley area legislators are young, dynamic, and solidly conservative. They obviously understand the issues facing our Commonwealth very well and are poised to make some noise in the General Assembly in the coming years. I have a feeling that the Republican faithful will soon learn to love these guys, if they don't already, and that Tim Kaine and his cronies may soon convert their names into epithets.
To which I would add, "Megadittos!"
Kaine comes to the Valley
Speaking of Kaine, the Governor-elect held a public forum on regional transportation issues in Staunton yesterday, and I somehow managed to miss it. For details, see the Staunton News Leader. Yesterday's edition featured a full-page ad from the friendly road-building folks at Star Solutions, warning of future truck traffic nightmares unless their proposal is adopted, paying lip service to rail transport. Get out of our way!
When the Republicans won majority control of Congress in 1994, and won the presidency in 2000, one of the leading campaign themes was "cleaning up the mess" left by the incumbent (Democrat) party. Now the shoe is on the other foot, as the Republican leadership faces ethical challenges on several fronts. On Monday the left-leaning Center for American Progress held a panel discussion on proposals by House Democrats to reform the rules of the U.S. House of Representatives. Although some of the participants were dyed-in-the-wool partisans, such as Barney Frank (MA) and David Obey (WI), there were also some voices of reason, such as David Price (NC), who happens to be a former college professor. Since I share some of their concerns about the way the House has been run since Tom DeLay became Majority Leader, I listened, and I think much of what they are calling for is appropriate. When conservative-leaning Capitol Hill expert Norman Ornstein concurred with the general thrust of the proposals, I was convinced. Bad policies, such as the hideously complex and dubious Medicare prescription drug benefit, are often the result of bad process in formulating them. Under DeLay, open discussion in committee hearings about the merits of policy proposals has been curtailed, and the real "deliberation" (if that word is even appropriate) increasingly takes place behind closed doors. Meanwhile, dissent by moderates or independents within the Republican caucus is being harshly punished, and when roll call votes are taken, the time limit is routinely extended to give the GOP House leadership time to buy the votes of wavering members. Hence, pork barrel "payoffs" are becoming more common all the time, leading to ever-bigger budget deficits. This is no way to run a government.
Rice in Europe
Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is in Europe, meeting newly sworn-in German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Let's hope a friendship blossoms between them, allowing the long German-American friendship to resume once again. Rice was criticized for explaining in guarded terms the U.S. policy on treatment of terrorist suspects being held at locations outside the United States. Well, she's just doing her job. Many people forget that in the world of diplomacy, blunt candor about sensitive operations involved in national security is a vice, not a virtue. She did admit errors in the abduction of a German terror suspect. See Washington Post. It is worth noting that the Center for American Progress's (see above) credentials as a serious policy-oriented institution are undermined by the sarcastic tone of their report on Rice's visit to Europe: "Condi's European Vacation".
Anti-war Dems face backlash
To their credit, some Democrats are objecting to DNC Chairman Howard Dean's statement on a radio station Monday that "the idea that we're going to win the war in Iraq is an idea which is just plain wrong." Dean may not last more than a few more months. To her dismay, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is out on a limb for her endorsement of Rep. Murtha's call to "bug out." See Washington Post. I have long believed that the unhinged defeatist rhetoric being spouted by some of the less thoughtful Democrats could not go on forever, and it is reassuring that enough sensible Democrats are beginning to speak out that we might have a genuine national dialogue on how much we are willing to sacrifice to make it possible for Iraq to have a reasonably stable, democratic government. Given the positive undercurrent of democracy in Middle Eastern politics, the mere fact that Republicans and Democrats are on speaking terms again could make a solid victory in Iraq much more likely.
From a strictly partisan perspective [for example, see Bobby Eberle at GOPUSA.com], I would love it if Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi (or even Ramsey Clark!) served as leading spokesmen for the Democrat Party, destroying what is left of their credibility on national security issues. As a patriot first and foremost, however, I would much rather see them sidelined, even if it means the Democrats pick up a few seats in Congress next year.
Newly sworn-in Chancellor Angela Merkel, of the conservative CDP/CSU alliance, is more friendly toward the United States but is constrained by the terms of the "grand alliance" with the Social Democratic Party, under which the leftists keep the diplomatic portfolio. In the old days, the centrist party of Hans Dietrich Genscher typically held that post, even as the other two parties alternated in power. Belmont Club summarizes the analyses of various writers about the future direction of German foreign policy.
Ayn Rand on smashing X-Boxes
New York libertarian blogger "Kip Esquire" rebutted self-described disciples of Ayn Rand who objected to the recent incident in which several people bought and then smashed brand-new Microsoft X-Boxes, apparently to make the point that the herd-oriented consumer masses needed a jolt to their dulled, conformist consciousnesses. Frankly, I don't care much about X-Boxes or Y-Boxes or whatever, but it does raise a good ethical question. Kip's piece is mostly a philsophical discourse on subjective vs. objective theories of value, but he concludes with a very pertinent general observation:
If there is one reason why Rand's philosophy never permeates out to the masses, it's not because the philosophy is wrong, but because myopic purists refuse to let it evolve and thereby flourish. The Randroid Objectivists are doing to Rand pretty much what the Catholics have done to Jesus. And in both cases, the potential positive impact of the original philosophy is increasingly being lost.
The political landscape has been radically altered by President Bush's defiantly resolute speech on Iraq war policy on Wednesday, as Capitol Hill Democrats have reacted in all sorts of ways. Some, such as Senator John Kerry and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, have come to their senses, grudgingly, while others such as Rep. Nancy Pelosi persist in endorsing Rep. John Murtha's irresponsible call for an immediate withdrawal of troops. See Washington Post. What a quandary: The war is becoming increasingly unpopular, suggesting the possibility of major political paydirt for the Democrats next year, but there are simply no viable alternatives on the horizon. The hard left folks at Common Dreams are livid with anger at Sen. Joe Lieberman's dissent from his party's leaders by taking note of real progress in the war; he may even face opposition in next year's Democratic primary election. Sean Hannity had the Connecticut senator on his show yesterday, all but begging him to join the Republican side. Actually, I think it would be better if Lieberman stays with the Democrats, who seem not to listen to anyone outside their own party any more. There's always a chance a few other Dems will begin to see the light... Rush Limbaugh had a good time needling the suddenly disconcerted Democrats today, but now is not the time for gloating. Let us hope that President Bush resists any advice to get political revenge for all the unfair attacks he has faced in recent months. It will be a test of his true character and ultimate legacy as wartime leader.
Who's the Majority Leader?
I've added a new information reference table that appears on both the Situation room and Politics pages, showing each party's leadership and the number of seats they hold in the two houses of Congress. While doing the research, I happened to notice that the majorityleader.gov Web site omits any mention of the fact that Tom DeLay stepped aside (temporarily) from the Majority Leader post after being indicted, being replaced by Rep. Roy Blunt. In fact, there are no news updates at all on that site since DeLay left! Very strange...
"Why Mommy Is a Democrat"
To find out the answer, see littledemocrats.net. Childhood indoctrination: good grief. Well, to those who believe that "everything is political," I guess it only makes sense. Hat tip to local Republican activist Chris Green, who posted an image of the cover of that cute little book on his brand new blog: Spank That Donkey! WARNING: HIGHLY PARTISAN HUMOR!
Speaking of close elections (see Honduras), the Virginia State Board of Elections has certified that Bob McDonnell has won the attorney general race by the slimmest of margins: 970,886 to 970,563, a difference of only 323 votes. Runner-up Creigh Deeds says he wants another recount, but he will have to pay for the office space he has been sharing with McDonnell if he ends up losing. It is the closest statewide race in modern Virginia history!
Here in Staunton, the ballots cast in the race for treasurer are going to be reviewed and recounted beginning on Friday. There are 250 paper absentee ballots, and the rest are electronic and already verified. It could take until the end of December to complete the process. Incumbent Elnora Hazlett lost to Rick Johnson by 36 votes. See newsleader.com.
Trying to regain the confidence of conservative malcontents in the GOP, President Bush unveiled yet another revision of his immigration reform proposals. He still wants a long-term (six-year) "temporary" worker program, but now he is willing to devote resources to patrolling our southern border. See Washington Times. In Mexico, U.S. border patrols are regarded as an outrageous insult, and President Fox has demanded that the United States tear down the walls that protect the border south of San Diego. My initial impression is that this is just another half-baked compromise aimed at pleasing Hispanic voters (presumably anti-abortion), in hopes of building the GOP voter base. Since no serious person contemplates mass expulsion, some reasonable accommodation to reality as Bush suggests -- i.e., amnesty -- is necessary, quite obviously. Unless immigration reform includes stiff penalties for employers who hire undocumented workers, and is tied to major reforms of entitlements and labor laws, however, it will be a complete waste of time, and we will be back to square one within a few years. For more, see the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Government falls in Canada
Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin lost a vote of no-confidence in Parliament yesterday, obliging him to begin the process by which Parliament is dissolved and new elections are called. This is the long-anticipated fallout from a series of huge bribery scandals that have plagued the dominant Liberal Party for the past year or two. Martin bitterly denounced the three opposition parties for their obstructionist stance, saying that the Canadian people do not want a new election now. The election is set for January 23, and the campaign is expected to be acrimonious. (Well, at least it will last less than two months!) See the Toronto Globe and Mail. Martin inherited the top post after former Prime Minister Jean Chretien resigned two years ago, and this will be the first time he faces the judgment of the electorate. Since the other three parties have little in common, however (one of them is the separatist Parti Quebeçois), it is hard to imagine how an effective governing coalition could be formed without the Liberal Party.
Yesterday's Meet the Press provided a rare opportunity for cool-headed dialogue in the heated battle over Iraq war policy. Sen. John Warner represented the sensible mainstream Republicans, and Sen. Joe Biden represented the loyal, sane wing of the Democrat side. Some Republicans resent Warner for trying too hard to maintain constructive relations with the Democrats; it's a thankless, difficult task that must be done. Once again, Senator Warner made me proud to be a Virginia Republican, soberly acknowledging the high cost in lives and money, but insisting that the fight is worth it. For his part, Biden coyly hedged when Tim Russert asked him if he really believed that the war was "lost," as he recently hinted. Biden is smart enough to know that such words from a high-level U.S. politician would have a self-fulfilling effect. Unlike some other Democrats, who are now "invested in U.S. defeat," as Rush Limbaugh puts it, Biden aspires to higher office (the presidency, as he frankly acknowledged) and therefore must carefully strive for a balance between promoting the national interest and pandering to the Democrats' activist base. Talk about a tough dilemma! If anyone could pull it off, though, it's Biden. The king of the media-conscious, pompous grandstanders on Capitol Hill, Biden is the Democrats' version of John McCain, who is often exceptionally honest and courageous, reflecting well on his party, but sometimes relapses into the habit of saying whatever makes the reporters happy.
In Saturday's Washington Post, Biden elaborated on his call for a "timetable" for withdrawal from Iraq, but most of what he wants is already being done. Perhaps the heat he and other moderate Democrats are putting on President Bush could have a useful effect, by letting the Iraqi leaders know that they must pick up the slack soon, or risk a premature termination of U.S. support. That would be a manifestation of "two-stage diplomacy," one of my favorite tools of game theory in political science. Ironically, Biden is brimming with presumptuous overconfidence in the ability of the United States to get the Iraqi factions to forge a compromise. In the end, however, talk of a "timetable" is just a meaningless sop to the clueless American masses.
Novak on Durbin
Among other Democrats in the Senate, Dick Durbin (D-IL) has stood out recently as particularly obnoxious, comparing U.S. treatment of captured terrorists to totalitarian regimes like Pol Pot (see June 24). Robert Novak called Durbin to task for his procedural shenanigans in the Senate in today's Chicago Sun Times. Durbin forced C. Boyden Gray to write a formal letter of apology for a political ad two years ago before allowing his nomination as U.S. ambassador the the European Union to go forward, and accused Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) of allowing oil executives "to lie" by not putting them under oath. In the old days, which John Warner still remembers, senators refrained from impugning each other.
Speaking of Stevens, he managed to restore the funds that had been appropriated for the "bridges to nowhere," but now those funds are not earmarked. As long as Alaskans don't spend that Federal money on those bridges, no one in the Lower 48 will probably notice...
Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-CA) tearfully resigned his seat in the House of Representatives today after pleading guilty to bribery charges in San Diego. Apparently the former Navy pilot had been on the take for many years, and his opulent lifestyle, driving a Rolls Royce, must have raised a few eyebrows. Some believe that other legislators may be caught up in the crooked Web of mega-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Are the Republicans on Capitol Hill going to live up to the "Contract with American" and demand higher standards of each other, or are they going to cash in their hard-won majority chips and become like the Democrats?
Can Republicans get a grip?
That raises the broader question of where the Republicans are headed. In Sunday's Washington Post, Douglas MacKinnon examines how the Republican Party is bearing up under the stress of sole responsibility for governing the nation. Many Republicans are tearing their hair out in expasperation over the Democrats' gleefully destructive rhetoric on the war in Iraq, falling prey to the temptation to respond in kind. Very tacky. On domestic policy, meanwhile, some GOP leaders are intolerant of any kind of dissent, forgetting that honest policy differences are a universal phenomenon in majority parties. MacKinnon scolds Rep. Ernest Istook (R-OK) who used his power as chairman of a House subcommittee to eliminate discretionary ("pork barrel") spending in the districts of 21 fellow Republicans as punishment for defying his commands and voting in favor of AMTRAK. At this critical moment for the country and for the Republican Party, I strongly agree with the fundamental lesson MacKinnon draws:
We can still govern, and we still have time to do the right things -- chiefly, not waver on Iraq. But is the Republican Party truly prepared to "stay the course" as we approach the elections? GOP members need to stand shoulder to shoulder with the president in this increasingly unpopular but necessary war, and not put finger to wind and decide that self-preservation comes first.
Well, what did they expect? The Democrats have been asking for such a showdown on Iraq war policy for many months, and Rep. John Murtha's speech on Thursday provided the Republicans with the perfect opportunity to dare them to back up their words with an actual vote. Not surprisingly, the Democrats flinched from the challenge. Pent-up anger on both sides exploded when Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH) invoked the dreaded "C" word as she conveyed the thoughts of a constituent Marine reserve officer:
"a few minutes ago I received a call from Colonel Danny Bubp," an Ohio legislator and Marine Corps Reserve officer. "He asked me to send Congress a message: Stay the course. He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message: that cowards cut and run, Marines never do." (SOURCE: Washington Post)
A fistfight almost broke out, and I caught the tail end of it on C-SPAN. Interestingly, Schmidt was the victor in that high-profile special election held in August, defeating Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett. The key vote on the House floor last night was HR-572, the procedural question of whether to consider HR-571, "Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the deployment of United States forces in Iraq be terminated immediately." The former measure passed 210 - 202, not exactly a strong show of support for the war effort, but it was useful nonetheless. The vote on HR-571 was 403 - 3, with 6 abstentions and 22 not voting. Both Rep. Murtha, who had announced that he would introduce such a resolution, and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), who actually did so, voted against it. The three "brave" dissenters were Reps. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA), Jose Serrano (D-NY), Robert Wexler (D-FL). To the untrained eye, this parliamentary maneuver seems like an exercise in hypocrisy, but it's a good illustration of how legislative bodies work. In R. Douglas Arnold's terminology, HR-571 was a "Politically compelling policy: The popularity of the intended effects outweighs the legislator's doubts that the means will actually work, because his opposition would be construed as lack of sympathy." The Republican leadership in the House deserves credit for astute handling of this issue, in holding the Democrats' feet to the fire.
In his speech on Thursday, Murtha said that "U.S. troops are the common enemy of the Sunnis, Saddamists and foreign jihadists." However, he did not mention the Shiites and Kurds, who comprise a majority of Iraq's population and do want us to remain there to ensure that the old regime does not regain power and subject them to persecution once again. Murtha then laid out his "plan":
To immediately redeploy U.S. troops consistent with the safety of U.S. forces.
To create a quick reaction force in the region.
To create an over- the- horizon presence of Marines.
To diplomatically pursue security and stability in Iraq.
He seems to be calling for a retreat from Iraq without abandoning the Persian Gulf, but where could a U.S. presence is maintained? We already withdrew our forces from Saudi Arabia, where we had worn out our welcome after a decade, and Kuwait and Bahrain would be rather precarious footholds in such an unstable region. Such a shift in deployment makes no strategic sense at all. If we do indeed pull out of Iraq, we might as well kiss the entire Middle East goodbye. As for diplomacy (!), perhaps Murtha could suggest someone to serve as the first ambassador to Al Qaeda. Murtha is an old man, and I suppose he can be excused for not comprehending the nature of the shadowy yet vicious adversary that we all face. I do not doubt that the pain he feels from the families of servicemen and women is genuine, and in a sense he is correct to say that military means are not the key to victory in this struggle, in which the psychological dimension is paramount. The huge irony is that he seems completely unaware that what will determine whether we ultimately prevail or succumb in this war is the home front, where he himself plays a critical role!
As a resolutely open-minded participant in this national discourse, I fully understand both the logical arguments and emotional sentiments against the war. I share some doubts myself, but I have more confidence in our President -- for all his faults -- than with the general public. Sad to say, many Americans are simply not attentive to global politics, and not particularly inclined to make sacrifices for the collective good. I'm well aware that "staying the course" does not sound like a sophisticated strategy, but the situation we are in simply does does not lend itself to any other approach than slow, grinding exertion. What I do not understand at all is how so many people in this country seem oblivious to the basic fact that our national unity and resolve is being tested by the Islamo-fascists. It sounds trite, but it cannot be repeated often enough: United we stand, divided we fall. I dearly hope that most Americans wise up and come to agree that there is No End But Victory (via Instapundit)
The resolution passed by the Senate yesterday was interpreted by some as a slap in the face to President Bush, but it really didn't mean very much. It simply declared that there will be a "significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty" next year, and it would be hard to argue against that. Even Bush welcomed the measure as he began his trip to Asia, with perhaps equal measures of sincerity and face-saving. Sen. John Warner, normally a stalwart on defense matters but also a bit too fond of conciliating with Democrat adversaries, was among those who expressed frustrations felt by the American people. Hugh Hewitt (via Instapundit) chronicled the pandering comments, noting that Markos crowed that Republicans are "plagiarizing" their issues, proving that the Democrats have taken back the mantle of being "the party of ideas." Ugh.
Today Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) went a step further, announcing he was introducing a bill calling for a prompt withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq. For such a drastic measure, he offered a surprisingly weak rationale:
"The war in Iraq is not going as advertised. ... It's a flawed policy wrapped in illusion." SOURCE: Washington Post
"Flawed"? Based on "illusion"? Well, the same thing could be said about every war this nation, or any nation, has ever fought! Valley Forge, Bull Run, Little Bighorn, Pearl Harbor, Kasserine Pass, Anzio, the Bulge: one devastating setback after another, and yet somehow we came out ahead. For Pete's sake! War is a chaotic, ugly, frustrating mess, and always has been. Deception is part and parcel of a winning strategy, 99 percent of the time. Ironically, Murtha is correct to say that "the war in Iraq is not going as advertised," inasmuch as the "advertisers" in the mainstream media -- from whence most Americans get their news and form their opinions -- have been portraying the war in an unduly negative light. Only those who lack historical grounding would fall for Murtha's naive, school boy reasoning. He literally choked back tears as he recalled his 27 years of military service, invoking the worn-out "chicken hawk" retort to pro-war folks. He should know better than that. An abrupt U.S. withdrawal now, just as the next round of elections is going forward, would have devastating consequences for the Iraqi people, which is why no responsible leader seriously contemplates it. At least Murtha sounded sincere and concerned about the national interest, in sharp contrast to those such as Democrat Senators Dick Durbin or Harry Reid, who have become virtual cheerleaders of defeatism.
The greater significance of the Senate resolution, perversely, was that it may encourage the terrorists and undermine the Iraqi government. The silver lining around the gray clouds of gloom is that all this political cacaphony in Washington is ultimately irrelevant to the delicate task of handing over more and more responsibility to the Iraqis. No finger-pointing or grandstanding in Washington will change the facts on the ground in Baghdad, and no silly protests by Cindy Sheehan will sway most Americans. Because our government is firmly committed to seeing through this vital historical task, Iraqis will get an excellent chance to set up their own government, and unless most of them are incredibly fearful or short-sighted, leaders will emerge to take up the reins of self rule. Why? Because they share common interests in maintaining commercial ties with the United States, which is very fortunate to have such superb, dedicated soldiers, and a president who is determined to prevail. That doesn't mean total victory or elimination of terrorism, but simply the creation of a new political dynamic in the Middle East that favors more liberal, limited governmental systems. Once that trend gets underway, the proud (though premature) words "Mission Accomplished" will have greater resonance.
Arguments in Washington over the war in Iraq continue unabated, in spite of President Bush's long-overdue scolding of the most extreme war critics on Friday. So why did Bush wait so long to respond forcefully to the barrage of accusations heaped upon him? According to polipundit.com,
If he had simply responded to individual accusations all along, any attempt to point out motives would be seen as personal attacks on his accusers. To instead take on the broader issue, that those backing down from the commitment they made when they voted to authorize the war are doing so as a coordinated political strategy, he exposes Democrats who have chosen political gain over the interest of the country and the troops.
Whether reasonable people in the middle will find that sufficiently convincing remains to be seen. In today's Washington Post, E. J. Dionne heaps scorn upon Bush's "bad faith" and concludes, "By linking the war on terrorism to a partisan war against Democrats, Bush undercut his capacity to lead the nation in this fight." To this, I would respond that "bad faith" is a two-way street: "By making opposition to the war on terrorism the central element of their partisan war against Bush, the Democrats have abdicated their responsibility for sharing in the governance of this nation." For the uncomitted skeptics in the middle, it's a coin toss. To be scrupulously fair, I would grant that Bush exaggerated the extent of intelligence information that was available to Congress prior to its vote in October 2002. Bush also fell short in terms of securing legislative approval for the war: He should have asked Congress for a declaration of war against Iraq, not a mere resolution delegating to him the discretion. Had it been forced to assume such a weighty choice, Congress could never have subsequently shirked the responsibility for making the decision. Neither of those shortcomings can let the (brainwashed?) Democrats in Congress off the hook for voting the way they did, however.
Sen. Harry Reid said today, "It is time to take the training wheels off the Iraqi government" so they can learn to defend their own country. If our military effort there is such a complete failure, as he and his colleagues keep saying, then what makes him think Iraqis are ready to assume that burden? The only conceivable reason to pull out abruptly, as many are demanding, is to ruin any chance for a stable transition to self-government. Is that what they want?
I demand a recount!
According to the latest tally in the attorney general race by the Virginia State Board of Elections, Republican Bob McDonnell holds a lead of less than 400 votes over Democrat Creigh Deeds. The state is obligated to certify a winner by November 30, but the recounts may push that deadline back.
For the next few weeks and months, there will be a steady stream of hand-wringing by Republicans, as they struggle to regain their lost "mojo" (as my friend Dave puts it). Nebraska Senators Chuck Hagel and John McCain are often regarded as "moderates" in the Republican Party, but in some instances they seem to be the most faithful to conservative (i.e., small government) ideology. I heard Sen. Hagel being interviewed on C-SPAN yesterday, and he pointed out that he and McCain were the only Republicans to vote against the procedural motion by which President Bush's dubious Medicare prescription drug benefit bill went forward.
As for the socio-economic dynamics behind the GOP identity crisis, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam analyze the origins of the recent crises suffered by the the Republicans in the current Weekly Standard, and suggest that they have become "The Party of Sam's Club." (via Daniel Drezner)
One difficulty, as a host of delighted Democrats have pointed out, is that a party ideologically committed to a small government may be ill-equipped to run a large one.
But a larger problem is that even the more idealistic aspects of the GOP program--Bush's vision of an "ownership society," the pursuit of a politically risky Social Security privatization plan--have been ill-suited to the present political climate, and to the mood of the American people. It's not just that the American people have shown little appetite of late for dramatically shrinking the scope of the federal government, or taking more economic responsibility into their own hands--it's that there's shrinking support for such goals among reliable Republican voters.
This is the Republican party of today--an increasingly working-class party, dependent for its power on supermajorities of the white working class vote, and a party whose constituents are surprisingly comfortable with bad-but-popular liberal ideas like raising the minimum wage, expanding clumsy environmental regulations, or hiking taxes on the wealthy to fund a health care entitlement. To borrow a phrase from Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, Republicans are now "the party of Sam's Club, not just the country club."
Now there's a frightening thought. Are American values of self-reliance really so weak among the working classes these days? Their line of analysis certainly concords with my worries about the dangerous populist turn taken by some Republican candidates, such as defeated gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore. The former problem -- an amateurish disdain for public administration -- was exposed in the harsh glare of 24/7 news coverage of Hurricane Katrina, and highlights the fundamental contradiction of the Bush-Rove strategy of employing Big Government to reform society according to conservative precepts. Ironically, the very pursuit of such an ambitious "hegemonic project" exposes the government leaders to corruption, as they acquire a taste for the forbidden fruit of Absolute Power. Resisting such a temptation would be difficult even for true saints, and is likely to be overwhelming for average Republicans.
Lest I sound too much like an incessant Rove-basher, however, let me acknowledge that he sounded very impressive in articulating conservative principles and objects while speaking to the Federalist Society last week. (cablecast on C-SPAN)
Party chiefs face off
UPDATE: I had meant to draw attention to the contrast between RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman and DNC Chairman Howard Dean on Meet the Press (see transcript) yesterday. As for the question about what implications last week's elections have for 2006 and 2008, each man's response was predictable and obvious. On the question of justification and conduct of the Iraq war, Mehlman readily accepted forthright criticism, but rejected the way many critics of Bush impugn his veracity and motives. My only complaint is that Mehlman's responses were a bit too well rehearsed. For his part, Dean repeated the same worn-out cliches about alleged "lies," struggling mightily to control his urge to smirk, and pointedly avoided saying what the Democrats would do differently. If one had to choose parties solely on the basis of their respective national leaders, it would be a no-brainer.
While most people have focused on the aggregate vote totals in Tim Kaine's electoral triumph on Tuesday, "Machiavel" at redstate.org has pulled together voting trends on a county-by-county basis, summarized in a fascinating map of Virginia. He finds that both Kaine and Kilgore performed better than their party's counterparts four years ago. In other words, "red" counties have become "redder," by and large, and "blue" counties have become "bluer." The question of whose fault this trend is ought to spur a lot of reflection and discussion. (via Chad Dotson)
UPDATE: Tony Snow, whom I dearly miss as one of Rush Limbaugh's best substitute hosts, explains the meaning of the Virginia election. "GOP majorities in Virginia's General Assembly have spent like wild since the go-go '90s, and woe be unto any conservative who dares call them on it." Just like the Republican majority in Washington, they are acting like the Democrats used to, which demoralizes party activists and alienates moderates who put a premium on consistent adherence to principle. See townhall.com. (link via Steve Kijak)
Yes, it does feel a little like a ski-jumper tumbling head over heels, like they used to show at the beginning of ABC's Wide World of Sports. Unlike the defeat suffered by Democrats last year, however, I seriously doubt that many Republicans will engage in deranged hysteria. Our candidate wasn't up to the task, it's as simple as that. Life goes on. Don't get me wrong, last year's "thrill of victory" was a lot more fun than this year's setback, but it is through defeats that one is able to learn and prepare for the next round of battle.
On the plus side, all four Republicans running for the House of Delegates in this part of the Shenandoah Valley won their races: Congratulations to Chris Saxman, Ben Cline, and Matt Lohr. (Steve Landes was unopposed.) The attorney general race is still too close to call, with three precincts out of 2426 yet to count. Bob McDonnell holds a lead of only 2,000 or so votes over Mr. Deeds, a margin of 0.1 percent. I was a bit disturbed by the way Governor Warner pandered to his party's loose-screw wing last night by demanding, "count every vote!" Please, let's not go through all that nonsense again. Just do the recount and agree to accept the results.
Today's Washington Post editorial called Kaine's victory a "watershed" for southern Democrats, concluding
Mr. Kaine's triumph proves that a strong, smart candidate can win in Virginia regardless of party affiliation and that hot-button attacks and crass wedge-issue politics are not enough to defeat him. By thumping away at Mr. Kaine's stands on the death penalty and illegal immigration, Mr. Kilgore tried to play on voters' fears. He failed, and that offers a lesson that should be heeded beyond the state's borders.
I think Kilgore's error in pushing those issues was in style, not substance. Ironically, his harsh rhetorical tone on the campaign trail backfired in terms of addressing those particular issues. As for national implications, Senator George Allen's prospects as the GOP presidential nominee have taken a big plunge, while those of Governor Mark Warner have soared. For those who hope the Democrats return toward the center of the political spectrum, that is a good thing. More generally, unless someone can convince me otherwise, I think this election demonstrates the mistaken effort by Republican strategists to maximize the turnout among the committed conservatives and party loyalists. That strategy was in part motivated by the nature of Virginia's electoral system, which was designed to discourage turnout in statewide elections. That is one more reason why the Generaly Assembly should pass a constitutional amendment to get rid of the off-year election cycle for statewide offices.
Finally, congratulations are due to Governor-elect Kaine. Although he has skirted tough choices on transportation, as the Post editorial noted, I happen to agree with him on the need to extend Metrorail to Dulles Airport and widen I-66 inside the Washington Beltway -- regardless of what those "NIMBY" folks in Arlington who blocked a baseball stadium may think. I hope Kaine shows as much concern for Virginia's fiscal soundness as Governor Warner has, and that he remembers that the Republicans still have a majority in the legislature.
I saw Mary Mapes on ABC's Good Morning America today, and was stunned by her unapologetic, defiant attitude over last year's bogus CBS Sixty Minutes story on President Bush's service in the Air National Guard, relying on forged documents. She actually said that unless the source materials used to substantiate news stories can be proven false, they should be accepted as valid. Yikes! Go back to Journalism 101, Mary.
The implicit caution in my post yesterday seems borne out by the preliminary results this evening: Jerry Kilgore is going down to defeat in one of the most hotly contested governor's races in Virginia history. With over 96 percent of the precincts reporting, he has just a little over 46 percent, to Tim Kaine's 52 percent (all figures rounded). Too close to call? NOT! It's good sign that Russ Potts is only pulling about 2 percent, but since he was expected to take more votes from Kilgore than [from] Kaine, it suggests that Kilgore's overall level of support from within his own party was just not very strong. To my surprise, Leslie Byrne is running very close behind Bill Bolling in the lieutenant governor's race, 51 to 49 percent. The attorney general race is the closest one [of] all, as Bob McDonnell is currently ahead of Creigh Deeds by less than 7,000 votes, only 0.4 percent of the total. Even if the Republicans win both those secondary races, it will be small consolation. In a "red state" like this, they should have done much better in all three races. Something is clearly amiss.
If Kilgore had been a more inspiring candidate, I suppose I would have taken this loss much harder. There is nothing for party workers to feel ashamed about, as they all did their part with determination and enthusiasm. I was particularly impressed by seeing all the Teenage Republican volunteers manning the phone banks at the local GOP headquarters in the last couple weeks. (Whether the incessant telephone calls to "Get Out The Vote!" may have gone overboard and perversely suppressed voter turnout is something to ponder at a later date.) When a candidate is notably less articulate than his (or her) opponent, when the status quo is satisfactory, when the national party leader (in this case, President Bush) is unpopular, and when the party is torn by arguments over who is a "real" member, it takes more than a bit of luck to defeat the party of the incumbent. Last year the Democrats learned that profligate campaign spending and frenetic, razor-sharp rhetoric are not the keys to victory; this year in Virginia, ironically, the Republicans are learning that very same lesson. More thoughts tomorrow...
What worries me most about this defeat is that the issue of illegal immigration, which Kilgore raised late in the campaign, may be shunted aside by future candidates of both parties as too risky. Those who heaped scorn on Kilgore for pandering to racist xenophobia are, in my view, guilty of trying to stifle a debate that urgently needs to take place. If neither party takes up this issue in a frank, consistent way, it would open the door to extremists who appeal to those who find they have no voice among mainstream candidates, in which case we would have another ugly David Duke / Ku Klux Klan problem on our hands. Speaking of which, I pity the French, who have been torn between extreme anti-immigrant leaders such as Jean Le Pen and the mainstream do-nothings on both the Left and Right. The riots around Paris are the price they pay for letting that problem fester unresolved.
Shut out in Staunton
In the Staunton commissioner of revenue race, incumbent Republican Ray Ergenbright lost decisively to challenger Maggie Ragon (who ran as an independent), 57 to 41 percent. The loss is not a huge surprise, but given the large number of letters to the editor in the last week or so, which showed a growing public awareness of the conflict of interest issue involving Ms. Ragon, I would have expected the margin to be smaller. I see a big irony in this sad outcome: Ms. Ragon accused Ray of being (among other things) "a politician" more than once, but if you define "politician" as a power-obsessed phony who is prone to caving in on principle for the sake of a few more votes, that is the last thing in the world Ray is. As Leo Durocher said, "Nice guys finish last." In the race for treasurer, Rick Johnson has apparently defeated incumbent Republican Elnora Hazlett 41 to 40 percent, with a margin of only 41 votes; Dolores Duncan ran third at 19 percent. (Close enough for a recount? Probably not.) I happened to meet both Mr. Johnson and Ms. Duncan at the polls today, and both were very pleasant. The treasurer's race was not nearly as nasty as the commissioner of revenue race, fortunately. I'll hold off on drawing any conclusions about this local Republican setback for a while...
Evolution in Kansas
As has been anticipated for months, the Kansas Board of Education has voted to adopt a new curriculum that raises questions about fundamental aspects of the theory of evolution. It's a big victory for proponents of the pseudo-science of "intelligent design." See CNN.com. As one who has taken pains to uphold open-minded, non-dogmatic, critical thinking about science in general and evolution in particular (see Jan. 14, for example), I see this injection of fundamentalist theology into education as extremely troubling. This case bears further close attention...
As the stroke of midnight passes on Election Day 2005, and the polls are set to open in less than six hours, the Virginia governor's race is still too close to call. I will be hugely relieved to be done with this campaign. Much as I support the Republican candidates and most of what they stand for, I am a little disappointed with the unduly harsh tone of their campaign, and some of their policy proposals.
Perhaps the GOP candidates have been straining too hard because of all the media tricks employed by the Democrats to artificially enhance their public image. For example, a couple weeks ago, our household received in the mail a flyer (see adjacent image), which appeared to be from the Republican Party, or perhaps some group connected in some way with the party, such as the campaign of Russ Potts. The fine print at the bottom refers to the Virginia Club for Growth, falsely implying that it was the sponsor of the flyer. That group's President, Phil Rodokanakis, denounced the blatant deceit by Kaine's campaign, but also criticized Kilgore for failing to sign a "taxpayer protection pledge." (Personally, I am dubious of such pledges.) If you squint to read the fine print where the apparent photo caption is located at the top right of that flyer, however, you can read,
"This mailing was authorized and paid for by Kaine for Governor."
A-ha! So what does the Kilgore campaign do in response? Rather than than seizing the moral high ground and drawing such dirty tricks to the public's attention, they stoop to the Democrats' level with a tit-for-tat retaliation, mailing out a faux Democrat flyer with a donkey emblem on it; see dailypress.com. As a result, the Kilgore campaign got fined for $100, the same token wrist-slap as the Kaine campaign received. As Chad Dotson writes at Commonwealth Conservative, "Dumb, dumb, dumb."
Bush in Richmond
On the way back from a wearying, largely unsuccessful trip to South America, President Bush somehow mustered the energy to make a strong, enthusiastic pitch for Jerry Kilgore at the Richmond International Airport this evening. He said Kilgore would make a "great governor," and I was just glad he refrained from using the adjective "heckuva." Kilgore caught flak for declining an opportunity to campaign with Bush last week, but given Bush's low poll numbers, this was one of those "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situations.
Across town, Tim Kaine held his final campaign rally, joined by former governors Doug Wilder (D) and Linwood Holton (R). Kaine stressed his side's upbeat message, and I have to give him credit for that, at least. Now whether his campaign was honest and forthright about his real positions on the issues is another question. When I see that huge ear-to-ear grin and that arched eyebrow, I am reminded of the Cheshire cat: Is there anything behind that smile (and that eyebrow)?
Virginia is a solidly conservative state, and Kaine is openly liberal (or was so until this year's campaign, at least), so Kilgore should be in a better position than he is. What's wrong? Well, the incumbent governor Mark Warner is very popular statewide, and has campaigned very actively for his protege. Also, Mr. Kaine's past missionary work for the Catholic Church in Honduras earned him respect among religious people, including liberals and conservatives, thus blunting the "values" rhetoric often used by Republicans. I really wish that the Kilgore campaign had "stayed on message" with the "Honest Reform agenda" that he outlined during the spring primary campaign. See the video (which I took and edited) of his appearance in Staunton on March 24, when he laid out a very clear, positive policy platform. For the record, and for whatever pittance it may be worth, here are some of my suggestions for future Republican campaigns:
Make clear the party's long-term vision, and how its specific policy proposals will advance its higher purposes.
Emphasize how economic conservativism and social conservatism reinforce each other. (This is necessary because of the latent tensions between those movements.)
Stress concrete past policy accomplishments, and openly acknowledge earnest legislative efforts that fell short because of opposition from Democrats and moderates.
Improve communication between party leaders and grass-roots workers; easier said than done.
Stop wasting million of dollars on repetitive, negative, "dumbed-down" television ads. They may push a few more people into the voting booths, but they alienate many potential supporters. This approach also polarizes the public, making it harder to govern.
Stop using "liberal" as though it were a dirty word. It's not.
AND FINALLY, Stop pandering to populist sentiments, especially the vain presumption of permanent mass affluence. Energy, and natural resources in general, are scarce and therefore costly.
I also think both parties would benefit greatly if the Virginia General Assembly passed a constitutional amendment to synchronize the statewide election cycle with the national election cycle. Having to compete for votes year after year after year wears out party volunteers, and gets to be very annoying for the vast majority of Virginians for whom politics is not an all-consuming obsession. (As this Web site makes abundantly clear, it is not so for me. )
The Staunton races
On the local front, the Augusta Free Press ran a story, "A conflict of interest?" which focused on the race for Staunton commissioner of revenue between incumbent Ray Ergenbright and Maggie Ragon, whose business partner Kurt Plowman shirked the responsibility he bore for a massive software snafu in City Hall, leading to the widespread misperception that Ergenbright was to blame. Ray has been slow to respond to attacks against him, but he did receive an endorsement from the Waynesboro News Virginian.
In the Treasurer's race, the Staunton News Leader endorsed Rick Johnson, noting that "The incumbent, Elnora Hazlett, did an adequate job until she became embroiled in political infighting with other offices in City Hall." What she did was resist an uncalled-for reduction of her office's staff and functions, and the newspaper's editorial page ridiculed those in the public who came to her defense.
The Democrats in Congress are mad as heck, and they won't take it anymore! At least that's what they want us to believe. Yesterday's surprise procedural move by the Democrat leaders, forcing the Senate into a closed session, was ostensibly about the war and intelligence, but one detects a definite whiff of political opportunism. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said, "The Libby indictment provides a window into what this is really all about, how this administration manufactured and manipulated intelligence in order to sell the war in Iraq." See Washington Times. It seems more likely, however, that the ploy was prompted by the lack of indictments against Karl Rove or other administration officials, which some Democrats had been hoping for. If an impartial investigation of Iraq intelligence is what Reid really wants, then why has he prejudged the conclusions? I saw the full exchange between Reid and reporters yesterday on C-SPAN, and I was aghast by the way he bitterly scoffed at the suggestion that he might have consulted with the Republican leaders before making this move. Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin smiled impishly at his side.
Was the closed session really necessary? Of course not; the mere threat of forcing a closed session would have elicited quick cooperation from the majority caucus, which would have preferred to avoid the embarrassment. From a purely political standpoint, however, the Democrats' parliamentary maneuver -- the first time in 25 years that a closed Senate session has been forced unilaterally by one party -- was very useful, and that's all that really matters. Does anyone seriously doubt that this stunt was an attempt by the Democrats to regain the psychological momentum they had been savoring? On an emotional level, it may have been retaliation for Bush's surprise nomination of the conservative judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. Majority Leader Bill Frist not only was caught off guard by the move, he displayed unseemly anger in saying the Senate had been "hijacked." He took the Democrats' bait and stooped to their level. That's not how winners act. I say, let the Democrats blow off some steam and make silly, inconsistent arguments to their hearts' content. It certainly won't win them many votes from the segment of the electorate that pays attention.
As for the more serious, underlying issue, the Washington Post described the recent investigations overseen by Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS), noting that cooperation from Pentagon officials declined in recent months because Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) said that crimes may have been committed. (Speaking of the Democrats' standard talking points in this whole matter of Iraq, WMDs, uranium, etc., Max Boot catalogs the many factual distortions -- to put it mildly -- of Ambassador Joseph Wilson IV in the L.A. Times, via Rush Limbaugh.) Some people in the Pentagon probably are dragging their feet, but there is no doubt that the demand for a renewed inquiry is an attempt to rationalize the change of mind by many Democrats on authorizing war against Iraq. Most Democrats in Congress voted in favor of war in the fall of 2002, and now they claim, "We didn't know! We were misled!" Such whining calls into question the congresspersons' responsibility to scrutinize the facts as well as their capacity to exercise autonomous judgment. When Michigan Governor George Romney told reporters that he had had been "brainwashed" by the generals in South Vietnam, his credibility was destroyed, ruining his chances in the 1968 presidential campaign.
I have no problem with a serious, thorough, nonpolitical inquiry into intelligence failures, but we must remember that reasonable people can differ in their interpretation of evidence. In this particular situation, however, the stakes are extraordinarily high, and the survival of our free republic now depends more than ever on gestures of mutual faith by cooler heads in both parties, something akin to the compromise reached by the "Gang of 14." The Republican leadership faces the awkward burden of accommodating the demands (some of which are reasonable) of skeptical Democrats for the sake of national unity, which is vital in wartime. The Democrats, for their part, need to show that they really do want the United States and its allies to prevail in Iraq, where the hopes for a freer, more peaceful Middle East now hang in the balance. Saying "I told you so" simply has no place in serious deliberations over foreign policy. The fundamental turnabout on national security policy by many Democrats can be expressed as follows: Whereas in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, nearly all Americans agreed that it was better to be safe than sorry (i.e., erring on the side of prudence), since the liberation of Iraq, too many Democrats seem to believe that it is better to be sorry than safe.
Saxman vs. Elder debate
Incumbent [20th] District Delegate Chris Saxman (Republican; see Web site) debated challenger Bruce Elder (Democrat, see Web site) on Friday, and it was broadcast last night on WHSV-TV3. As the incumbent in a conservative district, Saxman could have played it safe and avoided the debate entirely, and the fact that he accepted the challenge is very commendable. Chris is not only a very competent, well-educated, energetic, and dedicated legislator, he is a very good speaker who excels at articulating conservative principles. Mr. Elder owns a local antique car business, and wants to be seen as a moderate. His posters are colored purple, suggesting a blend of "red" and "blue" influences. It was the first time I had heard him speak, and he came across as nice and sincere. The issues he has raised are rather vague, however, and he really didn't offer a strong reason for replacing the incumbent. They seemed to agree on one of the hottest local issues, preferring to go slow in widening Interstate 81, concentrating on traffic bottlenecks such as big hills. For more, see the Staunton News Leader, which endorsed Saxman.
It's a small world
Tom Faranda, brother of fellow Yankees fan Phil Faranda, was on the same rugby team as Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, in New York state in the late 1980s, and thinks very highly of him. See Tom's blog post.
President Bush's nomination of Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court was a very pleasant surprise for weary conservatives, and a rude shock to the partisan wing of the Democrats, who thought they had Bush on the ropes. Now, will the Senate confirm him? One good sign today was the Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), one of the seven centrist Republicans on the "Gang of 15" who reached a compromise that prevented the "nuclear option" (see my May 24 post), said that Alito was a good choice. Meanwhile, NARAL, Sen. Chuck Schumer, and the other usual suspects bewailed caving in to the "far right wing," see Washington Post. How absurd. Every time I start to worry that Republican candidates are going a bit too far with their campaign rhetoric, somebody on the Left comes along to say something utterly preposterous. I guess "far right wing" means someone who adheres closely to the U.S. Constitution. As I stressed in my October 23 post, however, the point is not to ram through a judge who adheres to right-wing dogma, but to win broad acceptance of a sensible conservative who has independence, integrity, and a deep respect for the constitution's original meaning.
Last Friday Bush in dire straits, and today he's back in command. Was the Miers nomination just a tactical "feint," maneuvering to get into a more favorable psychological position for the nomination battle? If so, perhaps Karl Rove deserves more credit than some of us often give him.
GOP picnic video
Today I edited and posted on the swacgop.org Web site a video of the GOP picnic that was held on Saturday, which featured RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman, and the Virginia candidates for Lieutenant Governor, Bill Bolling, and Attorney General, Bob McDonnell. What would I do without Apple's iMovie program?
Local Republican Party members and candidates gathered this afternoon at the rural home of Kevin and Vonda Lacey, just west of Staunton. It was a blindlingly bright day, just perfect for taking pictures. The featured attraction was Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, who graciously consented to pose with me twice. (My camera's memory card was full the first time; D'oh! Thanks to Chris Green for taking this photo.) In his pep talk to the "troops," Mehlman drove home the importance of the Virginia statewide races in setting national political trends as we head into the 2006 congressional midterm elections. Indeed, both parties have invested considerable resources and deployed a number of staff members to Virginia for this campaign. Jerry Kilgore pulled slightly ahead of Tim Kaine in one of the latest polls, but it is still too close to call. Mehlman countered the worries about President Bush's recent political setbacks by pointing to recent major steps forward in the nascent democratic regimes of Iraq and Afghanistan, and to the rising pressure on the teetering dictatorship of Bashar Assad in Syria, which has been linked by U.N. investigators to the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
Other GOP candidates present today included the GOP nominee for Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling, for Attorney General, Bob McDonnell, as well as incumbent Delegates Steve Landes, Chris Saxman, and Ben Cline, as well as incumbent Staunton Commissioner of Revenue, Ray Ergenbright. Several photos I took at the event can be seen at swacgop.org. Congressman Bob Goodlatte could not attend because he was in Grottoes, Virginia at the funeral for Marine Corps Lance Corporal Daniel Bubb, who was killed in action recently in Iraq.
UPDATE: The Post's biased election forecasts
Chad Dotson, at Commonwealth Conservative, observes that in the last three election campaigns, the Washington Post has consistently underestimated the actual votes received by the Republican candidates for governor in Virginia by 4 to 6 percent. The fact that I rely so heavily on the Post for their coverage of national and world news does not mean that I'm unware of their editorial bias, which occasionally seeps into their news reporting. Nobody's perfect, and I just take that for granted. It was certainly no surprise to me that the Post endorsed all three Democrat candidates for statewide races in Virginia. At least they're not as far off center as the New York Times!
Bay on Scooter Libby
Austin Bay wisely cautions President Bush against either defending Scooter Libby too strongly, or attacking Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald. He notes that one of Libby's former legal clients was Marc Rich, "the mega-felon pardoned by Clinton in the waning days of Clinton's administration." Libby represented Rich from 1985 to 2000; see CNN. Sounds like bad company.
A federal grand jury indicted Lewis "Scooter" Libby on five felony counts, which could add up to 30 years of prison time, but none of the charges involve the alleged* leak of Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA agent. For details, see tomorrow's The Washington Post. Libby alleged lied to the grand jury about when he learned of Ms. Plame's identity, which would indeed be a crime if it was a willful misrepresentation of significant facts. As most Americans came to agree during the Clinton scandals, there can be no excuse for lying in a court of law. Based on what we know at this point, however, the discrepancy over facts could also be nothing more than someone's fallible memory about the chronology of events. We'll see. Patrick Fitzgerald's office has set up a Web site to disseminate information about the investigation.
* I say "alleged" because it is not clear that the information conveyed by any one official to any reporter or reporters on its own sufficed to pinpoint her identity. It may have been bits and pieces of information, innocuously relayed or not, that were subsequently put together by reporters to "solve the puzzle."
What about Karl Rove? He was the original prime suspect in all this, but may get off scot free. Dick Cheney may be subpoened to testify in Libby's trial, but there is no indication that he is himself a target. NBC's Pete Williams expressed doubt on PBS's "Washington Week" that there will be further indictments. Somehow, Robert Novak's name has vanished from this controversy without a trace.
The press conference this afternoon was the first chance most of us had to hear Patrick Fitzgerald speak. I was glad that he emphasized that his investigation is not connected to the war in Iraq, or the Bush administration's rationale for it. Fitzgerald had a reputation as a very bright, devoted, and ethical prosecutor, and comes across as one of those caricatured straight-laced, slightly nerdy characters, like the Sprint trench-coat guy. In fact, he reminds me a lot of Ken Starr in terms of both personality and professionalism. mediamatters.org offers a premature "preemptive refutation" of the myth that "Fitzgerald is an overzealous prosecutor who was out to get the Bush administration," but no such suggestions appear at gopusa.com or rushlimbaugh.com. The comments I've heard Rush make about Fitzgerald have been very guarded and reasonable in tone. Aside from Tom DeLay's complaint about the "criminalization of conservatism" and some sniping by the uppity Sean Hannity, there has been hardly any besmirching of Fitzgerald by conservative pundits or activists, which is quite a contrast to the hysteria that was directed toward Ken Starr during the investigation of Bill Clinton and his staff in 1998. It is also instructive to note the (literally) snotty remarks on leftist blogs such as Daily Kos and chortling, presumptuous tones on Web sites such as truthout.org. There may be further damage to the Bush White House, but I'm confident that Fitzgerald will wrap up his inquiry in a fair and professional way. I would almost wager that if there is any anger over the way this investigation concludes, it will be on the part of Bush critics.
Meanwhile, Josh Marshall is hot on the trail of the Italian connection to the Niger uranium ore forged (?) documents story. One of those involved is the current Italian ambassador in Washington. Wherever that may lead, it is important to recall that the reason why this scandal erupted in the first place was Joseph Wilson's high-profile campaign, beginning with the early 2003 article in The Nation and subsequent television appearances, to undermine the Bush administration's rationale for the war. Don't forget, folks, it was Wilson who invited the scrutiny and publicity in the first place. That doesn't excuse deliberate leaking, but it did make the revelation of his wife's identity almost inevitable. The original facts in this complex, obscure case may have long since been forgotten by most people, but fortunately, I'm one of those who keeps facts on file like a pack rat. Wilson's version of events was contradicted by the July 9, 2004 Washington Post. [See my original blog post.] According to an AP story dated July 18, 2004, furthermore,
Though Wilson reported to U.S. officials there was 'nothing to the story' that Niger sold uranium to Iraq, the CIA and DIA were intrigued by one element of his trip. Wilson had said a former prime minister of Niger, Ibrahim Mayaki, mentioned a visit from an Iraqi delegation in 1999 that expressed interest in expanding commercial ties with Niger, the world's third largest producer of mined uranium. Mayaki believed this meant they were interested in buying uranium.
Uranium accounts for the vast majority of Niger's exports, and most of it goes to France, which relies heavily on nuclear power to generate electricity. It doesn't mean that Iraq necessarily did purchase uranium ore from Niger, but it does provide a solid basis for believing that such was the case. In any event, we will all eventually have to live with the fact that full truth about this whole, comlicated mess may not become publicly known for many years, if ever. That is the nature of intelligence gathering.
This morning's bombshell announcement by the White House that Harriet Miers wants her nomination to be withdrawn will take some pressure off the Bush administration, and hopefully signifies the low point of the recent downward spiral. If Bush had persisted in promoting her nomination, he would have wasted precious political capital (much of which was squandered earlier this year on an ill-considered proposal to privatize Social Security), and undermined his rhetoric about "staying the course" in Iraq. The President was correct to say that "disclosures [of internal White House documents requested by several senators] would undermine a President's ability to receive candid counsel" (see whitehouse.gov), but that just goes to show why a White House official should not have been nominated for a high judicial post in the first place. Now the question is, Can Ms. Miers continue to serve the president effectively in her present position as White House counsel? No.
Great debate in Staunton
Nearly 200 people attended last night's "debate" (actually a "forum," sponsored by the Greater Augusta Regional Chamber of Commerce) between the candidates running for commissioner of revenue in Staunton. It was a startling display of public interest in an office that seldom arouses much passion. Incumbent Ray Ergenbright made his points about the need to maintain checks and balances in city government, and to ensure democratic accountability for municipal functions. He calmly explained that he had only limited involvement in the choice of the faulty R-MASS system, and assured voters that the transition to the new MUNIS system is succeeding. Challenger Maggie Ragon blamed Ergenbright for the money that was wasted on the software snafu, but did not provide any evidence for this accusation. She made much of the alleged "communication breakdown" between the Commissioner and other city offices, but did not even attempt to explain what that might have to do with the software snafu. She also highlighted her experience in business, saying she is not "a politician" (gasp!), but the issue of her business partnership with the city official who originally pinned the blame on Ergenbright did not even come up. Ergenbright, who is too decent and civil to call an opponent's motives into question, declined the opportunity to raise this conflict-of-interest issue. Neither the Waynesboro News Virginian nor the Augusta Free Press mentioned the very telling, awkward moment toward the end of the debate when Ms. Ragon declined to state whether she favors maintaining the commissioner of revenue office as an elected position; [the Staunton News Leader alluded to it briefly]. Her strained hesitation in that response left little doubt that she shares the City Council majority's desire not to maintain that constitutional elected office for which she is running. How ironic, and how intriguing!
The stakes are escalating in the Plame-CIA leak case, as the climactic moment of truth approaches. It is now rumored that special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is investigating the allegedly forged documents concerning Iraq's attempt to purchase uranium ore from Niger, linked to the Italian intelligence services. See truthout.org. The possibility that Fitzgerald's legal case concerns not just a breach of security, but is at the very center of the fundamental policy dispute over the war against terrorism is troubling. If there is substantial truth to those allegations, it would be a "whole new ball game," on par with Watergate. In a radio interview yesterday, meanwhile, Michael Barone noted, "Karl Rove and Scooter Libby are apparently in trouble because they told the truth about somebody who was telling lies." (See radioblogger.com, via Instapundit.) Barone predicts that Fitzgerald will not indict anyone this week.
So, is it all a bluff? Today's Washington Post scrutinizes the partisan machinations of Plame's flamboyant husband Joseph Wilson, whose credibility continues to erode. It also includes an op-ed piece by Robert Kagan, who explains why the left's line of argument against Bush and against the war is so absurd: Editorials in the New York Times and Washington Post during the latter years of the Clinton administration explicitly declared that Iraq was on the verge of deploying weapons of mass destruction, and had to be stopped. (To anyone who has been paying attention, this is hardly news, but it is worth repeating, anyway.) Kagan concludes:
As we wage what the Times now calls "the continuing battle over the Bush administration's justification for the war in Iraq," we will have to grapple with the stubborn fact that the underlying rationale for the war was already in place when this administration arrived.
Three-way race in Staunton
CORRECTION: In my October 20 piece on the commissioner of revenue race in the upcoming Staunton elections I focused on the contest between incumbent Ray Ergenbright and challenger Maggie Ragon, noting in passing, "There is a third candidate, Rick Johnson I believe, in the former race." Mr. Johnson contacted me to make sure that everyone knows that there is a third alternative in the [race for treasurer -- not the commissioner of revenue race. I was confused by the fact that there were originally three candidates in the commissioner of revenue race, but one of them dropped out.] See Mr. Johnson's campaign Web site at johnsontreasurer.com
George Will, clearly exasperated after years of giving Bush the Younger the benefit of the doubt on a variety of major issues, escalated his campaign against Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers in today's Washington Post. To say that he was burning his bridges would be putting it mildly. His core argument calls into question the conservative credentials of the people who oversee policy formation in the White House:
In their unseemly eagerness to assure Miers's conservative detractors that she will reach the "right" results, her advocates betray complete incomprehension of this: Thoughtful conservatives' highest aim is not to achieve this or that particular outcome concerning this or that controversy. Rather, their aim for the Supreme Court is to replace semi-legislative reasoning with genuine constitutional reasoning about the Constitution's meaning as derived from close consideration of its text and structure. Such conservatives understand that how you get to a result is as important as the result. Indeed, in an important sense, the path that the Supreme Court takes to the result often is the result.
It seems to me that many who occupy the populist flank of the right wing have fallen into such a blind rage against all the mischief wrought by left-leaning judges since the 1960s that they have forgotten that the fundamental standard of justice is precisely that it be -- blind.
My feelings about the Miers nomination aren't as strong as Will's, but I am worried about whether the Republican elitists and (Bushophile) populists can avoid a major schism. The latter faction's credibility is on the line in the upcoming Virginia elections. It will be a test of the Rovian strategy of "deepening" GOP voter turnout by focusing on social conservatives who are often apolitical, rather than "broadening" the vote by appealing to moderates and/or independents. (I would have favored the latter course.)
There are so challenges facing Republican leaders lately, it's like the whole party is shooting white water rapids in a leaky rubber raft. On one hand, it's almost fun to watch various Republican honchos squirm on the hot seat, as many of them had become much too smug and complacent after winning consecutive elections in recent years. The strong leaders among them will survive and become even stronger, while the "chaff" will be winnowed away. I thought it would be helpful to offer a sampling without going into detail. Bear with me as I try to assess things objectively.
Tom DeLay on trial
Democrats were gleeful at the sight of Tom DeLay having his mug shot taken after being arrested and arraigned, though the Texan grinned at the camera to show that he's not worried. Ironically, he objected to having a Democrat serve as judge in his case, just as Saddam Hussein was denying the legitimacy of his criminal trial in Baghdad. DeLay can handle himself just fine, and this will be a test to see whether his political-survival smarts will prevail over his pugnacious instincts. If he did indeed violate campaign finance laws, I'm sure he can avoid jail time by plea bargaining. His future role in the party will depend on whether he can wake up to the discontent of economic conservatives and join the movement toward true reform that Gingrich pioneered, and Oklahoma's Tom Coburn has resurrected. I think he has a pretty good shot at that; he's certainly young enough to shift policy course.
CIA leak indictments?
Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is reportedly focusing his investigation of the Valerie Plame leak on Vice President Dick Cheney's office (see Washington Post), prompting some to speculate that Cheney will step down, in favor of Condoleeza Rice. Fitzgerald's grand jury term expires next week, meaning that it will be make-or-break time for any indictments, but another extension is also possible. Andrew Sullivan has been following this case closely, and thinks Cheney is cornered: "Condi for Veep?" Combined with the recent disclosures about mistreatment of Muslim prisoners by American soldiers, which he has been harping on for months, his opinion once again counts highly with me. (See my May 18 post.)
Cheney and Rumsfeld
In a speech to the New America Foundation in Washington, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, an aide to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, declared that there was a "cabal" between the Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, which "hijacked the government's foreign policy apparatus." Those are extremely strong words, even for a discontented policy thinker, and he's better have evidence to back up his case. In his view, Condoleezza Rice was "part of the problem" because she wanted above all to keep Bush's confidence. See Financial Times. I certainly hope that is not the case.
Coat-tails for Kilgore?
One can't help but notice that all of these challenges are reaching a climax just as the off-year elections in Virginia and New Jersey are about to be held. Jerry Kilgore has fallen behind Tim Kaine according to the latest poll, no doubt reflecting the decline in Bush's approval ratings, to some extent. Kilgore is drawing heavy criticism for the barrage of negative ads attacking Kaine, mostly over the death penalty. I think that's a perfectly valid issue, but Kilgore and his advisers are overplaying it, and it may backfire.
Norquist and gays
Tax-cut zealot Grover Norquist met with a group of Log Cabin Republicans recently, angering the Religious Right which objects to any accommodation with gays. See gopusa.com [and The Carpetbagger Report]. Andrew Sullivan is understandably annoyed by the reaction to Norquist's "big tent" outreach effort. One again, this illustrates the failure of economic and social conservatives to see that their long-term objectives coincide, as long as traditional small-government conservatism is emphasized.
GOP as populists?
The conservative uproar over the nomination of Harriet Miers raises the question once again of the Republican party's identity in this moment of flux and turbulence. Jonah Goldberg writes of this situation in the National Review Online (via Instapundit),
I actually think this is a profoundly significant signal in the ongoing -- and at times somewhat lamentable -- transformation of the GOP into a populist party.
There is a small but vital streak of prairie populism in me, but I agree that pandering to populist tendencies is a risky maneuver. The big danger for the Republicans is that they may abandon their historical and intellectual roots in a short-sighted pursuit of votes in a socio-economic system that is unstable, and may even shift dramatically in an unfavorable direction, depending on future global events. The key to success for a party that is in flux is to maintain a healthy, creative balance between elite-intellectual and populist dynamics.
When it comes to following politics, the closer it is to home, the less I seem to understand it. Here in the friendly, peaceful town of Staunton, a veritable war broke out earlier this year between the City Council and two elected constitutional officers. Why? Don't ask me, I haven't a clue. The two incumbents, Commissioner of Revenue Ray Ergenbright and Treasurer Elnora Hazlett (both Republicans) were blamed for a major computer snafu, and are being challenged in the upcoming elections by, respectively, Maggie Ragon and Dolores Duncan. (There is a third candidate, Rick Johnson I believe, in the former race.) From what I can tell, it all started a few years ago when some unelected official in city hall made a huge goof, and he is now trying to pin the blame elsewhere. The city's Information Technology director, Kurt Plowman, recommended the purchase of a tax revenue collecting software package called R-MASS, even though it was only in the development stage, and had not been certified as ready to use.
When the system's performance failed to improve in spite of many months of data conversion efforts, citizens started complaining about delays, and the News Leader published a series of articles highly critical of Ergenbright, and to a lesser extent, Hazlett. Just before I went to Costa Rica in February I attended a City Council meeting at which it was decided (in the name of "efficiency") to transfer certain functions and staffers from the Treasurer's office to a different part of City Hall, even though at least ten people spoke out strongly against making such a change. The News Leader editorials scoffed at the citizen complaints about this shift, which was obviously political in nature, and a cartoon portrayed those who objected (quite earnestly and respectfully, as I can attest) as an ignorant mob. Staunton and the surrounding area of the Shenandoah Valley are strongly conservative, but for some reason, only one member of the City Council is close to the Republicans. My sense is that the majority of the City Council, as well as the News Leader editors, hold an elitist disdain for public opinion, and believe that the city's interests are best served by letting experts make all the big decisions.
I happen to know both Ergenbright and Hazlett fairly well from working with the Republican party. They are decent, competent folks committed to serving the public good, and they are as honest as the day is long. If all you knew was what was written in the local newspaper, however, you would think they were totally at fault for the computer system breakdown. Today's Staunton News Leader for the first time paid some attention to both sides in this dispute, which is at least a step in the right direction. It also brought to light a critical fact of which I was not aware at all:
[IT Director Kurt] Plowman, the project manager for the conversion to R-MASS, ... is a partner in Ragon's business, The Wine Cellar.
That's it, just one innocuous sentence, with no elaboration. The very same municipal employee who set out to tear down Ray Ergenbright has a business relationship with Ergenbright's political opponent! Now, this whole political battle is starting to make sense, as the pieces of the puzzle fit together. Does it not even dawn on the editors that this constitutes a huge potential conflict of interest, and at the very least merits a bit more fact checking? Some investigative reporting! Woodward and Bernstein? Sorry, not here in Staunton.
In sum, unless the voters in Staunton get the full picture about what really happened in the R-MASS fiasco, which will only happen if our local newspaper lives up to its journalistic responsibility to present all sides of a story as important as this one, so that voters will make a well-informed choice on November 8, there is a very real possibility that the city council members who are behind the campaign to unseat Ergenbright and Hazlett will succeed in eliminating all opposition to their finance and development plans. (Chopping down the rest of the trees on Betsy Bell Hill, perhaps?) For anyone who believes in a system of government based on checks and balances, and democratic accountability of public officials, such an outcome would be an utter travesty. Since politics can be understood as "war by other means," and since the extreme partisanship and polarization such as we have observed in recent years tends to filter down from Washington to the state and local level, perhaps this conflict should not be surprising. It doesn't have to be that way, however. Come on, Staunton, wake up!
One sure sign that the good guys in Washington are starting to have some effect is that the dinosaurs on the Left have stopped gloating over Bush's missteps and are back to howling at the moon once again. For an exquisitely awful take on efforts by conservative Republicans to restrain and monitor spending on Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts, see Harold Meyerson in today's Washington Post. In his view, "Congress is ... gunning for the American poor." His column is full of such distortions, but what really galls me is the way he lumps together under the "right-wing" rubric two separate tendencies within the Republican party: the traditional no-nonsense fiscal conservatives, and the new breed of cynical, dogmatic tax-cutters. Meyerson's all-too-common mode of thinking is what poses the biggest obstacle to achieving true market-oriented socio-economic reform in this country. Sadly, I fear that the rhetoric of "compassionate conservtism" voiced by President Bush is backfiring by playing into the hands of leftist cynics. The rebuilding New Orleans should be an opportunity to promote private-sector development and the associated values of free enterprise, freeing the city's poor residents from decades of soul-deadening dependency on welfare checks. Meyerson wants to keep those folks tied to the Democratic "plantation," it would seem.
Virginia's Sixth District Congressman Bob Goodlatte is currently touring the disaster area, and has taken a firm stand in favor of caution in spending on Hurricane Katrina recovery; see his Web site. He deserves high praise for doing so.
UPDATE: The Coburn Amendment. I saw Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn speaking to a group of young Republicans on C-SPAN the other day, and was really impressed. He is definitely one of the "good guys" on the Republican side, sincerely and deeply committed to fiscal prudence and reform. He recently introduced an amendment to an appropriations bill that would "transfer funding from a wasteful pork project in Alaska to the much-needed repair and reconstruction of the 'Twin Spans' bridge in Louisiana." See his Web site, via Instapundit. Hear, hear!
Who knows, maybe it was all for the best that Tom DeLay got tripped up in this (rather dubious) fund-raising scandal in Texas. (From what we now know about "shopping" for a friendly grand jury to get an indictment against DeLay, and having had to amend his indictment almost immediately as it was presented, there is no longer any doubt that Texas district attorney Ronnie Earle is a partisan hack.) Since DeLay has stepped aside as House Majority Leader, the long-marginalized deficit hawks within the Republican party are starting to throw their weight around on Capitol Hill once again, demanding faithfulness to core conservative principles. This effort is being spearheaded by the "Republican Study Committee," chaired by Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana. See Washington Post. Hoo-ray!
This kind of grass-roots initiative does not usually last long, however, and as Brendan Miniter at opinionjournal.com warns, the next Congress could easily undo any belt-tightening moves by the present one. There is indeed a long way to go yet before we can feel sure that the overriding objective of shrinking the government will be carried out. If the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill cannot figure out how to govern and enact coherent legislative programs without resorting to the Democrats' old pork barrel tricks, as Tom DeLay was fond of doing, then what is the point of supporting the Republican party? The big test will be whether Bush sees the light and either cuts back, revises, or abandons the ill-considered Medicare prescription drug benefit.
Parliamentary elections in the two biggest countries of Central Europe last month both resulted in a shift in favor of the conservative parties. Until this week, however, the final outcome was yet undecided, for different reasons.
In the German elections three weeks ago, the Christian Democratic / Christian Social Union won a plurality of seats in the Bundestag, but not much more than the Social Democratic Party, which has held power since 1998. A stalemate ensued, and no one knew who would lead the country. This is the kind of situation in which the president often steps in to resolve intractable quarrels in parliamentary governments, but that didn't happen this time; President Horst Koehler remained a mere figurehead. After tough negotiations with the incumbent Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, by which his Social Democratic Party will receive several key cabinet positions, a "grand coalition" government was formed on Monday, and Angela Merkel will become the first woman chancellor of Germany. She grew up in East Germany, and never became involved in politics until after the Berlin Wall fell. She has a very aloof, reserved personality, making it difficult to discern her intentions about policy sometimes, and she is known to be suspcious of rivals. She aims to reform the German economy by cutting workers' health care benefits as a first step toward reducing Germany's ultra-cushy entitlements, and she wants better relations with the United States, which would certainly be very welcome in Washington. Without a majority in the legislature, however, Merkel probably won't accomplish much. The loss by Schroeder stems from his failure to reinvigorate the German economy, as well as voter anger over some belated cuts in government spending he was forced to make.
In Poland, Donald Tusk of the free-market Civic Platform won 36 percent in the first-round presidential elections, and Warsaw mayor Lech Kaczynski of the populist, socially conservative Law and Justice Party won 33 percent. Since neither won received a majority of votes, there will be a runoff between those two later this month. In the late September parliamentary elections, the incumbent governing Democratic Left Alliance was ousted, and the Law and Justice Party came in just ahead of the Civic Platform Party. The two will form a conservative coalition, and some tax cuts are certain, although exactly which kinds of people will benefit most is yet undecided. The Economist magazine mused at the paradox that, since 1989, Poland has emerged as a model of stable democratic capitalism when viewed from outside, but the internal reality is one of policy incoherence, corruption, and foot-dragging. Well, that's democracy for ya! It is striking that Poland has played a high-profile role in supporting the U.S.-led war on terrorism, deploying significant armed forces to Iraq, even though the government has been under leftist control in recent years. The new president may review Polish foreign policy, and it will be interesting to see the connection between foreign policy and economic policy. As Mexico and France have shown, even conservative presidents sometimes appeal to nationalism by acting in ways contrary to U.S. interests.
What's interesting is that in both the German and Polish cases, the economic conservatives and social conservatives recognized their common long-term objectives, and have found a way to cooperate with each other. Meanwhile, Republicans in the U.S.A. are up in arms over, on one hand, Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, and on the other hand, the runaway spending spree by the GOP Congress and the consequent soaring deficits. I'm one of those for whom the latter is a much bigger problem. Rush Limbaugh has bravely talked of how the conservative movement is undergoing a healthy debate and mobilization, but I still hear a lot of sneers about "Republicans in name only," an example of the unhealthy attitude that if you're not an evangelical Christian dogmatic tax-cut advocate, you don't belong. That kind of talk has to stop, or else Rush's upbeat spin will be nothing more than whistling in the dark.
The two main candidates for the Virginia governor's race engaged in the only debate that will be broadcast statewide during this campaign last night. Since I was just returning from a trip out of town, I only caught the tail end of it, plus a snippet after midnight on C-SPAN. My previous impressions of Kaine as a slick, fast-talking, two-faced professional, and of Kilgore as a competent "semi-pro" whose sincere personal convictions are often diluted by excessive coaching, were both reinforced. From news reports (see Washington Post and/or Richmond Times-Dispatch), the event consisted mostly of rehearsed answers to questions that were submitted in advance, and therefore lacked the basic attributes of a real "debate." (Par for the course these days.) So many questions were asked that there was no time to address the major issues in a serious way. That seems like a major flaw to me; I would like to know if the moderator, Larry Sabato, had any control over the debate format. Instead, both candidates painted their opponents in a caricatured, negative light on hot-button issues such as abortion. Kaine danced around that issue very cleverly, saying that as a Catholic, he would not oppose the Church's position on that issue, or the death penalty. The formerly anonymous Chad Dotson thinks that Kilgore exceeded expectations, putting Kaine on the defensive in an arena in which the latter was supposed to excel. See Commonwealth Conservative; Chad also has a roundup of other Virginia bloggers' reactions.
I am solidly in the Kilgore camp, and not just because of my party affiliation, but I feel compelled to voice dissent on Kilgore's high-profile opposition to any hike in the gasoline tax. This is obviously not an appropriate moment to raise the gas tax, but if such a measure had been enacted back when gas was cheap, say two years ago, it just might have encouraged American consumers to face up to the reality of global energy scarcity in time to make the necessary lifestyle adjustments, without the need for silly Carteresque appeals to altruistic conservation. Rush Limbaugh often says that gasoline is "the life blood of democracy," exposing the Republicans' unique vulnerability to popular discontent whenever the economy slows down, since the easy remedies to recession run counter to GOP basic principles. I hate to say it, but Kilgore's anti-gas-tax position looks to me like pandering to uninformed populist impulses, setting a dangerous precedent. I see the present energy crunch in much the same way as the preventable flooding of New Orleans, as the consequence of failing to anticipate adverse future conditions. Conservative leaders are supposed to make prudence the supreme virtue, but too many Republican office holders these days just want to keep their heads buried in the sand and "let the good times roll." How long can this go on?
The Potts non-factor
State Senator Russell Potts, a moderate Republican who is running as an independent, was excluded from the big debate because he has not reached 15 percent in the polls, the standard that the Kilgore camp insisted upon. Potts initially appealed to economic conservatives (like me), but he let slip the opportunity to be taken seriously when he resorted to crowd-pleasing cheap shots against Kilgore. He may still attract enough voters from Kilgore to tip the election in Kaine's favor, which would be a disaster for those of us who are worried about wasteful government spending at the state level. On the plus side, Kilgore is far more dynamic than the last Republican nominee for governor, Mark Earley. If Kilgore keeps hammering Kaine on the cultural-values and spending issues, he stands a very good chance of winning, in spite of Potts.
That's what Professor Bainbridge thinks. (via Instapundit) If so, it would be a spectacularly foolish squandering of what should be one of the Republicans' most vital strategic assets: A veritable army of highly motivated conservative thinkers who are ready, willing, and able to promote the party's message. My impression is that virtually all of the party's incremental resources are devoted to yard signs (useless eyesores that keep getting bigger every year) and "dumbed-down" television ads that appeal to less-attentive prospective voters. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the inept political management in the White House is related to the lack of attention to grass-roots voices by the national party leaders, yet another symptom of complacency.
The surprisingly sharp negative reaction among conservative legislators and pundits toward Harriet Miers as Supreme Court nominee heralds a veritable rebellion against the Bush administration from within his own party. In today's Washington Post, a clearly exasperated George Will calls attention to the nominee's lack of credentials for the nation's highest court, and heaps scorn upon Bush's plea to "trust me." In unusually strong language, he writes,
"the president has forfeited his right to be trusted as a custodian of the Constitution. The forfeiture occurred March 27, 2002, when, in a private act betokening an uneasy conscience, he signed the McCain-Feingold law."
I too opposed the McCain-Feingold law, but mainly on grounds of its unenforceability and wrong-headed attempt to insulate voters from their responsability to monitor candidates. (Speaking of which, the dubious indictment of Tom DeLay is a good illustration of how such contrived "reform" laws generally backfire.) Finally, Will ridicules the way Bush paid lip service to "diversity," the holy grail of contemporary mindless blather.
But that's not all! On the same Post op-ed page, economics writer Robert Samuelson bitterly rips into Bush's "compassionate conservative" approach to governance, calling it "Cynical Conservatism":
"Compassion" for Bush has consisted mostly of distributing new benefits to large constituencies in the hope of purchasing their gratitude and support.
Spend more, tax less. That's a brazen political strategy, not a serious governing philosophy.
Just what conservative values Bush's approach embodies is unclear. He has not tried to purge government of ineffective or unneeded programs. He has not laid a foundation for permanent tax reductions. He has not been straightforward with the public. He has not shown a true regard for the future. He has mostly been expedient or, more pointedly, cynical.
That reminds me of what one-time Bush speechwriter John DiIulio called his former White House colleagues back in 2002: "Mayberry Machiavellis." It's times like this when I'm glad I've made known my concerns about the direction the Bush administration has been heading. He has not addressed any of the market-oriented policy initiatives I suggested ten months ago, and instead, he has largely squandered the precious post-election "window of opportunity for reform." (I'm well aware that not many conservatives view the link between economics and security the way I do, but that is bound to change as the global political-economic landscape shifts.) I'm inclined to judge Bush leniently when it comes to his lack of rhetorical skills, possibly a genetic defect, but there can be no excuse for continuing to ignore the warning signals from conservative intellectuals on vital issues such as the budget or national security. What can Bush do to pull out of his recent political tailspin before his presidency crashes and burns? Last week Jim Hoagland wrote in the Washington Post that Bush is in desperate need of a special adviser and confidant with the wisdom and courage to tell Bush the things he doesn't want to hear, much like when LBJ tapped Clark Clifford to serve in such a role during his final, disastrous year in office. As long as Karl Rove stays in the White House, however, I'm afraid the likelihood of that is extremely low.
My first reaction to the nomination of Harriet Miers as associate Supreme Court justice was wondering about her lack of judicial experience. On NBC's Today show, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley -- who is not one of Bush's liberal critics -- cited that reason to call this an "extraordinarily bad" choice. Is she a conservative? Probably, but her record on policy issues is pretty thin. Her current position as White House counsel also raises questions about judicial independence from political leaders. Coming so soon after the Hurricane Katrina disaster shed bad light on the Bush administrtion's fondness for old pals and cronies (i.e., Michael Brown at FEMA), it does seem to be a strange choice. The Washington Post has her dossier, and MSNBC has some initial reactions from key senators and assorted experts.
Critical reflection for GOP
Forget about all this scandal-mongering; the ethical lapses of Rove, DeLay, and (possibly*) Frist are not at the heart of the Republicans' troubles, complacency is. John Fund writes in the Wall Street Journal that the Republicans may lose the 2006 midterm elections if they don't wake up to voter discontent immediately. He quotes Newt Gingrich as saying the Party now stands at a crossroads and must decide whether to pursue fundamental reforms or merely preside over the status quo. (via Instapundit) An analogy from the sports world is appropriate here: You don't win games by playing it safe and avoiding defeat, you win by playing with guts and accepting the risk of failure.
* According to Saturday's Washington Post, Sen. Frist began thinking about selling stock in the HCA hospital chain in April, months before the price started to slide. This lessens the likelihood that he was pulling out based on insider information, a la Martha Stewart.
No one in his or her right mind could possibly think that Bill Bennett believes that "abort[ing] every black baby in this country" would be a good way to fight crime. He has a long, solid record on civil rights, and there is no reason whatsoever to think that he is racist. Nevertheless, the usual critics jumped all over the remark he made on his radio program earlier this week, taking pains to misconstrue the point that he was, rather clumsily, trying to make. Media Matters is a good example, gleefully "exposing" the broadcast remarks as though they were a secret. Much like Trent Lott's praise of Strom Thurmond nearly three years ago, a Republican leader once again makes a gaffe that gives ammunition to political opponents. Bennett explained it all on his Web site. He was citing a point made by Steven D. Levitt, co-author of the popular new book Freakonomics, that the national crime rate has declined in part because there are fewer unwanted babies than in the past, thanks to easy-access abortion. (See Phil Faranda's comments on that book as it relates to real estate.) Bennett clearly meant to minimize the validity of that line of argument, but many people chose to interpret his words as if he were lending support to it. Those people are either too lazy to make an effort to understand what Bennett was saying, or just plain dishonest. There is a huge irony in the fact that Bennett made explicit what many abortion advocates would rather not admit: terminated pregnancies are disproportionately high among women of color. Suffice it to say that, when it comes to making excuses for racial genocide, abortion advocates have a lot to answer for. On Sean Hannity's show on Friday, James Carville agreed that Bennett is not racist, but said that Bennett should have known better than to risk offending someone. Even White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that President Bush felt the comments were "not appropriate." (The President has been on the defensive lately, and therefore must abide by the sensibilities of the mainstream media.) Generally speaking, I would agree, but I refuse to jump on the bandwagon of pious condemnation in a case where erring too far on the side of sensitivity comes at the expense of candid and honest discourse.
So what was the point Bennett was trying to make? Simply that there are certain unconditional moral imperatives that make certain public policy measures which are rationalized on the basis of purely utilitarian, rational arguments (such as the putative correlation between abortions and crime reduction) unacceptable. It is a familiar theme in conservative philosophy, as a rebuttal to the "progressive" agendas that rely heavily on expert-driven statist intervention into society. To make his case, Bennett used the rhetorical technique of outlandish counterfactual made famous in Jonathan Swift's "Modest Proposal" -- suggesting that surplus babies be slaughtered to feed the poor, as a means of calling attention to the severity of poverty in 18th-Century Ireland. It is supposed to grab people's attention in a way that dreadfully earnest arguments (such as mine) simply cannot do. There is a place for such hyperbole, but it depends on who is engaging in the discourse. In a conversation among people who share some broad premises, there is a degree of trust that prevents the kind of egregious misinterpretation to which Bennett was subjected. Though he has certain vices that have become public knowledge, Bill Bennett is a decent, morally sound, intellectually honest public figure who deserves respect and the benefit of the doubt. Personally, I would not have bothered to rebut the "far-reaching, extensive extrapolations" (as he described the abortion-effect hypothesis), but in exposing himself to being misconstrued, Bennett unintentionally baited his critics into revealing their own closed-mindedness and propensity to indulge in race baiting. For a thoughtful interpretation of all this, see proteinwisdom.com
In sum, this episode tells us much less about Bennett's sense of discretion than it does about the jaded perception of leftist critics, and the poor overall state of political discourse in our country right now. To me, there are few things more important than maintaining high, dignified standards of public discourse, and if I thought that Bennett was guilty of something truly serious, I would not hesitate to say so. This hubbub is a mere matter of rhetorical style: "to each his own." If you don't like it, change the channel. (I happen to like gruff, no-nonsense conservatives like Bennett, Dick Cheney, Bob Dole, or Phil Gramm, but that's just me.) In the end, this is much ado about nothing, but at least it provides good fodder for blogospheric pontification.
Ankle-Biting Pundits wryly cheers on the Democrats' attempt to capitalize on the DeLay, Frist, and Rove scandals so as to smear the Republican Party:
We also know this Democrat stratagem couldn't be more stupid. 'They're just as corrupt as we were when we were in power ... so put us back in power'" is a message destined to fail at the ballot box.
File this one under "the pot calling the kettle black." Nevertheless, "ABP" bemoans how the post-Gingrich Republican leadership has gotten off track, forgetting what got them into power in the first place, way back in 1994:
The GOP ran against lobbyists. Not specific lobbyists but rather the very idea that "K Street fat cats" (as we called them) were drafting legislation and deciding policy for a decrepit Democrat majority. We ran against corruption, such as Rostenkowski and all that. We were then an anti-Washington party, dismissing the "corridors or power" as a giant piggy bank for the highest bidding special interest groups. Hillarycare was just icing on the cake.
And yet somewhere along the line we became what we despised.
That's what happens when power-focused party elites lose touch with the principle-motivated grass roots. That ABP piece is a very, very good critique of what is wrong with both parties these days. Why has the GOP gotten off track? Because they have nothing to fear from Democrats, who have come under the sway of utter kooks who have no serious policy alternatives to offer. (via Instapundit, who notes, "The GOP is at serious risk of losing a decisive chunk of its voters to a Perot-style movement.") For the record, I do not favor "throwing DeLay overboard" as Rush Limbaugh puts it. It would be nice, however, if the House came under the leadership of men or women who were more committed to cutting Federal spending and reducing the deficit.
Fatuous liberalism in Maryland
American University history professor Allan Lichtman announced he is running for Maryland's U.S. Senate seat that incumbent [Paul S. Sarbanes] will vacate after next year. In the Washington Post photo caption, he is quoted as saying:
There is too much government intruding in our private lives and not enough government meeting our needs.
What Lichtman fails to realize (or refuses to admit, perhaps), is that government intrusion into our private lives is a direct consequence of the fatuous idea that government should "meet our needs." (Reality 101: Needs are subjective; in a market economy such as ours, resources are allocated in response to demand, which is objective.) When "needy" citizens don't reform their behavior as the various social welfare programs expect them to do, there is overwhelming pressure for the government to step in and make sure that public money is being put to good use. Hence, the "nanny state." Unfortunately, President Bush's "compassionate conservatism" buys into that rhetoric.
Jail time is not very likely, but his leadership of the House has been neutralized for the indefinite future. As has been expected for the past several months, Tom DeLay was indicted by a grand jury in Travis County, Texas today for alleged campaign finance violations. DeLay responded by calling District Attorney Ronnie Earle a "fanatic partisan" and said the indictments were "baseless" and "a sham." See Washington Post. For reasons of both policy substance and political style, I'm on record as being less than fond of "The Hammer," as the House Majority Leader is known (see May 3), but I'm also well aware that the prosecution is to a large extent politically motivated. Andrew Sullivan takes an appropriately detached perspective, and I agree: Let's not jump to conclusions either way. Let the legal process go ahead, and the truth will come out. If the charges are bogus, there will be hell to pay.
More constitutional silliness
Last summer the Republicans in the House passed a proposed constitutional amendment to forbid desecration of the American flag, to which I expressed opposition on September 15. Now two Republican senators, Jim Talent (Missouri) and George Allen (Virginia), say they intend to introduce a constitutional amendment to grant the president line-item veto power; see allen.senate.gov. I do not doubt that the senators have the best intentions, but anyone who thinks that this is the most effective response to the Federal government's growing fiscal deficit is, in my opinion, misguided. Those of us who have studied legislative processes know that this is the sort of procedural contrivance that tries to let legislators off the hook for their failure as a collective body to pass a sound budget. Don't pass a law to force yourself to do something, just do it! As the Staunton News Leader editorialized today, "If all this is about is cutting pork, then Congress needs to clean up its own act, not shift the burden to the president. If they can't do that, we can take care of it for them during the 2006 elections." Not that anyone should expect the tax-and-spend Democrats to take fiscal responsibility any more seriously than Republicans, but if that is the best our esteemed senators can come up with, fiscal conservatives like me will be far less motivated to work on behalf of the party's candidates than in the all-important 2004 election. The impetus for true fiscal reform can only come from the grass roots, not via constitutional mandates.
Orioles owner Peter Angelos, otherwise known as "Dr. Evil," took out a full-page newspaper ad to thank Maryland Governor Bob Ehrlich for his support of his failed attempt to prevent baseball from returning to Washington. What is strange is that Angelos used to be very tight with the state Democrat party, and was a major contributor to the campaigns of former Governor Parris ("Not Hilton") Glendening and others. The party affiliation made sense, since he is, after all, a fabulously wealthy trial lawyer. Since the ad did not explicitly urge people to vote for Ehrlich when he runs for reelection next year, it probably won't count as a campaign expenditure. See Washington Post. After a brief honeymoon, Ehrlich's term as governor has been marked by one frustration after another, as the Democrat majority has successfully blocked his initiatives. He and Angelos both needed each other, so you might say it was a match made in ... no, let's not go there.
All across this great nation of ours, there are millions of decent, public-spirited, patriotic citizens who are deeply and sincerely opposed to the U.S.-led war against terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's just too bad that none of them spoke at the anti-war rally in Washington today. Thanks to C-SPAN I was able to see and hear what most of the dissenters had to say. (I missed Cindy Sheehan.) See CNN.com. I can't say I was terribly surprised by the wacko rhetoric that prevailed, however. Every conceivable grievance from all four corners of the Earth was voiced on the podium today, but the unifying theme was clear: frank, unmitigated hatred of America and everything it stands for. As fringe kook leftist (and former attorney general) Ramsey Clark and other speakers made clear, the organizers' main goal is to impeach Bush. If you believe that American soldiers are systematically butchering helpless Iraqi civilians, that President Bush and top administration officials are war criminals, and that the deaths in New Orleans amounted to racial genocide, then you would fit right in with this crowd. If you support Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the Palestinian resistance (i.e., Hamas terrorists), and the Iraqi resistance (i.e., Al Qaeda), then this movement is for you! See answercoalition.org (Act Now to End War and Stop Racism).
Democrat meltdown continues
The rising tide of extreme left-wing politics in this country poses a dilemma for the Democrat leaders: Do they "ride the tiger" and hope to tame it later on, or do they part ways with the fringe groups, forsaking an energized base for an eventual chance to return to power? Tough call. I assume the reason that stalwarts like Senators Biden and Feinstein are making so much noise about Bush's judicial nominees is that they want to retain credibility with the activist base. No matter what they do, however, the tension between currying favor with the zealots and the necessities of political survival will continue to grow inexorably. They day is not far off when a loud (figurative) "snap" will be heard on Capitol Hill. The small remaining cadre of Democrat moderates will shout, "Enough nonsense, already!" Party leaders know what happened last year when the Kerry-Edwards campaign found itself unable to distance itself from the demented vitriol spouted by the Hollywood elitists and all the professional agitators: They lost! The latest example of profane hatred of Bush and the GOP comes from Bette Midler; as new blogger Steve Kijak writes, "Please Let them Talk!!!"
Which party will break up first?
Notwithstanding the suicidal hysteria emanating from some Democrats, recent scandals and policy disputes suggest that the Party of Lincoln may also succumb to internal fractures. Many on the Right have been gloating with overconfidence since last November's election, blind to the rising social tensions in this country and too proud to recognize the latent contradictions between social conservatives and economic conservatives. For example, energy policy! There is a huge difference, however, between honest, open policy disagreements within the GOP and the deep chasm between opposing world views the divides the Democrat Party. Republicans share a strong common objective of substantially reducing the size and power of government in domestic life. Where they differ is over tactics and short-term priorities. According to most observers at the APSA annual meeting earlier this month, the White House has embarked on an explicitly interventionist strategy of reforming American society so as to reduce the demand on government for social services. It's a bold "hegemonic project" (pardon the political science jargon) that risks failure if the party leadership can't keep its rank and file in line. The earmarked spending components of the energy and transportation bills that were passed last month seem to have been payoffs to individual congress persons in exchange for their support of Bush's social conservative agenda. I am not suggesting that the Republicans are as likely to break into factions as the Democrats, but the possibility cannot be discarded entirely. The Weekly Standard recently ran a special issue with articles that focused on what's become of the conservative movement in the ten years since the magazine was founded. There is, shall we say, some angst and disquiet over the direction our Republican government is heading. The Right has been the more innovative part of the ideological spectrum for the last 20-30 years, but the twin (usually alternating) perils of complacency and fear may put the brakes on the bold new thinking that will be required to keep the conservative movement on track.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is being investigated after selling shares of the HCA hospital chain one month before its price plummeted. We'll have to watch this one very closely to see whether the charges are trumped up. See Washington Post. I initially thought Frist was a good replacement for Trent Lott (see Dec. 23, 2002), but some of his recent policy statements have made me wonder about his judgment. First Tom DeLay, then Karl Rove, now this. As Daily Kos puts it, "The trifecta is complete. The Republican leadership in the Senate, House and White House are ALL officially under investigation." (Is he actually trumpeting the politicization of criminal investigations of the sort that have gone on in Texas?) DeLay recently boasted of the fiscal record of the House of Representatives, which was either foolishly naive or (more likely) breathtakingly cynical. As for Rove, I sure hope reports that he is taking a lead role in the Hurricane Katrina recovery operations prove false. Speaking of which, Frist may be hoping that Hurricane Rita diverts attention from the storm clouds he is facing...
To fair-minded folks, the announcements that Senators Linoln Chafee (moderate Republican) and Leahy (feisty Democrat) will vote in favor of confirming John Roberts as chief justice was quite welcome news. As seen by the increasingly strident leftist blog dailykos.com, however, it was regarded as "surrender." (Head blogger "Comandante" Markos recently declared war on the Democratic Leadership Council.) Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne based his "Case for a 'No' Vote on Roberts" on the simple lack of information submitted by the White House. "If senators simply vote 'yes' on Roberts, they will be conceding to the executive branch huge power to control what information the public gets and doesn't get about nominees to life positions." Hogwash. If the Senate doesn't feel they have sufficient information on a prospective judge or Supreme Court justice, all they need to do is vote "no." Simple! After watching the Democrats scrounge for any kind of dirt on John Roberts, I'm convinced they wasted their effort and have further strained their credibility. If in the 22nd Century some scientist devises a robot to serve as judge, it will very likely be modeled on the almost-too-perfect Chief Justice Roberts.
Now the question is, Who will be nominated to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor? Even as he has stumbled in other policy areas recently, when it comes to the judiciary, President Bush has put himself in an excellent position to put forward a genuinely solid conservative. Orin Kerr at the Volokh Conspiracy suggests Michael McConnell of the Tenth U.S. Circuit Appeals Court.
The Florida keys got totally drenched from Hurrican Rita, and a few sections of the main highway-bridge that provide the only link to the mainland were seriously damaged. News that the storm has grown and intensified into a category 5 hurricane, rivaling Katrina, has frightened Gulf Coast residents. Being conditioned to behave in a herd fashion in this era of mass media, Americans are prone to alternately turn an indifferent shoulder to potential danger one day and then overreact the next. I thought Sean Hannity overstepped the bounds of public alert today when he urged practically everyone living in the Houston area to evacuate now. One has to wonder how persecuted the poor folks taking refuge in the Astrodome must right now feel.
Now we learn from NASA-JPL that the same phenomenon of global warming has caused noticeable changes on Mars. As Glenn Reynolds said, "If only we had ratified Kyoto." The point is certainly not to minimize the potential threat posed by global warming, to the extent that it exists, but merely to exercise caution about responding with public policies before we have a solid grasp of the mechanics that might be driving upward temperature shifts. If Mars and Earth are both warming up, one might reasonably conclude that higher radiant energy from the sun is to blame.
As preparations for another possible large-scale emergency proceed, I want to take exception to some of the recommendations President Bush has made. He called for new institutional procedures to make sure that Federal and state agencies work together more harmoniously next time, but that neglects the basic human function in public administration. When governments don't function as they should, it is often simply the result of human failures, which can seldom be offset by bureaucratic contrivances. Also, he called for a permanent role for the U.S. armed forces in responding to natural disasters, which might entail a repeal of the Posse Comitatus Act that forbids any military role in maintaining domestic order. One thing we don't need is a stronger state authority; we need public officials who are held accountable. The President has expressed appropriate regret for his shortcomings, but more heads need to roll before we can feel assured that those holding positions of authority in FEMA and other agencies are fully qualified to carry out their jobs in times of high stress.
President Bush's speech on Thursday night pledged a virtual blank check to rebuild the Gulf Coast, and it would be hard to deny that reflects in part an effort to recover lost credibility after his initial hesitant response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster. What is most troubling is the hasty loosening of the purse strings, an invitation to abuse Federal funds by bogus pork barrel schemes. (I complained about the energy bill as a pork-laden monstrosity on July 28, and stand by that assessment.) We urgently need to pause and think about this before letting our collective sentiments (and political calculations) seriously distort our nation's economic policy. Bush's refusal to consider raising taxes to pay for the rebuilding effort simply highlights the fiscal bind his administration has put us in. Even before the Bush speech, David Broder complained bitterly of the mounting deficits -- which are headed toward half a trillion dollars annually! -- in the September 11 Washington Post:
The question is whether this will force the president and congressional Republicans to suspend their obsessive drive to reduce the revenue base of the federal government, or whether they will finally start paying the bills their government is incurring.
The warning signs of impending economic calamity are every bit as evident as the forecasts of ruin for New Orleans when a major hurricane hit.
Broder may be overstating the risk, but I would not rule out a major correction in the nation's financial markets like the one that struck in the midst of the Savings and Loan crisis of October 1987. One of the main reasons for fiscal prudence is precisely to set aside a reserve surplus for use in case of national emergency. Supply-siders' optimistic pro-growth rhetoric rings hollow when major disasters strike.
Porkbusters? "Not in my back yard!"
Thankfully, many Americans have "connected the dots" between our nation's emergency preparedness and its fiscal situation. Citizens in Bozeman, Montana have requested that Federal money for an unnecessary local highway project be returned to the U.S. Treasury. Inspired by this example of public spiritedness, The Truth Laid Bear blog, in cooperation with Instapundit, has launched a new campaign dear to the hearts of true fiscal conservatives everywhere: "Porkbusters." (logo by Stacy Tabb) Contact your local congressperson and tell him or her to "just say no" to wasteful pork barrel spending. It would help especially if you could identify any bogus projects you know about.
When it comes to sacrificing for the greater public good, folks tend to expect those in other states to go first, which is why it's so hard to control spending. In terms of pork, the transportation bill was at least as bad as the energy bill. Generally speaking, some Federal funding is appropriate when long-distance (interstate) transportation is involved, but local projects should be funded entirely by state and local governments. What about Virginia? I've met two Republican congressmen from Virginia, Bob Goodlatte (6th District) and Virgil Goode (5th District; a Democrat until 1997 or so), and both are decent, thrifty, sincere fiscal conservatives. In an age when most congressmen indulge in lavish travel and staff expenses, Rep. Goode ranked as one of the most frugal on Capitol Hill, according to a Washington Post survey a couple years ago. If you look across the landscape of rural Virginia, it's hard to find wasteful pork barrel spending by the Federal government. Across the state line in West Virginia, meanwhile, there are dozens of brand new bridges and multilane highways through the once-pristine wilderness, thanks to the undisputed world champion of Federal pork, Sen. Robert Byrd (D). All those new roads provide much easier access for out-of-state rafting and rock-climbing enthusiasts, ruthlessly paving over Mother Nature in the process. West Virginia will receive more than $2 billion in Federal highway funds over the next five years, more than double Virginia's share of the "loot." (See Sen. Warner's Web site.) Here are some of the main projects funded by the recent transportation bill in Central Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, along with my evaluation of them in parentheses:
$141.5 million for Interstate 81 improvements (definitely needed, but plans are sharply disputed)
$27 million for the Meadowcreek Parkway in Charlottesville (probably needed, but purely for local traffic)
$5 million to Widen Route 262 in Augusta County (still under construction; a needed bypass for truck traffic)
$1.2 million for the Downtown Staunton Streetscape project (nice but utterly unjustified; to attract more upscale antique shoppers)
More than $100 million to improve intermodal facilities and tunnels in the "Heartland Corridor" (?)
$18.64 million for various projects in Richmond (?)
By far the costliest of these projects is I-81, and there is no reason it can't be scaled back and/or deferred at least a year or two. I think one of the most extravagant highway projects in Virginia is the new Route 460 highway bypasses in the Blacksburg-Christiansburg area, along with the pilot "Smart Highway" project that includes a huge bridge built a few years ago that will not be open to the public any time in the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, that money has already been spent, so it's too late to ask Rep. Rick Boucher (D - 9th District) to give back those funds. The upshot is, residents of the Shenandoah Valley don't have much "pork" to give back, but that frivolous $1.2 million to spruce up downtown Staunton would be a good place to start.
Preposterous but true. The ruling by a judge of the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals that it is unconstitutional to recite the Pledge of Allegiance [because of the reference to God] applies only in "public schools," but it is clear the direction they are headed. [What's next -- tossing out the Declaration of Independence because it invokes God four times?] The case was prompted by atheist proselytizer Michael A. Newdow, whose case was dismissed a few years ago on the grounds that he did not have custody of his daughter at the time. Then he refiled the suit on behalf of unnamed parents. See Washington Post. Mr. Newdow leaves no doubt that he will not rest until the Pledge itself is expunged of God's name, and he will no doubt pursue his cause in other arenas. The Ninth Federal Circuit has a well-deserved reputation as a bastion of left-liberalism, but its problems don't end there. It has 28 active judgeships and its jurisdiction encompasses western states, accounting for nearly 20 percent of the total U.S. population, which creates all sorts of distortions. Cases arising in urbanized California are often far different from those arising in Alaska or Idaho. As a measure of expediency, the Ninth Circuit adopted rules such that all members need not be present for "en banc" reviews, which are ordinarily heard by the entire panel of judges. Thus, the court's rulings may not actually reflect the views of the majority of the court, and contradictory opinions issued by the same court are not uncommon. See wikipedia.org.
The only possible rationale for such a ruling would be if reciting Pledge were compulsory, but it is clearly not. Religious dissenters such as Jehovah's Witnesses are routinely exempted from reciting the pledge, and hardly anyone sees anything wrong with such an accommodation to minority sentiment. As I wrote on July 9, 2002, however, "without a widespread belief in a God, we Americans would have no basis upon which to claim the rights that make us a free people." (Note in the very next piece that I emphatically reject any attempt to impose a constitutional [ban on] flag desecration, which the Republicans in the House recently passed.) We most certainly are a "nation under God," whether you truly believe in God or merely regard Him as a product (for better or worse) of the human imagination. From a partisan point of view, this ruling was actually very timely, as it reminds sensible people in the middle of the political spectrum how important it is to get more conservative judges seated in the Federal court system!
The Roberts hearings
Speaking of the courts, I was really floored when I heard Sen. Joe Biden's sarcastic inquisition in the Judiciary Committee hearings on Wednesday. Rush Limbaugh highlighted Biden's blatant hypocrisy on the issue of whether nominees should be forced to state opinions on prospective cases during confirmation hearings. When Ruth Bader Ginsberg was being questioned in 1993, Sen. Biden stated unequivocally that it would be wrong to force the nominees to do so, and he was quite right to make that point. For the curious, a wide variety of legal opinions and other documents detailing Roberts' background are available from the University of Michigan Law Library. (via Connie) Roberts answered Sen. Kennedy's bumbling, ill-informed queries with deferential grace and alacrity, and is now a shoo-in for confirmation.
Given the unusual situation of two simultaneous Supreme Court vacancies, there is stronger than normal interest in the tenure of the current justices. I have created a table of the years each of the court members who were serving as of the beginning of this year on the new Supreme Court page.
UPDATE: The new table of Supreme Court justices now distinguishes between those who were nominated by presidents of one party and those who were confirmed by a Senate that was controlled by the other party. While I was at the APSA annual meeting in Washington earlier this month, I came across a new book, Active Liberty: Interpreting Our Democratic Constitution, (see amazon.com) written by Clinton-nominated Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, in which he expounds the liberal notion that the Constitution is not an iron-clad set of restrictions on government action, but is rather a "living" document that adapts to changing circumstances that could never have been envisioned by our Founding Fathers. I supposed it's quite fitting for an era in which the guiding social norm is "whatever." Any constitutional scholar should know that our constitution is notable for the [relative] absence of explicitly democratic procedures and norms. Democracy in America is something that evolved over many decades.
When I wrote that "everyone seems to be blaming the other side for the Hurricane Katrina disaster" on September 12, I should have made it clear that President Bush has not engaged in any finger pointing whatsoever. He may have been slow to respond to the catastrophe at first, but he has acted in a consistently presidential manner, most notably when he assumed responsibility yesterday for the slow and inadequate response of the Federal government. That prompted Mayor Fagin to say he assumed responsibility for the failures of local government. Is this a great country or what?
Now that the Roberts Supreme Court nomination hearings are underway, mayhem continues in Iraq, and everyone seems to be blaming the other side for the Hurricane Katrina disaster, we are grudgingly obliged to reengage in the political polemics that reached an apex in August and then took a brief vacation. (Must we? Yes!)
The death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist makes the confirmation of John Roberts, now designated as Chief Justice, much easier, because no one wants to start a new Supreme Court term in October with no one in the leading role. That ought to satsify conservative activists who were outraged by the compromise over the "nuclear option" in the Senate last May. In any case, Roberts is by all non-ideological accounts an ideal candidate, so the real fireworks will begin when the replacement for Sandra Day O'Connor is named. Jim Lindgren at the Volokh Conspiracy assesses Robert's comparison at today's hearings between the role of a judge and a baseball umpire. Neither job is as straightforward as you might think.
Another front in the ongoing War Between the Parties centers around the President himself. The Left cannot restrain itself from the urge to exploit any passing tragedy for the purpose of venting hatred toward our nation's duly elected chief executive. The deranged hysteria of scribes such as Maureen Dowd has barely changed at all since the last election, but most Americans seem sensible enough not to pay much attention to such fringe views. What about my own overall assessment of Bush? I've made clear my reservations about his lack of skills in rhetoric and management, as well as his troubling eagerness to promote his social conservative agenda via activist government. I pretty much agree with the assessment of Glenn Reynolds:
Bush is, in my estimation, adequate as President, but not much more. I've thought that all along -- which is why you've never seen the kind of lyrical praise of Bush here that once appeared at Andrew Sullivan's place, or the kind of disappointment with Bush you see at Sullivan's place now.
His comment was in the context of the recent drops in Bush's approval ratings. Since I work with the Republicans, you can either take my evaluation as influenced by party loyalty or as a foolhardy gesture of dissent. In my own view, I'm just trying to be honest. The bottom line for me is that Bush is on the right course in two crucial policy areas: a firm, resolute stance in the war against Islamic extremism, and a determination to nominate more conservative judges.
Michael Brown resigns
No surprise there. I sure hope he had accomplished a lot for the Republican Party in Oklahoma for all the discredit he brought to the Bush administration. Now can we all agree on one thing? Don't put political appointees in charge of a vital agency such as FEMA!
Will Mayor Ray Fagin or Governor Kathleen Blanco resign next? Probably not. Josh Marshall has been harping at Bush and the Feds incessantly, while making excuses for the failures of the local officials. Today Rush Limbaugh replayed the whispered comments of Governor Blanco (who didn't know the mic was live) in which she expressed to an assistant regret for not requesting military assistance more promptly. On Meet the Press yesterday, Mayor Fagin was utterly flummoxed by Tim Russert's queries about the failure to use city and school buses to get the poor folks out of town on time.
Sure, here was lots of buses out there. But guess what? You can't find drivers that would stay behind with a Category 5 hurricane, you know, pending down [sic] on New Orleans.
Maybe more drivers would have shown up for emergency duty if they had been told that their job was on the line. Just a thought. The mayor said he had no knowledge of AMTRAK's offer to evacuate hundreds of people as Katrina approached (see Washington Post), which if true suggests an inexcusable breakdown in communications within the city government. His only regret was in assuming that the Federal "cavalry" would rescue his city. That is a crystal clear expression of the shamelessly irresponsible dependency on bailouts from Uncle Sam engendered by the welfare state mentality.
UPDATE: Rebuild or not?
In the Outlook section of Sunday's Washington Post, urban planning expert Joel Garreau lends support to Majority Leader Dennis Hastert's ill-timed remark last week that there is no point in rebuilding some parts of New Orleans. He notes that the "crescent" along the Mississippi where the city originated -- the French quarter, parts of downtown, and the posh Garden District -- are virtually the only tracts of land above sea level. Much of the rest was a swamp in its natural state, and can only be kept safe and dry through massive expenditures of public money. Who is to say whether it's worth it or not? It's too early to be talking about long-term plans, but comparing New Orleans to Pompei, as he does, is stretching things a bit.
The hip, charismatic, reformist Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi won an overwhelming victory in yesterday's parliamentary elections, as his Liberal Democratic Party* won 296 of the 480 contested seats in the lower house of the Diet. Including the seats of the parliamentary allies in the Komeito (Clean Government) Party, the LDP now commands a 2/3 legislative majority, enough to overcome obstructionism. See Washington Post. Since I've become a hardened skeptic of Japan's capacity to enact substantial reforms after seeing past such efforts crash and burn, I'll wait and see.
* As I used to tell my classes, the "Liberal Democratic Party" is like the "Holy Roman Empire": It is neither liberal nor democratic nor a real party, but just a loose amalgam of factions with a vested interest in preserving the business-dominated status quo. After the financial crises of the early 1990s, a large portion of the LDP broke away and formed a new party.
Mubarak mocks Egypt vote
As expected, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak won "reelection" by a landslide, but those results probably don't mean much since thugs working for his official party had been repressing political opponents, and may have been tampering with ballot boxes. Some observers would call Mubarak's regime hypocritical in its feeble pretense at upholding free democratic norms, while others would say that going to all that trouble just to placate pro-democracy critics is itself a sign that democratic norms are carrying at least some weight. That is a good example of the old adage of "Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue." The U.S. government will have to tread carefully in reacting to this election, because the Bush foreign policy has become so strongly focused on promoting democracy in the Islamic world. Either praise or criticism could backfire by angering nationalist forces. Oddly, the Carter Center has not been monitoring the Egyptian electoral process, although they have been paying a lot of attention to Liberia lately.
Based on what we now know, there is little doubt that the government's response to the disaster wrought by Hurricane Katrina was far from satisfactory. The question is, Which government? The decision to send the ineffective FEMA Director Michael Brown back to his desk in Washington was appropriate, and it seems that his tenure there is precarious at best. If it turns out that President Bush chose him for that vital but often-ignored post without duly weighing his qualifications (other than political work), then Bush will bear part of the responsibility for the tragedy being compounded. Congress will almost certainly proceed with a formal 9/11 style inquiry, but unlike that holocaust nearly four years ago, this time the nation is deeply divided into two warring factions that distrust each other. The gratuitous sniping at President Bush by Jesse Jackson was par for the course, but it was was quite unfair of the normally sensible Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu to accuse Bush of wasting time on photo-ops, something that Bush has consistently striven to avoid throughout his presidency. Indeed, one could fault Bush for not doing enough photo-ops in this tragedy, but given the times we live in, he was damned if he did and damned if he didn't. What about local officials? In the National Review Online, Michael Novak paints a bleak picture of New Orleans as a corrupt, anti-entrepreneurial welfare-dependent relic of the Old South. In other words, a paradise for Democrats. Donald Luskin points out the irony that environmentalists blocked some flood control projects around New Orleans. He also notes that the Democrats are already using the Katrina disaster for their fund raising efforts with an open letter by the always-polemical Sen. Charles Schumer; see Yahoo News. It must be deeply distressing to the displaced people of Louisiana and Mississippi that politicians in Washington are so quick to capitalize on their misery. In Friday's Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer launches a blistering salvo of common sense, refuting alleged links to global warming or lack of funding, and listing the people most at fault, in order of most to least culpability:
Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans
Governor Kathleen Blanco
Michael Brown, the head of FEMA
The American people
Why the American people? "They have made it impossible for any politician to make any responsible energy policy over the past 30 years..." Indeed, I could hardly believe all the whining about gasoline price hikes last week, as though the devastation to the Gulf Coast petroleum and gas infrastructure would not be expected to curtail supplies. Massive ignorance of the economic facts of life... This tragedy illustrates one of the disadvantages of our vaunted federal system, in which state authority and national government authority are separate but often overlap, making occasional friction all but inevitable. Louisiana's governor is empowered to activate National Guard units, but was slow to do so last week, and then resisted when President Bush asserted control over those forces to hasten their deployment. There will be plenty of time to assess blame for needless deaths after the immediate relief operations have been completed. At least until then, we should all focus our efforts on working together and try to avoid jumping to conclusions about who screwed up. We should also exercise sharp vigilance over how the $52 billion emergency relief aid appropriation is spent.
I've just added a new page containing an edited version of my notes from last week's American Political Science Association annual meeting: Washington APSA 2005. It's similar to what I did for the 2002 APSA meeting in Boston (that page has been reformatted), except that I decided to limit my summaries to the more informative panels I attended. Below are the most significant panels I attended, including the names of the panelists. Asterisks denote the most distinguished speakers. The usual disclaimer applies: These are MY notes only, and because they probably contain a few inaccuracies and omissions, they should NOT be cited.
Sept. 1: The Bush Second Term
PANELISTS: Michael Barone*, Jonathan Rauch, Ron Brownstein*, Amy Walter, Barry Jackson (White House).
Present in audience: David Broder*, Thomas Mann*, Charlie Cook*.
Offensive Neorealism, Global Jihad, Preemption
PANELISTS: Robert Jervis*, Stephen Van Evera*, John Mersheimer.
Case Studies & Theory Development in Soc. Sci. (roundtable on new book by Alexander George and Andrew Bennett)
PANELISTS: Chris Achen, John Odell, Daniel Drezner (one of my favorite bloggers), Jack Levy.
Sept. 2: Resisting executive assaults in Latin America
PANELISTS: William Brandt, Diana Kapiszewski, Peter Siavelis, Adam Brinegar, Valeria Palazza.
Bush Foreign Policy: Is the revolution over?
PANELISTS: Francis Fukuyama*, John Ikenberry*, Jeff Legro* (U.Va.!), Joseph Grieco*. (Upshot of the answer: YES!)
I.R. theory in the era of global terrorism
PANELISTS: Kenneth Waltz*, Robert Keohane*, Alexander Wendt*, Paul Viotti*, Barry Posen*.
Sept. 3: Elections in Afghanistan and Iraq
PANELISTS: Larry Diamond*, Andrew Reynolds. (In response to my question, Larry Diamond said that a rapid scheduling of municipal elections soon after liberation was considered, but Paul Bremer vetoed it. The idea of giving each Iraqi citizen an equity certificate in nation's oil wealth was never seriously considered; it would be too costly to carry out.)
Intl. pol. economy and environmental policy
PANELISTS: Randall Stone, Liliana Botcheva-Andonova, Jana von Stein.
Sept. 4: U.S.-Canada-Mexico security cooperation
PANELISTS: Philippe Lagasse, Joel Sokolsky, Abelardo Rodriguez, John Cope, Richard Downie.
My observation: I'm taken back by the lack of any mention of NAFTA! European Coal & Steel Community (later EEC, EU) showed how economic integration can work hand in hand with regional security insitutions (NATO).
Response by Joel Sokolsky: There's a growing antipathy to NATO in Canada, which prefers bilateralism. U.S. refusal to abide by softwood lumber ruling makes Canadians anti-NAFTA. Security trumps trade, and NAFTA is the weak spot.
Hurricane Katrina's full impact in terms of lives and property losses won't be known for months, nor will the responsibility for the sluggish evacuation and subsequent rescue and recovery effort. The uncertainty of the unspeakably tragic situation has not deterred many people from pointing fingers, however. One of the most strident Bush-bashers, Paul Krugman, wrote in Monday's New York Times:
But the federal government's lethal ineptitude wasn't just a consequence of Mr. Bush's personal inadequacy; it was a consequence of ideological hostility to the very idea of using government to serve the public good. For 25 years the right has been denigrating the public sector, telling us that government is always the problem, not the solution. Why should we be surprised that when we needed a government solution, it wasn't forthcoming?
I hate to admit it, but he has a point. Just as the Democrat Party is full of people who despise the military and wealthy people, the Republican ranks include many people who sneer derisively at anything the (civilian part of the) government does. It is a very unhealthy knee-jerk reaction that needs to be cured.
Given the magnitude of the catastrophe, it is understandable that it would take a couple days to respond in a coordinated, effective way. Large-scale military reinforcements did not arrive on the scene until Saturday, and it is hard to understand why they weren't there by Thursday. To me it seems the most likely culpable party in this episode was FEMA Director Michael Brown, a political appointee with scant relevant experience. Krugman believes that including FEMA within the Department of Homeland Security undermined it, but I think it's quite appropriate, because natural disasters resemble terrorist attacks such as 9/11 in many significant ways. Indeed, the fatalities from Katrina are comparable to what a small nuclear explosion would cause. The main difference is that we can anticipate hurricanes to some extent (though warnings are often ignored), but in the aftermath of an urban nuclear blast we would be paralyzed by fear that another such attack would hit us at any moment. Nevertheless, if this is the way the Federal government would respond in case of a terrorist WMD attack on one of our cities, we are in big trouble.
This country's racial divide is once again highlighted by the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. While some politicians and professional agitators have taken advantage of it in an unseemly way, the fact that such a large percentage of the victims are African Americans should make us reflect, and hopefully resolve to act in a constructive way. New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin bitterly denounced the lack of help from Washington, but when it was pointed out that hundreds of school buses were not used to evacuate residents, as the emergency plan had specified, he had no comment. Unless he can come up with a better answer than that, he will have to answer to the victims, their families, and especially the ones who vote. Former New Orleans resident Phil Faranda refutes the complaints that inadequate funding from stingy conservatives caused needless deaths.
Emergencies such as these are occasions for the collectivist "all for one and one for all" sloganeering, but they also demonstrate the residual fierce independence and self-help instinct of many people, especially the poor. Mayor Nagin has just ordered the rest of the lingering city residents to be evacuated (see Washington Post), which may be wise in light of the contaminated, disease-infested waters in the streets, but it is sad to see folks yanked from their homes.
Is this "American Tsunami" the result of global warming? Scientists may eventually decide that the apparent rising frequency of large storms has stemmed from global warming, but one cannot infer causation from general background trends based on a single observation, so arguing along these lines is not likely to be fruitful. Let's wait and see. We can't afford to risk a delayed global response, you say? Well, the proposed Kyoto Protocol standards are not likely to yield much effect, even if they were enforceable, so until I hear of a more serious proposal, I will refrain from getting upset over the lack of action. Sometimes doing nothing is better than making strenuous exertions just for show.
One final observation: Americans are not used to seeing huge numbers of their countrymen enduring such desperate hardships. How could this happen in America? Well, we were due for a major natural disaster, and frankly I often wondered how long it would be before a major hurricane struck a major U.S. city. As for the looting, shooting, raping, and general bad behavior, that is a common characteristic of most human beings when the legal authority of the state (government) vanishes, a common theme in classical writings that is almost universally ignored in schools nowdays. I learned that Oprah told her audience that those who have left New Orleans to seek refuge elsewhere are not refugees, they are "survivors." Such hypersensitive labeling is not helpful to the task of confronting the national challenge. It reminds me that Americans being put in the unfamiliar role of refugees on an exodus fleeing from death and mayhem (such as Jews in World War II) was the main theme of Steven Spielberg's adaptation of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds.
Only one day after her stirring speech here in Staunton (see photos and event summary from my August 27 post), Rhonda Winfield, mother of local fallen hero Marine Lance Corporal Jason Redifer, appeared on the Fox News Sunday program hosted by Chris Wallace this morning, along with an anti-war Gold Star Mother, Barbara Porchia. Both were intelligent and articulate, but the arguments of the latter seemed quite stale and pre-programmed to me. She must have rattled off the phrase "noweaponsofmassdestruction noimminentthreat noconnectionto9/11" at least five or ten times. For the record (just in case anyone on the Left still has an open mind), the WMD rationale was only one of several reasons for launching the war, President Bush said specifically that Iraq was not an "imminent threat" but rather a "gathering threat," and the connection between Saddam Hussein and Muslim terrorist groups was very real, though indirect.
For an inspirational rebuttal to the defeatism of Cindy Sheehan, see and hear the video (which I took and edited) of Rhonda Winfield's heartfelt and powerful speech in yesterday's support troops rally in Staunton. The video lasts nine minutes, in Apple QuickTime format. The file is just under 22 megabytes, and will take about 15 minutes to download with a dial-up Internet connection. It is worth the wait!
Virginia House of Delegates member Steve Landes presents a Gold Star Mother certificate to Rhonda Winfield.
This story broke while I wasn't following the news as closely as usual. (Hey, it's August.) Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) caused an uproar by disclosing that an Army officer, Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, had complained that his repeated pre-9/11 warnings about Mohammed Atta were ignored. Shaffer was part of a secret military intelligence "data mining" unit called "Able Danger." For the gung-ho philosopher-soldier Austin Bay, the mere possibility that intelligence reports were squelched or hushed up is worth looking into, and he urges the White House to address this issue head on.
Reaction in the blogosphere has been typically hasty and in some cases ill-considered. thinkprogress.org launched a mass spam e-mail attack on InstaPundit and other right-leaning blogs, claiming that they had "lied" about Clinton Justice Department official Jamie Gorelick's role in keeping intelligence gatherers and law enforcement officers separate, so as not to compromise criminal prosecutions with evidence gathered by irregular means. The memo she wrote in 1995 (see above link) could be construed as pertaining to strictly FBI counter-terrorism activities, but the irony here is that the FBI was given responsibility for monitoring foreign spies on U.S. soil, rather than the CIA, out of concern that the CIA might become too powerful and even corrupt if it kept tabs on Americans coming into contact with foreigners. The general principle that American spies and Federal detectives are supposed to stay out of each others' way is well understood by all. Anyway, the comments on that page provide a textbook display of the Loony Left in full rage, e.g., "Nostradammit": "How can anyone who cites Rush Limbaugh as a credible source on any subject not be banned for impersonating a sentient being?" Huh? I cite Rush every so often, so does that mean I'm not a sentient being?? To me, it's fairly obvious that both President Bush ("W") and President Clinton could have been more alert to the threat of terrorism, and even more obvious that partisan bickering over which of the two leaders did a better or worse job in that regard is not only pointless, but serves to divide us further, which is exactly what our enemies want.
Lately I've become increasingly weary of the monotonous screeching, contemptuous attitude, hyper-cynical tone, and profane language on most leftist blogs, so for the sake of maintaining my own (mostly) positive outlook on life, I've sharply restricted my intake of their bile. Maybe someone else can work on "building bridges" for a while...
After a wide variety of people cried foul, the National Abortion Rights League / Pro-Choice America decided to stop showing a television ad that suggested that Supreme Court nominee John Roberts once condoned violence against abortion clinics by the likes of Randall Terry. This ugly slur was based on a terribly slanted misreading of a legal opinion Roberts filed in the early 1990s. Dana Milbank examined the political miscalculation behind this ad in the Washington Post. She quotes two leading Democratic activists, Robert Shrum and Chris Lehane, as expressing disappointment in NARAL's retraction, since they think that the ad was an appropriate retort to the "Swift Boat" ads against John Kerry last summer. Their hardball, eye-for-an-eye style of politics seems to be backfiring, however, as Milbank pointed out:
Some Democratic operatives say their trouble is congenital. "The problem is our politically impractical insistence on always residing on the moral high ground," said Jim Jordan, who was a longtime adviser to Kerry. "A large part of our ethos goes to what we perceive to be moral superiority and the sad truth is in politics that's sometimes inconvenient."
Blinded by self-righteousness into self-delusion, perhaps? FactCheck.org reported that the NARAL ad was "false" and "misleading," but it also called the Swift boat ads of last summer "dubious." From a purely political perspective, it's hard to understand why the Democrats and their associated interest groups would spend so much political capital attacking a Supreme Court nominee who is so eminently qualified and moderate in his thinking and tone. A cartoon by Mike Lane in today's Washington Post offers one explanation as to why they keep "hitting themselves on the head." [revised link]
This issue should be a no-brainer, but in the politically correct environment of today, anyone who questions the de facto toleration of massive inflows of illegal immigrants is deemed a hateful, racist fear-mongerer. Jerry Kilgore, the Republican nominee for governor of Virginia, is not one who refrains from speaking his mind for fear of offending people. He said that Virginians should not pay to establish centers at which immigrant day laborers (typically without proper INS documentation) can more easily meet up with ruthlessly exploitive businessmen who are looking for cheap labor. See Washington Post and some insider commentary from the Virginia Conservative blog. Kilgore has taken a strong position that is not only politically useful, but is right on target in terms of public policy. The problem is not that the Latinos who predominate in the underground labor force in this country are bad people; indeed, most are hard-working and law-abiding. The problem is that the atmosphere created by the routine flaunting of legal norms undermines respect for law and authority in general. As one prime example, folks in Northern Virginia are getting very nervous about the escalation of brutal violence perpetrated by "Mara Salvatrucha" and drug-related gangs. Narcoterrorism, which plagued Latin American countries for many years, is making its presence known here in the U.S.A. for the first time. People who are complacent about flagrant breaches of immigration laws in the post-9/11 era have their heads in the sand. In France, it's probably too late to resist the Muslim invasion by means of law enforcement, and time is running short in the United Kingdom. Is that the route we want to follow?
Local media flubs story on GOP
With some exceptions, the Staunton News Leader has been notably cool toward Republicans in their editorials, and their news coverage often seems less than favorable as well. In today's edition, their reportage of yesterday's Harley Hog Fest contained an egregious mistatement of fact: "Local Republicans who forked over at least $500 a plate for the event liked what they heard from their political representatives." WRONG! I was there, and just like everyone else who feasted on the pork barbecue, I only paid $10. I suppose that the reporter, like many people, automatically assumes that most Republicans fit the "country club" stereotype.
The local Republican party held a huge outdoor barbecue-rally this evening at Shenandoah Harley Davidson, which just opened a few months ago. On the podium, from left to right: George Allen, Marty Kilgore (wife of Jerry), Bill Bolling, Chris Saxman, The owner of Shenandoah Harley-Davidson [?], John Warner, Steve Landes, Ben Cline, Bob Goodlatte. In back is Speaker Morgan Griffith. Local party member Chris Green was busy selling T-shirts showing George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and all the other U.S. presidents from Virginia, including a possible future one: George Allen. Senator Allen grinned in a non-committal way when he was presented with one of the shirts. See freedomgear.com (WARNING: highly partisan humor! ) For more photos of the event, see swacgop.org.
Social liberalism and social conservatism
Guest blogging for Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit, centrist Michael Totten explains why the Democrats are very unlikely to adapt to socio-political circumstances in this country in time to win the 2006 elections, or even the 2008 elections. Quoting Rick Heller, he says that "social liberalism is the core value of the Democratic Party right now." Changing that any time soon is very unlikely. A fifty-cent hike in gas prices might make a difference, however. Spot prices for crude oil have soared to $62 per barrel.
Another shoe is in the process of dropping as the Wilson-Plame leak (?) scandal unfolds. Robert Novak wrote a column that appeared in last Monday's Washington Post (see Chicago Sun-Times) that disputed what CIA official Bill Harlow said about conversations with Novak just prior to the infamous July 14, 2003 column in which Valerie Plame's name first was publicized. Novak noted that Harlow
told the Post reporters he had "warned" me that if I "did write about it her name should not be revealed." That is meaningless. Once it was determined that Wilson's wife suggested the mission, she could be identified as "Valerie Plame" by reading her husband's entry in "Who's Who in America.
It turns out that Valerie Plame's name has indeed been listed under the entry for Ambassador Joe Wilson in recent editions of Who's Who. This would come as a surprise only to those who are under the impression that she was a secret agent engaged in espionage; based on Joe Wilson's loud protests of Bush's war policy, which inevitably drew media attention to him and his personal acquaintences, it would appear that her cover at the CIA was not that deep. Likewise, from what we now know, it seems that Novak was just doing his job of investigative reporting, and it's a huge stretch to say he endangered national security by revealing her name. Democrat blogger Josh Marshall says he will explain later "why the whole commotion over Valerie 'Plame's' mention in the bio is simply an attempt on Novak's part to confuse the issue." Marshall is one of the top spin-meisters around, so I'm sure he will come up with something good.
This saga took a strange turn on Thursday when Novak walked off the set of a CNN show with Jim Carville, refusing to answer questions about his role in the affair. (A copy of Who's Who was sitting on the table!) Frankly, I'm surprised that he has been able to stay out of the fray for as long as he has. Moderate liberal blogger Joe Gandelman has been lamenting (?) Robert Novak's declining stature in this case, suggesting that Novak is melting down. (via Instapundit) It would be too bad if Novak ends up damaged by all this. Nicknamed the "Prince of Darkness" since his days on television with Rowland Evans, he certainly has personality issues, to put it delicately, but as a veteran hardball player in Washington, that's what it takes to get the next big scoop.
Perhaps he's a meany, but I do credit Novak with political integrity and independence. For example, his August 4 piece praised Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) for dissenting from the GOP party line and criticizing the pork-laden transportation bill, which "he exposed as phony." See Chicago Sun-Times.) (Speaking of which, if the transportation bill and the energy bill are the price that had to be paid for getting CAFTA passed, it calls into question both the worth of CAFTA and our country's status as a bastion of free enterprise capitalism.) Novak is not endearing himself to the White House by this line of criticism, which is interesting in light of the fact that Karl Rove is still on the hot seat over the Wilson-Plame-CIA affair. Ordinarily, August is supposed to be the month when politics in Washington takes a break, but perhaps this year is different.
The journal Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace have joined to establish a ranking system to signal which countries are likely to fail, i.e., suffer a collapse of authority. They include 12 "indicators of instability" such as demographic pressures and delivery of public services. In Latin America, Haiti, Colombia, and the Dominican Republica rank as "high risk," Venezuela, Guatemala, Paraguay, and Peru rank as "medium risk," and Honduras, Ecuador, and Cuba rank as "low risk." Oddly, Bolivia is not even mentioned. See foreignpolicy.com. Those rankings seem quite out of order to me; Peru certainly ought to be ranked among some of the more stable states, whereas Ecuador and Bolivia ought to be ranked among those states "on the precipice." I worked on measurements of state effectiveness as part of the research for my doctoral dissertation, putting less emphasis on transitory social conditions and more on economic fundamentals such as monetary strength and debt burden. For the purposes of better understanding the contemporary global security situation, what is required is a solid theory that explains the relationship between "rogue regimes" (such as North Korea or Iraq under Saddam) and "failed states" (such as Somalia or Afghanistan).
Newt Gingrich, who recently grabbed attention by collaborating with Hillary Clinton on proposals for reforming health care, said the strong showing by Democrat Paul Hackett in the special congressional election in Ohio is a symptom of the Republican party's vulnerabilities as the 2006 elections approach. Hackett is a veteran of the war in Iraq and once called President Bush "the greatest threat to the safety and security of Americans" (see commondreams.org), but as Rush Limbaugh) pointed out, there was none of this talk on Hackett's televised campaign ads. Gingrich said of this near-defeat in a safe Republican district:
There is more energy today on the anti-Iraq, anti-gas-price, anti-changing-Social Security and I think anti-Washington [side]. ... I think the combination of those four are all redounding to weaken Republicans and help Democrats. ... I don't think this is time to panic, but I think it's time to think. If we don't think now, then next September , people will panic when it's too late. (SOURCE: Washington Post)
Having lost his former titanic position of power (in no small part because of his own shortcomings), Gingrich is obviously anxious to insert himself into national political discourse and is therefore prone to saying things just to get attention. That much is clear. What is less clear is whether Gingrich still embodies that zest for fundamental reform that propelled him and his party to the top one decade ago. (Has it been that long?) Thus, even though Gingrich is probably being melodramatic in this situation, I do think he is on to something. President Bush has only recently begun to hint at the sacrifices and hardships that lie ahead, and has said virtually nothing about the need to accept higher energy prices. From everything I have been able to discern, the White House has been so tightly focused on tactical maneuverings and political paybacks that strategic planning has been left unattended. If anything goes seriously wrong on the world scene between now and November 2006, the GOP will be at the mercy of a volatile, discontented electorate.
From a broader perspective, we can begin to outline likely future currents in American politics by identifying key electoral blocs. Given the polarization of recent years, there are only a small number of politically attentive Americans who do not identify closely with one party or another. If the Democrats can manage to keep their "unhinged" core constituency fired up while attracting a large number of unattentive "clueless" voters, it will be hard to beat. For their part, the Republicans need to retain the loyalty of the Christian Right without alienating the more traditional "sensible" faction of the political spectrum. If the GOP gets tangled up in no-win divisive social issues such as opposing stem cell research or promoting the teaching of "intelligent design" in public schools, they are toast.
Frustrated with Democrat stalling tactics, President Bush made a recess appointment of John Bolton as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Democrats were outraged that Bush bypassed them, but that's the price they pay for contriving to avoid an up or down vote on whether to confirm him. Sen. Harry Reid called Bolton "a seriously flawed and weakened candidate"; see Washington Post. Conservative internationalist Daniel Drezner takes a neutral stance on Bolton: "from the Bush administration's perspective, this is an unwanted man being sent to an unwanted institution." Most of those who place a high priority on pushing for serious reforms in the United Nations think Bolton is just the right person for the job. For example, Glenn Reynolds notes a news report that "Most of the reforms sought by the United States are well on their way to completion" and Bolton is therefore unlikely to disrupt U.S. foreign relations. He concludes, "It's as if there was some sort of cunning plan all along. Nah, couldn't be."
Bush backs "intelligent design"
President Bush waded into the swamp of the debate over teaching evolution, saying that students in public schools should be exposed to "intelligent design," as if that were an alternate scientific theory. See Washington Post. NOT! By doing so, Bush unwittingly gave support to those who believe that the theory of evolution undermines Christianity or other religious faiths. As I've written before (most recently on May 9), there is no necessary clash between scientific advances and religious belief, except for those who hold unusually rigid and narrow views. Sometimes I wonder what's wrong with people who put those fish-with-feet "Darwin" symbols on their car bumpers; do they actually enjoy making religious people angry, or do they just feel intellectually superior? I just don't see what good can come from escalating the Culture Wars... For a thoughtful Catholic perspective on the evolution controversy, see Phil Faranda.
In Friday's Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer ridicules the way U.S. officials have "stepped up" security in the wake of the London bomb attacks, making a priority of not offending anyone. He does give the U.S. more credit than Britain for clamping down on the recuitment of jihadists by Muslim fanatics:
Britain's problem, however, is not just an alienated minority but also a suicidal civic openness that permits sheiks and imams to openly preach jihad against Britain. The United States, for all of its openness, does not tolerate this kind of treason.
Nevertheless, us Yanks are far behind the Brits in terms of doing what is necessary for the sake of public security, squeamishly resisting any focus on the most likely terrorists at airports and other security-sensitive locations:
The American response to tightening up after London has been reflexive and idiotic: random bag checks in the New York subways. Random meaning that the people stopped are to be chosen numerically. One in every five or 10 or 20.
This is an obvious absurdity and everyone knows it. It recapitulates the appalling waste of effort and resources we see at airports every day when, for reasons of political correctness, 83-year-old grandmothers from Poughkeepsie are required to remove their shoes in the search for jihadists hungering for paradise.
Indeed. Finally, he counters doubts about the efficacy of profiling likely terrorists on the grounds that, as I mentioned on July 25, Al Qaeda and its ilk would simply recruit from outside the usual male Middle Eastern population:
That will require a huge new wasteful effort on their part.
The possibility that Al Qaeda may be operating on a tight resource budget and therefore may be thwarted via exhaustion is an interesting angle, one that not many people have talked about. Maybe Krauthammer is on to something...
Real health care reform
On the Friday Rush Limbaugh show (guest hosted by Walter Williams), Rep. John Shadegg (R-AZ) plugged his bill to make health insurance more affordable, mainly by forbidding states from mandating specific coverage. See johnshadegg.house.gov. It's not a complete solution, but it's a big, bold step in the right direction.
The House passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005 today, and all indications are that it is little more than classic pork barrel politics, creating the illusion of serious action but accomplishing very little. Consisting of 1,725 pages, the energy bill passed by a vote of 275 to 156, in contrast to the razor-thin margin of the CAFTA bill. With such a big majority, it must be pretty good, right? Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) called it a ringing endorsement of free enterprise system, while Rep. Joe Markey (D-MA) heaped scorn on it, calling it "socialism." (But I thought folks on his side of the aisle liked socialism...) For example, "The House bill includes incentives aimed at encouraging the nuclear power industry to build the first new plants since the 1970s," which is exactly the kind of statist (!) industrial policy that one might find in in France, Germany, or Japan. Likewise for the tax incentives to those who buy hybrid gas-electric vehicles; are those folks somehow more virtuous than those who just choose to drive less when prices go up? See Washington Post for more details. An editorial in today's Post paid the bill a backhand compliment: "It could have been a lot worse." Scott McClellan declared,
This is a good bill. ... This legislation will help us reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy and help address the root causes that have led to high energy prices.
That assessment follows from the mistaken premise that higher energy prices are somehow unnatural or wrong. Has anyone in the White House ever read an economics textbook? The "root causes" of higher energy prices are exponentially increasing global demand (mostly from China, but also from SUVs) and steadiliy diminishing supplies. We live in a world of scarce resources: Get over it! Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren of the CATO Institute provide a libertarian critique of the Republican bill:
Although conservatives claim to find much therein to embrace, virtually every section of the bill represents a rejection of free markets and limited government.
As I wrote on June 15 in response to President Bush's speech on energy policy, if the White House had more long-term vision or political courage, they would bite the bullet and propose something truly radical that faces up to cold, hard reality -- something like an across-the-board tax hike on energy. That would accomplish more in one fell swoop than all those hundreds of special "incentives" that, to skeptical eyes, look a lot like political paybacks. While at the gas pump today, I saw a sticker that shows how much of the price per gallon is due to Federal and state taxes, and I was shocked that it was so low. Since the tax is assessed per gallon, not per dollar, the proportion of the price due to taxes declines as the price goes up. (For a comparison of gas taxes in the major industrial countries, see shell.com.) Unfortunately, many of today's "conservatives" regard tax hikes of any shape or form as anathema. Why? Because now that "conservatives" are in the majority, getting reelected has become their number one priority, which means taxes are a big no-no. Sad to say, it seems that the post-election "window of opportunity" the Republicans had to push through a truly far-reaching agenda has pretty much closed, and all we have to look forward to for the next three years are "minor repairs" that ignore fundamental problems. Another reason for the blind disregard for the laws of supply and demand among "conservatives" is that faith in the power of markets has gotten out of hand, to the extent that miracles are expected. Among the true believers, prudent skepticism is regarded as rank heresy.
To understand such blatant inconsistency between principles and practice, one must turn to a leading political scientist, R. Douglas Arnold, author of The Logic of Congressional Action. The energy bill can be interpreted in his framework as a deadly combination of a "politically attractive policy" (where local benefits are obvious, but the costs are hidden and diffuse) and a "politically compelling policy" (where the popularity of the intended effects outweighs the legislator's doubts that the means will actually work). The result: bad public policy.
More on Unocal
While we're on the subject of energy policy, take a look at the very first blog post by my old friend David Givens, on the subject of the bidding war between Chevron and China's CNOOC for Unocal, at naturalgasinsider.com.
The House passed the CAFTA bill by a razor-thin vote of 217-215 just after midnight last night. I stayed up to follow the roll call on C-SPAN, but the last dozen or so House members were tardy, and the the telecast went strangely blank for several minutes, and when it returned the tally had been finalized. This was a big relief for anyone who believes in Inter-American cooperation, but it was only a first timid step in that direction. As yesterday's Washington Post pointed out, the economic impact of CAFTA will be smaller than either proponents or opponents claim; its main direct effect will be of a political nature, reinforcing the fragile bonds between those countries and the United States. As shown on my Presidential chronology page, most governments in Central America have been moderately conservative in recent years. Some of them are under very heavy pressure from leftist parties, most notably Nicaragua, where Daniel Ortega's Sandinistas are doing all they can to sabotage democracy and capitalism. These die-hard opponents of freedom seem to share the agenda of the anti-globalization movement, those nihilistic misfits who try to wreak chaos whenever there is a summit of Western leaders.
The job of encouraging trade within the Northern Hemisphere is far from finished, however. The countries of Central America are simply too small and too poor to adequately regulate economic activity within their own borders, and they could vastly improve the overall prosperity and working conditions by encouraging a consumer-goods industrial sector that would take advantage of economies of scale. My trip to that region last February and March convinced me that Central America must pursue an economic union, tearing down all remaining barriers among themselves and allowing unhindered transit within the region, much as Europe has done. That is something they must do on their own, however, and the United States should stay out. As for the grandiose proposed "Free Trade Area of the Americas," I remain deeply skeptical.
One of the sad aspects of this vote was that it was cast on such strongly partisan lines. House Speaker Tom DeLay, who has been under political siege for the last several months, assured everyone that he had enough votes for passage, so this may count as vindication for his continuing effectiveness. As I wrote on June 22, Nancy Pelosi told the Democrat caucus that "A vote for CAFTA ... was a vote to keep the GOP in the majority." By viewing the issue in partisan terms, the Democrat leadership has cast its lot with the nihilistic anti-globalization movement. So much for progress.
Michael Graham, a D.C. radio talk show host who appears on the Eye On Washington panel discussion show on WUSA-TV9, sparked outrage among Muslims by describing the "The problem is not extremism. The problem is Islam. ... We are at war with a terrorist organization named Islam." See Washington Post That kind of rhetoric is going too far, I think, and it may further damage relations between the West and the Islamic world, but it does point out a sad fact: There are too few moderate Muslims speaking out against terrorism, there are too many wealthy Saudis who provide financial support to the intolerant, anti-modern Wahabbist branch of Islam, and there are too many terror-preaching madrassa schools in Pakistan and other poor countries where the vast unemployed population provide easy recruits to jihad. It is much too early to say that we are engaged in war with Islam, but there is no doubt that a war within Islam is already underway.
Perhaps the views of Muslims themselves will be of greater help in understanding this. Irshad Manji, the outspoken Ugandan-born Canadian author of The Trouble with Islam interpreted the London bombings in Time magazine: "When Denial Can Kill." She asserts that by refusing to face up to the fact that the Islamic faith is being used for evil ends, Muslims are passively abetting the terrorists and thereby making their religion weaker: "as long as Muslims live in pretense, we will be affirming that we have something to hide." She has a Web site: muslim-refusenik.com.
In today's Washington Post, Anne Applebaum cautions the public diplomacy campaign toward the Muslim world that Karen Hughes recently began to direct. She calls attention to a report by the Center for Religious Freedom (a part of Freedom House): "Saudi Publications on Hate Ideology Invade American Mosques." Such activities by our nominal "allies" cannot be tolerated forever, and our diplomacy must face up to the prospect of a break in political relations, and possibly economic relations as well. Unthinkable? So is a nuke in Manhattan. In this context, nice gestures such as state visits to Egypt by First Lady Laura Bush will count for little if there is no concrete support for the moderate voices in Islam. Applebaum aptly describes how our current diplomatic practices show such a glaring contradiction between means and ends: "At the moment, the State Department probably spends more money denying visas to moderate Muslims than it does funding magazines for them to write in." If that doesn't change soon, we will have wasted a huge opportunity to follow through on the recent strides toward liberalization and democratization in the Middle East.
Matthew Cooper laid out everything he knows about the Rove-Wilson-Plame flap in last week's Time magazine: "What I Told the Grand Jury." The key points were already known to the public, but they bear repeating: Rove never used Valerie Plame's name, and he "never once indicated to me that she had any kind of covert status." If it weren't such a potentially weighty matter, I'd be tempted to say that this case is closed. Rove is probably off the hook for criminal charges, at least. If anyone is to blame for his wife's cover being blown, it is Joseph Wilson, who made himself the center of a political firestorm, practically begging for scrutiny into his personal connections to the intelligence services. In townhall.com, Michael Barone (via Power Line blog) pointed out that the Senate Intelligence Committee's bipartisan report "concluded that Wilson lied when he said his wife had nothing to do with his dispatch to Niger," and tended to support charges that Iraq sought to buy uranium in Africa, which Wilson loudly denied. Hardly anything in the intelligence world is ever black or white, however. Barone concludes:
The case against Rove -- ballyhooed by recent Time and Newsweek cover stories that paid little heed to the discrediting of Wilson -- seems likely to end not with a bang but a whimper.
Don't worry, the Mainstream Media will find something else to harp on before long...
The Roberts nomination
At first glance, President Bush's selection of John Roberts to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court seemed like a masterstroke. He's conservative but amiable and nondogmatic, with no apparent skeletons in his closet. The initial knee-jerk reaction against him exhibited by many Democrats -- most notably Sen. Chuck Schumer, but also many leftist pundits and bloggers -- was almost comical. Perhaps this was the work of "boy genius" Karl Rove, suckering the opposition into revealing their obstinate refusal to cooperate on major issues.
Now, however, we learn that Roberts was (apparently) a member of the Federalist Society, composed of lawyers and legal experts who believe in our country's original constitutional principles and view the American court system as deeply biased toward the Left. Sinister cabal? No, just people who oppose policy-setting activism by liberal judges. Unfortunately, Roberts raised needless doubts by stating that he doesn't remember if he belonged to that group, stretching credulity and acting as though he had something to hide. (see Washington Post) The big underyling question, of course, is abortion, which doesn't rank high among my priorities. I detest screening potential judges on the basis of whether they pass a "litmus test" on a particular issue. I will say this, however: the Roe v. Wade decision was a travesty in the way it fabricated a constitutional basis for the decision out of whole cloth, and in the way it created a new "right" (which is properly a legislative function) by judicial fiat.
Hugh Hewitt (via Instapundit) savages Rep. Tom Tancredo's (R-CO) suggestion that we ought to consider retaliating against Muslim holy sites if Islamic terrorists wreck an American city with nuclear weapons. Tancredo was way off base (see my July 22 post), but there's no point in belaboring the obvious. Hewitt does, however, aptly call attention to a weak spot on the contemporary Right that is at the root of Tancredo's rhetorical excess, which rivals the recent gaffe by Dick Durbin:
In fact Tancredo is preoccupied with attention-getting statements that play to the frustrated edge of the conservative camp that sees any denunciation of "political correctness" as an endorsement of their desire for blunt talk against media elites.
In other words, it seems that many conservatives are letting righteous indignation over the hyperinflammatory rhetoric and deranged attitudes exhibited by many folks on the Left in recent years cloud their judgment as to the limits of prudent discourse. Perhaps the Left has merely been throwing "sucker punches" at the Right, baiting them into a no-win war of words but not really meaning all those absurd rants they've been spouting.
The visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Washington this week was anything but routine. President Bush surprised almost everyone by announcing that the United States would share nuclear technology with India, in spite of the fact that India does not adhere to the Nonproliferation Treaty. Arms control activists are up in arms (!), fearing that this may undermine global efforts to prevent the spread of dangerous technology to terrorists and rogue states. Such an agreement with India had been expected, but not for several more weeks or months. The intellectual support for this strengthened partnership came from Robert Blackwill, a former ambassador to India, and Ashley Tellis, who recently wrote a paper titled "India as a New Global Power." It's not a done deal, however, as the administration will need to get approval from the 40-member Nuclear Suppliers Group, and persuade Congress to modify the U.S. Nonproliferation Act. See Washington Post. Bush stopped short of endorsing India's bid to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, but that day can't be far off. The only question is how to handle Germany, Japan, and perhaps Brazil. Some might regard this compromise with global nonproliferation norms as an ill-advised, hasty gamble, and some might see it as a sign of strategic desperation by a U.S. government that badly needs allies in South Asia. It at least has the virtue of consistency with the Bush administration's support for democratization and capitalist free trade, as India scores far better than Pakistan on both counts. Nevertheless, taking sides in such a volatile part of the world is something that could easily backfire. The stature of Pakistani President Musharraf seems to be shrinking, meanwhile, as his government fails to gain control over Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists along its border with Afghanistan. So much for the political payoffs of joining the nuclear club! Is Bush willing to put strategic cooperation with Pakistan at risk by solidifying an alliance with India, or is this just maneuvering to put pressure on Pakistan to get its house in order?
Tensions with China
The India story is inseparable from what has been transpiring in U.S.-China relations of late. Yesterday's Washington Post reported that the Pentagon is worried that China's military modernization poses a threat to the regional balance of power, making India's strategic role all the more important. China has acquired modern submarines and missile destroyes from Russia, and is developing a medium-range missile force, an air force capable of reaching hundreds of miles from the mainland, and a mobile ICBM force that could launch a second strike against the United States. We need to face this emerging situation soberly: China is unabashedly flexing its muscles over the Taiwan reunification issue, and it is not cooperating very much on nuclear proflieration or containing its rogue neighbor in North Korea. Henry Kissinger wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post on June 13, arguing that a passive strategy of containment of China will not succeed. For someone who has been a paid lobbyist for the Chinese Communist government, and whose firm maintains that relationship, that's quite a statement. He is correct to say that we should not panic and start treating China as an enemy, and we should make every effort to respect their new role as a great power, but we cannot be complacent about actions it takes that constitute a clear challenge to U.S. interests. It will take patience, wisdom, and determination to manage the inevitable rise of Chinese power in the 21st Century.
China raised fears in the U.S. when one of the giant state oil firms, CNOOC, made a takeover bid to purchase Unocal, which is also sought by Chevron. China bluntly warned Congress to stay out of the matter, even though it routinely bristles at any implied foreign intrusion into its internal affairs. Some say that in this era of globalization, corporations no longer have fixed national identities, as borders are blurred by ever-increasing trade and financial flows. That argument does not apply to state-owned enterprises, however. Coincidentally or not, China tried to assuage U.S. concerns about its huge trade surplus by announcing that it will no longer peg the value of its currency to the U.S. dollar. The yuan has been grossly overvalued in recent years, subsidizing Chinese exports and making imports of Western goods prohibitively expensive for Chinese consumers. It's a classic mercantilistic strategy that has obvious strategic motivations, and raises big doubts about whether China should have been granted membership in the World Trade Organization.
Ancient Chinese secret
The recent worries about China happen to coincide with the 600th anniversary of a landmark historical event that hardly anyone in the West even knows about. The Chinese fleet under Admiral Zheng He made a voyage of discovery in the Indian Ocean that reached the east coast of Africa, a century before Portuguese mariners first rounded the Cape of Good Hope from the other direction. Because of the expedition's high cost, however, Chinese leaders decided to give up their maritime ambitions, after which they retrenched and stagnated, paving the way for European civilization to dominate the globe. Paul Kennedy highlighted this fateful historical twist in the opening pages of Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.
The long, suspenseful wait to see whether the reporters would divulge their sources about the summer 2003 Valerie Plame story finally ended when Time's Matthew Cooper agreed to testify. (Karl Rove had waived the confidentiality pledge many months ago, so that had nothing to do with Cooper's decision.) The facts are still very hazy, but Friday's Washington Post (late edition) provided some important details:
In accounts of both conversations that have been made public, Rove does not give Plame's name and discusses the matter only at the end of an interview on an unrelated topic. Rove has said he did not know Plame's name and did not know she was undercover. If that is the case, it is unlikely that the disclosure is a crime. ...
Republican lawyers working with Rove say he was not pushing a story about Plame but was trying to steer Cooper away from giving too much credence to Wilson. ...
Sources who have reviewed some of the testimony before the grand jury say there is significant evidence that reporters were in some cases alerting officials about Plame's identity and relationship to Wilson -- not the other way around.
In other words, it is far too early to jump to any conclusions about who told what to whom, or whether any crimes were committed. According to GOPUSA.com, "Rove mentioned "Wilson's wife" only to let Cooper know that no one in the Bush administration had sent Wilson to Niger -- and that Time shouldn't believe everything it was hearing from Wilson." The fact that New York Times reporter Judith Miller remains behind bars for failing to disclose her source, even though Cooper was freed, suggests that Rove was not her source. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that early White House claims that Rove had nothing to do with the disclosure have been proven false. I fully agree that Rove should be held accountable and punished if what he said to the reporter met the criteria for wrongdoing specified by the Federal criminal statute. Perhaps he merely committed a slight indiscretion with a political motivation, or perhaps he acted out of genuine concern that the truth about the allegations by Joseph Wilson be known to the public. If President Bush really is sincere about wanting to get to the bottom of this -- and I know of no reason to doubt him on this -- we will find out soon enough. In the murky world of Washington intrigue, however, no one of any consequence is 100 percent innocent. Everyone trades leaks and rumors to maintain their rank in the hierarchy of power and status.
Some say that Ms. Plame did not conceal her CIA job from friends and was not really a covert agent. One thing that is certain is that her husband's mission to Niger in early 2002 seems fishier all the time. Wilson practically invited public scrutiny of his wife's identity when he wrote an article in The Nation in March 2003 accusing the Bush administration of misleading the public about Iraq and WMDs. For a career diplomat, especially one married to a CIA agent, to be writing in a publication with such a sharp editorial slant is rather unusual, to say the least. For his part, The Nation's David Corn denies charges that he was the one who "outed" Ms. Plame. (via Instapundit) He and Katrina Van Den Heuvel, also of The Nation, appear regularly on WUSA-TV9's Eye On Washington panel discussion program. I wonder what former editor Victor Navasky would say about all this?
What is most ironic (or galling) to me is that Democrats are trying to act serious on national security issues for once. The joint press conference on Thrusday with Sen. Chuck Schumer and former ambassador Joseph Wilson laid bare the fundamentally partisan nature of the dispute. Rush Limbaugh is convinced that Wilson and Schumer are old pals, but that's just a conjecture. The Democrats' demand that the security clearance of Rove be revoked is absurd grandstanding that only ill-informed fools would take at face value. Coming on the heels of exaggerated outcry over alleged "torture" at Guantanamo and defeatist moans about Iraq, all this gives every indication of being another front in the escalating war to unseat the Bush administration.
The series of terror bombings in London has cast a shadow on the G-8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, distracting Tony Blair, who serves as a unique "bridge" between the United States and Europe. He had pushed a reluctant President Bush to accept stronger action against global warming, to little avail. This is the sort of problem that is potentially very serious, but in which hysterical polemics undermine the effort to ascertain the true extent of the harm that is being done, or which possible remedies might be most efficacious. It is said that polar bear populations might decline by thirty percent over the next twenty years because of the (supposedly) melting polar ice cap. If the policy response is a set of national quotas for hydrocarbon consumption, à la Kyoto, I'm afraid nothing will happen. A consistent across-the-board tax on energy, similar to the BTU tax proposed by President Clinton in 1993, is the only way to restrain consumption without sacrificing personal freedom and national autonomy.
The other big issue at the summit is alleviating poverty in Africa via a huge transfer of cash and financing; that was what the "Live 8" concerts around the world were all about. Would increased foreign aid to poor countries really do much good? President Bush rightly pointed out that corrupt governments siphon off much if not most of the proceeds. James Shikwati, an economist from Kenya, pleads for an end to the counterproductive handouts in an interview with Der Speigel. (via Donald Luskin) That is much the same argument as British development economist W. Arthur Lewis (a Nobel prize winner) used to make. In other words, it's much like the welfare dependency controversy in this country, one of those hypersensitive taboo subjects.
Sad to say, these multilateral summits are becoming more of an empty public relations ritual every year. During the energy crisis of the 1970s and Cold War years of the 1980s, the G-7 played a vital role in articulating joint policy responses by the Western industrialized nations. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, the G-7 nations have fewer common interests, as became painfully obvious in 2003. European nations have become stodgy and complacent, providing cushy welfare benefits for their citizens, funded implicitly by cheap immigrant labor from the Third World, many of whom are resentful Muslims. It is a socio-economic system that cannot be sustained. The inclusion of Russia a few years ago to create the G-8 has turned out to be a big mistake; Russia has turned sharply away from liberal democracy and capitalism, and is overtly hostile to the West and especially the United States. In my mind, the pointless expansion of NATO into former Soviet republics played a big part in Russia's reversion to a xenophobic foreign policy, but it's too late to change that. Last month the European Union leaders tried to patch over economic policy differences in order to salvage their march toward political integration, but they failed miserably. As a result, the mighty Euro has fallen sharply for the last several weeks. Jacques Chirac's insult about British cuisine (though perhaps not unjustified) created a diplomatic flap that reinforces the split between the continent and the Anglophone world. Another sign of such a split was that Tony Blair has begun to say nice things about economic freedom in recent weeks, hinting at a dramatic change of mind for this eager social democrat. Might he prevail upon his European counterparts to grow up and set aside their fond delusions about maintaining the status quo?
The lack of blogging lately reflects my many hours of work with the local Republicans in preparing for Staunton's annual Fourth of July parade. Several photos of the parade passing by the GOP Booth in Gypsy Hill Park can be seen at the new Independence Day 2005 page on the swacgop.org Web site which I also manage. Today's parade was heavy on military forces, with Marine Corps Reserves, Army National Guard, VFW, and Confederate reenactors all participating. The crowd of thousands cheered enthusiastically. (There was also a group from the Augusta Coalition for Peace and Justice, who were met by the crowd with polite but stony silence.) It reminds us that we are a free and independent nation because brave men in uniform risked their lives for our ancestors. By the same token, our continued freedom will depend on the service men and women who are fighting against murderous extremist movements in Iraq and Afghanistan today.
The unexpected announced retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor points toward an imminent make or break point in the long-standing partisan deadlock in Washington. Or does it? Time and again we have approached supposedly climactic moments that just fizzled out indecisively. I for one am not eager for a do-or-die showdown with the Left, and I hope Bush appoints someone who is less known for their conservative viewpoint as for their experience and credentials as a jurist. Justice O'Connor served very ably, and will be remembered not for being conservative or moderate so much as for an honest, thoughtful, independent voice. Her recent dissent on the Kelo vs. New Haven case (see my "Private Property Private Shmoperty" post from June 28) was a commendable stand on behalf of constitutional principles.
President Bush's speech at Fort Bragg said most of what needed to be said, but it fell short in terms of rhetorical edge and delivery. We are accustomed to Mr. Bush's shortcomings in verbal communication by now, but it would be nice if he could rise to the occasion more often. Some people expected Bush to express contrition for past strategic mistakes, but such a gesture would not have served any purpose. I take issue with some of the decisions he and his generals have made, but I'm the first to admit I don't know enough of the facts to render an expert opinion. No civilian does. To his credit, President Bush called on the general public to persevere in the face of adversity, at long last hinting that we will have to bear serious sacrifices in order to prevail. It's too bad he didn't make a strong pitch for energy conservation, which is becoming once again a vital element of our national security. In terms of substance, he drew a clear link between Iraq and 9/11:
The terrorists who attacked us and the terrorists we face murder in the name of a totalitarian ideology that hates freedom, rejects tolerance and despises all dissent.
That is quite true, but he should have acknowledged that there are distinct factions within the Islamo-fascist ("terrorist") movement, because that is what is so confusing to many Americans. In the Democrats' rebuttal, Rep. Nancy Pelosi complained that Iraq had nothing to do with the 9/11 attack, which may or may not be true. Bush certainly never claimed there was a direct link, though Vice President Cheney did make such an assertion. But such quibbling over historical facts that may never be known for certain is utterly beside the point: We face an enemy that is consciously exploiting divisions within this country, and within the Western world, and what happens on the socio-psychological level is even more important than what happens in the streets of Baghdad, Mosul, or Fallujah. Unless Bush manages to convince a sufficient number of Democrat leaders that we must stand (relatively) united, the war will drag on inconclusively for decades. A reassuring sign that some on the Left are facing up to reality came in today's New York Times; see justoneminute (via Instapundit).
UPDATE: Roger Simon (via Instapundit) calls attention to a depressing sign that even many Democrats who are regarded as very intelligent just don't get it: Sen. Russ Feingold denounced President Bush for failing to provide "some sense of when he believes this conflict in Iraq will be over and when our brave men and women in uniform will come home." Is it not obvious to everyone that self-imposed deadlines and talk of looking for an "exit strategy" serve to bolster the enemy's resistance? How many times does Bush have to repeat that? Besides, does anyone seriously expect candor about what our military strategy is? Feingold really ought to know better. Such silliness reminds me of the Saturday Night Live skit of a press conference during Desert Storm in which reporters kept asking "Gen. Schwarzkopf" for precise U.S. troop dispositions and other secrets likely to benefit the enemy. All this simply highlights the inherent difficulty that liberal, open democracies have in waging war. On the positive side, Simon calls Feingold's speech "one of the purest examples of the reason people like me have deserted the Democratic Party." To which I say, "ditto." Ahh, if only I could lower my standards and use the smash-mouth language popular on leftist blogs to say what I really think about political leaders like Feingold...
Fighting a counterinsurgency war is inherently frustrating, because there will never come a clear-cut moment at which we are sure that the other side has conceded. Some die-hard resistance in Iraq will probably continue for several decades, long after Egypt and other countries in the Middle East have passed through the turbulent, uncertain process of democratization. Jim Dunnigan ponders the amorphous nature of "winning" at strategypage.com:
It was long a popular myth in Moslem countries that the backwardness and poor government they suffered was somehow caused by the West. Much to the dismay of Islamic terrorists, coalition operations in Iraq show how false this is. While people are reluctant to admit they have been duped, many Moslems are now admitting that the problems in Moslem countries are internal, not some infidel conspiracy to "keep the Moslems down." Changing attitudes like this cuts off the flow of recruits for Islamic terrorist groups. This is a war that is not followed via troops dispositions and casualty counts, but by opinion polls and election results.
That is an accurate portrayal of the wider socio-psychological "battleground," except for the "opinion polls" part: Asking people on the phone what they think is not an accurate measure of how strong they feel about something. American people may be dissatisfied with how the war is going, but that doesn't mean they are losing their will to win.
Friday's ruling by the Supreme Court that local governments can exercise the right of eminent domain to acquire private property with the intent of reselling it to new owners, rather than making it available for some genuinely public use, has rightly been regarded by conservatives as a frontal assault on individual liberties. Homeowner Susette Kelo lost her case against the city of New Haven, CT, which seeks to redevelop a waterfront area into an upscale office / residential / shopping complex. Now the city will rake in extra tax revenues from the increment in property value, sharing the benefit with the favored private investors. This was such an egregious case of economic-political elites using the coercive power of the state to enrich themselves that it is amazing that anyone could rationalize it.
Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, cited cases in which the court has interpreted "public use" to include not only such traditional projects as bridges or highways but also slum clearance and land redistribution. He concluded that a "public purpose" such as creating jobs in a depressed city can also satisfy the Fifth Amendment. SOURCE: Washington Post
Stevens' bland assertion that "[p]romoting economic development is a traditional and long accepted function of government" places FDR's New Deal on a higher plane than the Constitution. It was a 5-4 decision, with Justices Scalia and O'Connor (!) writing bitter dissents. See George Will pointed out the irony that the Court exercised "deference" to local government, in a case where conservatives would wish for judicial activism. in the Washington Post:
Liberalism triumphed yesterday. Government became radically unlimited in seizing the very kinds of private property that should guarantee individuals a sphere of autonomy against government.
Perhaps a bigger irony is that the notion of private property as a bulwark of individual freedom was once considered a liberal notion, and in most of the world, it still is. What this ruling signifies is the final, definitive divorce of modern American "liberalism" from its classical liberal roots. In the minds of the Europhilic left-liberals of today, wariness toward the power of government is no longer warranted as long as the power is exercised domestically. (Antipathy toward the military may be in part a compensation for this pro-state bias.) Is all this hubbub over property rights really such a big deal? Some people regard "a man's home is his castle" to be nostalgic silliness. Well, consider this:
The great and chief end, therefore, of men's uniting into common-wealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property. SOURCE: John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (Italics in original.)
Lockean liberals (!) hold that communities are strongest when each member has a clearly defined portion of land of his (or her) own to live on, so that there is a broadly shared interest in maintaining public order. In crowded parts of the world, such a condition is nothing more than a utopian pipe dream. America is unique in the way that virtually anyone with proper motivation can acquire property and thereby obtain a stake in social stability. This is what makes our country so irresistably appealing to immigrants, who are buying up houses by the thousands. The fact that so many of our legal and political elites are oblivious to this vital foundation of our society is tragic. Without a broad shared stake in the institution of property, neither elites, nor those of more modest means have much incentive to abide by the rule of law, and corruption becomes rampant. Control of the reins of government power would become even more highly prized than it already is, and resentment by the losing side in elections would increase. Is that what we want? This ought to be a situation in which reasonable people from both side of the political spectrum can agree on the public interest. Unless the Supreme Court's interpretation is somehow sharply modified in the next few years, however -- perhaps by virtue of a more conservative justices, or at least more prudent and circumspect ones -- our republic will have lost a vital underpinning of its vitality. Our society will continue to slouch in the direction of spiritually dead, statist Europe, beholden to the government for all blessings of life. For a variety of reactions to the Kelo case, see Instapundit and SCOTUS blog. For some laughs, see Free Star Media, which plans to build a "Hotel Lost Liberty" on land in New Hampshire to be acquired from Justice David Souter. (via Rush Limbaugh)
UPDATE: In response to the Kelo v. City of New London decision, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) has introduced the Protection of Homes, Small Businesses, and Private Property Act of 2005. It's terribly sad that such a measure is even considered necessary. See gopusa.com.
I'm a big fan of public television and think it is one of the worthiest causes that are supported largely on a voluntary basis. Last week, the House of Representatives passed a budget resolution that would sharply cut Federal funding for public broadcasting, sparking outrage in some quarters. Meanwhile, Patricia S. Harrison, the assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, regarded as a conservative, has just been named to head the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, sharpening the political profile of this issue. Being a sucker an earnest, public-spirited kind of guy, I jump at every chance to build bridges over the chasm between the parties. Although conservatives such as George Will argue that in an age where cable TV offers a smorgasbord of choices that obviates the traditional rationale for public television, the fact is that most lower-income folks don't have access to non-broadcast cable content such as the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, or Animal Planet. How many of those people tune in to PBS compared to the number who watch Jerry Springer or Judge Judy? I shudder to think. If you ask me, however, reaching out to even a small minority (ten percent?) of potentially "upliftable" humble folks is worth a couple bucks a year per taxpayer. Culture is a public good, and I don't worry about the (slight) liberal bias on PBS as exemplified by Bill Moyers. Lest there be any doubt, however, yesterday's Washington Post made it clear that the strongest supporters of public broadcasting are in fact liberal groups. So what?
The issue of subsidies to public TV and radio draws an ironic parallel to the blogosphere, including this Web site (HINT)! It makes me think of an episode of The Simpsons when the family went to a museum that was free but donations were requested. Upon realizing that he'd hit upon an easy freebee, Homer started yelling to newly arriving patrons, "Hey, you don't have to pay!"
UPDATE: Responding to public outcry, the House voted to rescind the proposed cuts in funding yesterday. (I should have read the morning paper before I made the above post.) According to the Washington Post, several senators are calling on CPB chairman Kenneth Tomlinson (a Republican!) to resign because he is scrutinizing the political leanings of PBS shows. As far as the liberal bias issue, one piece of evidence to the contrary is the Frontline series, which has braodcast a number of shows that portray the U.S.-led war against terrorism in very favorable light. Frontline embodies first-rate, independent journalism.
In a speech to the New York state Conservative Party, Karl Rove angered many Democrats when he drew a sharp contrast in how the two sides view the war on terrorism. All the usual suspects in the Democrat leadership fired back: Sen. Reid called on Rove to resign, Sen. Clinton called the remarks "appalling" and "saddening," and Howard Dean "accused Rove of trying to divide the country with 'cynical political attacks,'" which is supremely ironic. Here's the crux of what Rove had to say:
Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war. Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers. (SOURCE: Washington Post)
One caller on the Rush Limbaugh show suggested that Rove should issue a Durbinian quasi-apology (see below), but Rush wisely warned against such patent cynicism. I've often criticized Rove for his Machiavellian subordination of principle to winning at all costs, but this time he made a good point. True, his words were provocative and painted liberals with too broad a brush (as pro-war liberal Michael Totten writes), but Rove aptly called attention to the fact that the leftists who have come to dominate the liberal side of the political spectrum, including most Democrats (there is a small but vital distinction), seem not have the foggiest idea what we are up against in this war, or what the stakes are. Hence the recent chorus of (self-fulfilling?) defeatist rhetoric on the Left. Millions of Americans are under the grotesquely false impression that "we had it coming" on 9/11, and that those nasty terrorists would leave us alone if only we had "nicer" foreign policy and abandoned Israel. Not bloody likely. Differences of opinion on something as awful as war are entirely natural, and all we can hope for is a measure of restraint and balance. FWIW, here are my initial reflections on 9/11.
Sen. Dick Durbin choked back tears as he pleaded for understanding and forgiveness for his hyperinflammatory words comparing actions by the U.S. military to the Nazis and other totalitarian regimes. It was conditional contrition, however:
I'm sorry if anything that I said caused any offense or pain to those who have such bitter memories of the Holocaust, the greatest moral tragedy of our time. Nothing, nothing should ever be said to demean or diminish that moral tragedy.
I'm also sorry if anything I said in any way cast a negative light on our fine men and women in the military. (SOURCE: Senator Durbin's Web site)
If??? That might be construed to mean that he is not sorry otherwise, except for the fact that the word if was [nothing more than a lame attempt to raise the (remote) possibility that someone was not offended]. It's a lot like the congressional resolution apologizing for lynching passed last week: a contritional gesture that carries little weight. I fail to understand how Durbin thinks he could have been "misunderstood." He said what he said. This case really says less about Durbin than it does about the general deranged state of mind exhibited by many Democrats these days. I've read various leftist blogs that accuse conservative critics of Durbin of not caring about human rights abuses at military detention facilities. I for one am concerned about such abuses, but I would prefer that criticisms be reasonable in tone and balanced, hopefully reserving judgment until more thorough, impartial investigations are carried out.
UPDATE: postwatchblog "compares and contrasts" how the Washington Post covered the Durbin story to how it covered Rove's comments. It's almost like they're biased or something... (via InstaPundit)
The Central American Free Trade Agreement is nearing a showdown on Capitol Hill, and President Bush will have to spend a lot more "political capital" (and pork) to get it through Congress. That's right, yet another issue of vital importance to the nation is being reduced to a political football. For many years, I have been in favor of liberalized trade among the countries of the Western Hemisphere. I supported NAFTA, which yielded strong mutual overall benefits to both Mexico and the United States, though it must be acknowledged that the disruptive social effects on either side of the Rio Grande have yet to be fully reckoned. The point was that the two countries already were trading heavily with each other, in a classic symbiosis, and in a real sense NAFTA merely institutionalized and rationalized ongoing trends. The countries of Central America are another matter, however: Except for Costa Rica, they are much poorer and more politically unstable, raising doubts about whether free trade with the United States would produce greater economic wealth or just more political friction. The Dominican Republic is also included in the agreement, but not turmoil-wracked Haiti. For the PRO side in this debate, see the U.S. Trade Representative, and for the CON side, see StopCAFTA.org. I remain skeptical of the proposed grandiose "Free Trade Area of the Americas," which would run up against sharp differences of national interest, within South America itself, but I believe that further institutionalizing economic relations between the U.S. and its (relatively close) neighbors would serve a compelling mutual interest. I find the provisions for stricter controls on pollution and higher environmental standards to be among the strongest reasons for favoring it. How else are we North Americans going to have influence over the fate of the ecologically precious rain forests and beaches of that region? As for the leftist charge that this is all just a sell-out to corporate interests, I would submit that the character, competence, and public-mindedness of Special Trade Representative Robert Zoellick should allay any such fears.
Earlier this year I was travelling in two of the countries where free trade with the U.S. is most controversial. Costa Rica has a long tradition of state management of the economy, emulating the European social democratic model, and its social stability might well be put at risk by being exposed to the rigors of free trade. I saw a lot of political activity against the free trade pact in San Jose, and the most academics there seem to be against it as well. Meanwhile, Nicaragua has been undergoing a serious political crisis in recent months, due in part to controversies over trade and relations with the United States. The Sandinista party of former president Daniel Ortega has been putting the squeeze on the conservative government of Enrique Bolaños in what some are calling a "creeping coup." The CAFTA showdown also coincides with increased complaints about the flow of illegal immigrants across the border from Mexico. One of the fundamental objectives of NAFTA was to minimize the gap in economic opportunity between the two giants, and the shortcoming in that department has to be considered one of the biggest disappointments with NAFTA.
But what about the domestic front? As the dust settles on the compromise that avoided the "nuclear option" in the Senate, indications are that partisan divisiveness is as deep as ever. As reported in the Washington Post, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi strongly warned her side of the aisle not to vote for CAFTA because "A vote for CAFTA, she said, was a vote to keep the GOP in the majority." She gives the impression of caring not in the least whether the agreement is in the best interess of the country. Meanwhile, the Republicans are inclined to pacify their base in the key state of Florida, which makes them prone to continue coddling the ultra-protected sugar cane industry. The June 18 Economist magazine opines, "Mr Bush must defeat the sugar lobby. The pro-trade Democrats must stand up to their short-sighted leaders." They interpret the Democrats' obstructionism as a reflection of being "intoxicated with their success, thus far, at stymieing Mr Bush's agenda on social security reform." Given the climate in Washington these days, trying to assess the relative merits of CAFTA, apart from the calculations of partisan gains and losses, may be futile. Moderate Republicans in the Senate such as John Warner had better pay heed to the fact that their gestures of bipartisan cooperation are not being reciprocated.
This would be a good opportunity to remind everyone of one of the most praiseworthy aspects of the Clinton presidency: a solid commitment to freer international trade, as exemplified by NAFTA and the WTO.
Following up on the Bush administration's push to democratize the Middle East, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice bluntly criticized the governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia for failing to liberalize their political systems during a tour of the region. It's about time. She also made it clear that the United States is not imposing its system on others and frankly acknowledges its own past failings, such as segregation and discrimination of blacks. See Washington Post. This comes as news that most of the suicide bombers in Iraq have come from Saudi Arabia, where security forces pay lip service to "rounding up the usual suspects." In Egypt, pro-government mobs made a mockery of Laura Bush's nice words for President Mubarak's tip-toes toward democracy last month; see my May 26 post.
Meanwhile, Iran has held elections in which a thuggish apologist for the theocracy won a spot in the second-round ballot by surprise. Most expect that former president Rafsanjani, a relative moderate, will win. A pro-democracy movement lives on in Iran, though the mullahs are putting heavy pressure on them. The really good news about democracy comes from Lebanon, where anti-Syrian candidates won a solid victory in elections this week. The fact that an anti-Syrian leader was assassinated shows how fiercely and desperately the fascist Baathist forces are resisting this trend. The Lebanese people have spoken loudly in defiance to Syria, marking a huge step forward for the forces of freedom. This has not received much attention from the mainstream press, however. Most recent news reports have focused instead on the esclalation of car bomb attacks in Iraq and escalated calls for a withdrawal timetable by several Democrats and even some Republicans such as Chuck Hagel.
Lately I've been getting the creepy feeling that the barrage of criticism by Democrats over the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo is part of an orchestrated campaign to undermine the war effort. Recent comments on that controversy by Al Gore, Howard Dean, Nancy Pelosi, et al. were too off-the-wall to be taken seriously, which is why I initially ignored Sen. Dick Durbin's comparison of the U.S. practices at "Gitmo" to totalitarian regimes. I suppose you could say I have a "nonsense filter" that insulates my brain from poisonous cacaphony. Durbin's words clearly gave aid and comfort to the enemy, and yet he refused to back down, complaining that he had been misinterpreted; see Washington Post. It is as thought those critics want to be brought up on charges. I dislike political polarization, but the effect of such words on a person like me who craves reasonable discourse is to intensify my loyalty to the side that is committed to winning the war. If the main objective of critics of U.S. war policy and conduct is make sure that American ideals and values are not unduly compromised in the name of security, the first step would be to exercise reason and restraint in their arguments, keeping things in proportion.
Indeed, there probably were abuses of some detainees, but no serious person would compare the overall level of treatment to that of the Nazis or the Soviets. This is a point that several bloggers have picked up on; see Mudville Gazette , via Instapundit. To imagine that the Pentagon is so blind to public relations to permit routine abuse or torture is just absurd. They are all too aware that this war will be won or lost as much on the plane of psychology and perceptions as on the physical battlefield. Most of the detainees are probably eating, sleeping, and being cared for better than they ever had before. One can only imagine how hard they must be laughing at all the suckers who are buying their bogus complaints. Speaking of which, Rush Limbaugh is "illustrating absurdity" of the accusations by peddling "official Club Gitmo" apparel and souvenirs. Get yours while they last!
In all seriousness, the detainees are in an unfortunate legal limbo of their own making. Virtually all of them were apprehended while they were with Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups, "caught red-handed" in a sense. As "illegal enemy combatants" they are covered neither by criminal law nor by the Geneva Convention which prescribes norms for treating captured soldiers of regular armies or organized militias. They may never be put on trial, as it is unlikely suitable witnesses could ever be found, and they may not be repatriated for several decades, depending on how the struggle between the Free World and its enemies goes. That is what is due to the terrorists who systematically violate international human rights norms on behalf of a global jihad, and then invoke civil rights rhetoric on habeas corpus, due process, etc. as a legal defense.
President Bush has came out swinging in urging the Senate to pass the energy bill recently approved by the House. The main controversy is opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, but various tax provisions have also come under scrutiny. Here are some of the main points from a speech to the 16th Annual Energy Efficiency Forum in Washington today, from the White House Web site:
"propose that every American who purchases a hybrid vehicle receive a tax credit of up to $4,000."
"encouraging automakers to produce a new generation of modern, clean-diesel cars and trucks."
"produce and refine more crude oil here at home in environmentally-sensitive ways. ... the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska"
"encourage the construction of new refineries on closed military facilities"
"to develop new alternatives to gasoline and diesel. ... Hydrogen Fuel Initiative..."
"promote ethanol as an alternative to foreign sources of oil"
"help countries like India and China become more efficient users of hydrocarbons -- that will help take the pressure off global supply, it will take the pressure of gasoline prices here at home."
"we need to expand production of safe, clean nuclear power."
It's interesting that he cited France as a model to follow in terms of nuclear power. It's nice to see the President taking on yet another critical issue that must be addressed, and I'm particularly glad that he effectively linked the national security and environmental issues, since that's one of my personal interests. It's too bad, however, that some of his proposals are old fashioned lame gestures and half measures. He could accomplish what all those proposals would do but in a much simpler and more direct way by just raising taxes on gas and diesel fuel to a level commensurate with their real long-term scarcity and environmental impact! Why is it so hard to enact such a measure? Oh yeah, because most American people regard cheap energy as an entitlement, and they'd rather have someone else pay for the consequences. The President has a long way to go before the gas guzzling public gets the message.
Voter turnout in today's primary elections in Virginia was less than 4% for the Republican side, and less than 3% for the Democrat side. As expected, GOP gubenatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore won easily over self-styled "real Reaganite" George Fitch, 82% to 18%. In the race for lieutenant governor, Bill Bolling beat Sean Connaughton, 55% to 45%, and in the race for attorney general, Bob McDonnell beat Steve Baril by a 68% to 32% margin. In the only statewide race for the Democrats, Leslie Byrne, a sharp-tongued former member of Congress from Northern Virginia prevailed over three other candidates in the race for lieutenant governor. These results are not yet official. For the latest updates, see the Virginia State Board of Elections. Many people believe that Virginia's odd custom of holding state elections in the off years was deliberately intended to "weed out" less-attentive voters who show up for presidential or congressional elections but don't really follow state politics closely enough to make an informed decision. It's working.
I must say, the mudslinging among Republican candidates in Virginia this year has convinced me more strongly than ever that primary elections are a pernicious sideshow that exposes the downside of democracy. In appealing to a relatively non-attentive public, and running against rivals from the same party who agree on most of the issues, the candidates are forced to highlight irrelevant personal qualifications and distort aspects of their opponents' backgrounds. It's providing a lot of ammunition for the Democrats in the fall campaign. Under the status quo, by paying for primary elections, the government subsidizes the two major parties, in effect granting them an official status. IMHO, primary elections should be funded entirely by the parties holding them. If they choose not to pay for it, the parties should choose candidates in a state or district convention.
Warner raises his sights
Virginia Governor Mark Warner, a Democrat, has formed a political action committee that will allow him to raise funds for a possible candidacy as vice president in 2008. See Washington Post. As a high-tech millionaire businessman, with a fresh Kennedyesque face, he is exactly what the dispirited and often hysterical Democrats need to broaden their appeal to the sensible center of the political spectrum. Though his earnest personality would seem to undermine his potential as serious heavyweight at the national level, he showed resourcefulness and determination in last year's budget showdown with the Republicans, suggesting he might be well suited for Washington.
Today's not guilty verdict was mildly irritating, but given the apparent credibility problems with the mother of one of the alleged victims, the jury's decision is certainly understandable. "Beyond a reasonable doubt?" Perhaps not. What is more instructive about this case is how it showcases our contemporary society's obsession with celebrity, and the corresponding disdain for serious news. Coincidentally, today's Non Sequitur comic strip by Wiley dealt with precisely that issue.
A major issue in the 2004 presidential campaign was which candidate had more brainpower and therefore, presumably, a more sophisticated understanding of the world. The mediocre grades of George W. Bush were a matter of public record, but John Kerry refused to allow disclosure of his grade transcript from Yale -- until last month. Now we know that truth: "[N]ewly released records show that Bush and Kerry had a virtually identical grade average at Yale University four decades ago." In fact, "Dubya's" were slightly higher. Kerry got four "D"s in his freshman year, and his best subject was -- not surprisingly -- French. See the Boston Globe. (via Instapundit) This has marginal relevance for current politics except to point out the hollow, snooty pretensions of many Bush bashers.
DNC Chairman Howard Dean stuck his foot in his mouth again, insulting millions of GOP members and likely voters in a speech at Campaign for America's Future. Discussing the convenience factor in voter turnout, he blurted out, "Well, Republicans, I guess, can do that [wait in line to vote], because a lot of them have never made an honest living in their lives." (See Washington Times.) Well, I never... In response, Sen. Joe Biden and last year's losing V.P. candidate John Edwards -- both of whom may be presidential candidates in 2008 -- quickly distanced themselves from Dean and his ill-chosen words. (See Washington Post.) Outrage by Republicans toward Dean is misplaced, however. The more off-the-wall remarks he makes to fire up the activists on the Left, the more time the sensible faction within the Democrat party has to spend disavowing his words, so much the better. If the Democrats are really serious about trying to retake the House or Senate next year, Dean will have to go. The sooner the centrist DLC faction regains influence in the party, the sooner will political discourse in our country become (relatively) dignified and sane once again. Heck, we might even make progress on critical issues like Social Security, health care, or immigration reform! Call me a dreamer...
With only nine more days until the primary election, a sharp split seems to have emerged within Republican ranks in Virginia, as the candidates for lieutenant governor, Bill Bolling and Sean Connaughton, and for attorney general, Bob McDonnell and Steve Baril, have relased campaign literature and TV ads filled with mudslinging and even some distortions. Everyone claims to be a "real" conservative and everyone says they are against taxes, leaving the average voter quite confused.
From my perspective, the problem is that none of the leaders in either party wants to candidly address why it is that property taxes have soared in the past couple years. It's the result not of tax rate hikes, but of rapid increase in property assessments which reflect a classic speculative bubble in the real estate market. That surge is being fueled by purchases of second and third homes as investments by upper-middle class people who are taking advantage of the bogus Federal income tax deduction for mortgage interest rates. I've said it before, but it bears repeating: That deduction constitutes one of the most outrageous entitlements in our country today, and it is beginning to have severe distortionary effects on the rest of the economy. Too bad so few politicians are willing to face up to this simple fact.
Former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore is the overwhelming favorite in the primary race for governor against Warrenton mayor George Fitch, an independent-minded guy who has a background in sports. If some Democrats have their way, however, the race might be a lot tighter than expected. Barnie Day, a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates, openly urges his party members to vote in the Republican primary in order to defeat Kilgore. That's not kosher, but these days such tactics are all too common. See Augusta Free Press.
Bipartisan fund sleaze
One of the recent lesser-known scandals in Washington involves a lobbyist named Jack Abramoff who was seeking favorable laws for casinos on Indian reservations. Most of the money went to Republicans, as one would expect since they have been the majority party for several years. Democrats have been trying to exploit the issue as part of their campaign against Tom DeLay, but Friday's Washington Post reports that a substantial portion of the money spread around by Abramofff went to Democrats. Most notable among them was Patrick Kennedy, who came in a close second to Montana Sen. Conrad Burns.
When someone like E.J. Dionne criticizes Amnesty International, you know they have messed up badly. In yesterday's Washington Post he lamented how AI secretary general Irene Khan did Bush a rhetorical favor by calling the detention camp at Guantanamo "the gulag of our times." That was such an egregious, misplaced comparison to the Soviet Brezhnev era that no further attention would be warranted, except for the fact that many people around the world really do see the U.S. through such a distorted prism. That is why Dionne unfortunately missed the mark when he wrote, "It's outrageous that Bush tried to dismiss all questions about practices in Guantanamo as the work of 'people who hate America.'" I agree that scrutiny of U.S. treatment of terrorist prisoners is needed, but it's too bad Dionne can't accept the sad fact that hatred of our country is behind much of the criticism over Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, etc. That does not excuse the abuses, but it should caution us not to take at face value wild accusations about flushing the Koran and "torture." Would it be too much to ask to give at least as much credence to the duly elected leader of the free world as to the terrorists and guerrilla fighters we were so fortunate to put behind bars? For more, see the AI report on Guantanamo and a story about the Pentagon's report in today's Washington Post. In my opinion, Amnesty International is undermining the promotion of human rights.
While the charges that the U.S. government is hypocritical about human rights are patently unfair, there is a brewing conflict in Uzbekistan, where the government brutally cracked down on protesters last month. Negotiations are underway to renew the agreement under which U.S. forces are allowed to use military bases there, and some suggest that making concessions to an authoritarian regime undermines U.S. credibility as a promoter of freedom and democracy. See Washington Post. As I mentioned on May 26, the rationale for keeping U.S. forces in that remote central Asian country is getting increasingly dubious. Unless the Pentagon and the Bush administration really are intent on dominating the world, as many who empathize with the Islamic extremists believe, we should get out now before our strategic and moral position there starts to deteriorate. Let Russia and China assume more responsibility for subduing terrorism in their own back yards. They certainly have greater interests at stake there than we do.
Unlike a lot of people whose opinions are based on ancient grudges, I have no special sympathy or antipathy toward Mark Felt, whose tips on Watergate to Bob Woodward led to the downfall of Richard Nixon. Some former Nixon officials, such as Charles Colson and Pat Buchanan, resent Felt as a traitor without any scruples. Some have accused Felt of breaking the FBI's rules on reporting crimes, undermining the institution's integrity. Given the corruption in that agency and in the executive branch at the time, however, Felt didn't have much choice if he wanted the Watergate crimes to be investigated. Disloyal officials were being severely punished in the Nixon era, and Felt wasn't stupid. Robert Novak questioned Felt's motivations for leaking in yesterday's Chicago Sun-Times. He also says that Felt was considered by others in the FBI to be a sycophantic lieutenant of J. Edgar Hoover, "part of the problem" that mades reforming that agency so difficult. The fact that Felt may have acted more out of frustrated ambitions than noble concern for the public good suggests that he is no hero, but it should not sway our view of whether his action was justified. Few people would argue that the United States would have been better off if the Watergate crimes had never been uncovered or punished. As John Dean said famously back then, "There is a cancer growing in the presidency," and one can only imagine how much deeper the corruption of the Nixon administration would have become if Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and other officials had never been held accountable. Rush Limbaugh has alluded to the absence of similar informants in the Clinton administration, which managed to dodge several major scandals, and one particularly notorious but secondary scandal. Limbaugh made it clear he was not making excuses for Nixon's law-breaking, just calling attention to selective outrage over presidential misdeeds in the media. He also pointed out that Felt has aged in humble obscurity, while Woodward and Bernstein became millionaire authors. C'est la vie.
Today's Washington Post has a series of articles on this case, reviewing the history of Watergate and explaining how it was that they got scooped by Vanity Fair. As with most baby boomers, Watergate and Vietnam were the two main historical events that shaped my political outlook as a young adult. Somewhere in my family archives I've got an ancient high school newspaper with an editorial I wrote calling for Nixon to resign. The lessons that unchecked power tends to corrupt, and that blind loyalty can sometimes facilitate crime, are still valid today. I would hope that many people would recall that partisan affiliations tainted opinions about Nixon and Watergate during the 1970s, such that old segregationists like Sam Ervin became sudden folk heroes just because they were against Nixon. (What "southern strategy"?) The same sort of hard-core partisanship is badly distorting many people's opinions of contemporary political issues such as Social Security reform. Perhaps the bitter divisiveness and distrust of today are merely the aftershocks of the Vietnam-Watergate era.
In an interview with Vanity Fair magazine, W. Mark Felt, a former FBI official who is now 91, claimed that he was "Deep Throat," the anonymous tipster who helped Woodward and Bernstein unravel the mysterious Watergate scandal. The iconic beat reporters have long pledged to keep their source's identity secret until he dies, but he apparently wanted to make the revelation on his own terms. "The Washington Post had no immediate comment." See Washington Post. I wonder what Linda Lovelace has to say?
France rejects Europe
Theme for the day: "As ye sow, so shall ye reap." For the past three years, French President François Mitterrand has systematically cultivated anti-American sentiment as a tool to maintain political support, so it should come as no surprise that the weapon turned into a generalized xenophobia which made political compromises with the rest of Europe very difficult. Mitterrand was humiliated by Sunday's defeat of the referendum on the European Union constitution, by a 55-45 margin. He has already dismissed Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker (see Washington Post), but he was already in a precarious position at home, so he will likely spend the rest of his six-year term (which ends in 2007) as a lame duck. Some are calling on him to resign. He's old, his government is rife with corruption (and not just over the Iraq oil-for-food scandal), and he has no new ideas on governing aside from America-bashing.
Red State/Blue State France:Power Line Blog has a map showing that virtually the only departments of France that voted in favor of the referendum were in the minority-populated regions of Brittany, which speaks a tongue related to English, and Alsace, which has strong linguistic and cultural ties to Germany. What does that say about France's spirit of nationalism?
If the disproportional outrage from the Right is any indication, it would appear that the Democrats did indeed come out ahead in the filibuster compromise. There is another way to interpret the initial reactions, though: Conservative activists are keenly aware of what's at stake in the judicial nominations, and are mobilized for a stiff, protracted battle.
George Will noted in yesterday's Washington Post that the seven Democrats among the "Gang of 14" are supported by their party, by and large, whereas the seven Republicans are rebuked by most of their party members. He ridiculed Democrats "extraordinary rhetoric" in this episode and their fatuous expression of support for the original Constitution, neglecting the fact that senators were not chosen by individual voters until the 17th Amendment in 1913. Will got to the heart of the matter, however, by laying some of the blame at the Republican leader's feet:
The compromise is a mere pause, and arguably a prudent one, in a protracted fight. However, it looks to many conservatives like a defeat, partly because of Frist's own rhetoric, which was tactically imprudent and mistaken as a matter of constitutional law.
Instead of just correctly arguing that the Democrats' obstruction of up-or-down Senate votes on judicial nominees was wrong -- a violation of the ethics of legislative statesmanship -- he incorrectly said the obstruction violated a constitutional right . Once he cast this controversy as the defense of such a glistening right -- one not enumerated in the document -- any compromise would seem to derogate the nation's foundational document.
The inability to find ways to compromise may be an indication of the disproportional role of religious conservatives in the Republican party, something that gives people like me qualms about legislators like Frist. The possibility that he may have risked his party's standing in order to rally his core constituency for a likely run for president is not encouraging. Frist is probably doing better than his predecessor -- the amiable, pliable Trent Lott -- would have done under these trying circumstances. That is not nearly as bad as what Sen. McCain did, however. I hope the Republicans manage to find better candidates than those two guys to run for president in 2008.
As mentioned one month ago, a Washington Post poll indicated that two-thirds of Americans supposedly opposed the anti-filibuster "nuclear option," but how many of those Americans are really aware of the recent history of its abuse? A year and a half ago, the Senate went through a marathon 30-hour session in which Republicans tried to outlast the Democrats' filibuster of judges, and Senator Frist slept on a cot. Senator Ted Kennedy said that Democrats would "continue to resist an Neanderthal that is nominated by this president" for the federal courts. (Washington Post, Nov. 15, 2003, p. A9) Have any leading Republicans uttered such vile language toward Democrats? One way to rebuild the fragile spirit of bipartisan harmony and thereby avoid the nuclear option being invoked would be for Senator Kennedy to apologize for using such obnoxious slurs against well-qualified candidates. Are you up to that Senator? Or does the long record of verbal abuse by Democrats suggest that hopes for bipartisanship are in vain?
Democrats in the Senate refused to end debate on the John Bolton nomination yesterday, delaying a vote on his confirmation by at least two weeks. They claim they just want to get access to classified documents on past actions by Bolton. Sen. Harry Reid said, "We are not here to filibuster Bolton -- we are here to get information." See Washington Post. Sounds like a filibuster to me; why didn't the Democrats request those documents earlier? Freshman Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, who defeated incumbent Tom "Mr. Obstruction" Daschle last November, came out against Bolton to protest the proposed closing of Ellsworth Air Force Base, the only major military base in the state. I must say, the tearful laments about Bolton by Sen. Voinovich of Ohio made me less likely to listen to complaints about him. He missed much of the hearings last month, and yet came out forcefully against the no-nonsense nominee. Very strange; is he the next McCain?
First Lady Laura Bush just finished a goodwill tour of the Middle East, bravely entering hostile territory where her husband is too prudent to tread. As one of the nicest, most gracious people to have taken up residence in Washington for many years, Mrs. Bush could not fail to shed favorable light on the United States. Her sincerity and kindness more than make up for "W"'s sometimes off-putting rustic swagger. True, she did encounter some rude heckling during a stroll in Israeli-occupied Jericho, but she seemed to come out of it just fine. Her visit was more than just a public relations gesture, however, it was part of the long-term Bush agenda of democratizing the Middle East, putting that hot-button issue in sharp relief. Indeed, there are so many intriguing political cross-currents in that part of the world that it takes some effort to get a sense of where things are headed, and at what pace.
Mrs. Bush raised eyebrows while visiting Egypt when she gave high praise to President Hosni Mubarak's plan to hold elections later this year, calling it "a very bold step." Many people doubt that Mubarak is truly serious, however, seeing his planned gradual transition to liberal democracy as tentative half-measures. At present, Egypt is a classic one-party state, a place in which making corrupt deals with government officials is the only sure way to get ahead in life. It is precisely that kind of discouraging, soul-deadening socio-economic system in most Arabic and Islamic countries that gives rise to the pathological mixture of hatred, envy, and admiration for the United States and the Western world. Hence, it's no surprise that short-term democratic impulses are likely to be radical in nature, and groups such as the Islamic Brotherhood might well gain a political foothold in Egypt if Mubarak really intended to follow through with liberalization.
Hopes for a genuine transition to democracy almost vanished yesterday, however, as a national referendum on Mubarak's plan was marred by bloody clashes in Cairo. Mobs led by Mubarak's "National Democratic Party" beat anti-government protesters, targetting women as the police stood by. See Washington Post. Coming so soon after the First Lady's visit, this crude exercise of brutal repression made the U.S. position look either hypocritical or impotent. Until the Bush Doctrine can be given real substance -- by means of a commitment of substantial resources -- most people in that part of the world will regard whatever the United States does with deep suspicion. The point to remember, however, is that the governments of both Egypt and the United States are in a painful dilemma of their own creation. The U.S. has provided massive subsidies to the Sadat-Mubarak regime for a full generation; this was what made possible the Camp David peace accords of 1978. We have been "renting" peace year after year ever since, under the assumption that Egypt is a "keystone" state that serves as a guidepost for the region, but in the process we have become deeply complicit in the illiberal status quo regime in Cairo. Mubarak is in the same position as Mikhail Gorbachev was: Even if he sincerely wants to liberalize his regime, he knows he is doomed to lose power and possibly throw the country into chaos if anything goes awry. Hopes that we might be able to convert all those past "peace rental payments" into equity to purchase a permanent liberal regime change more to our liking are in vain. The United States might be able to exert some positive influence on the regime transition getting underway in Egypt, but not much.
Speaking to the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee on Monday, Condoleeza Rice declared that peace between Arabs and Jews is mainly up to Mahmoud Abbas. He is considered the most moderate of the Palestinian leaders, and doesn't have much room to maneuver as he tries to persuade the radical factions to give up their violent tactics. Today Bush met with Abbas at the White House and pledged $50 million to used for new housing and infrastructure projects in Gaza, a rather modest sum for such a monumental problem. (By comparison, it's not nearly enough to build a new baseball stadium.) At the press conference, Bush was full of warm praise for Abbas, but he reportedly put heavy pressure on Abbas to reign in the terrorists. See cnn.com. The U.S. government has been (rightly) skeptical of Palestinian pledges ever since Yassir Arafat reneged on his commitment to peace, and if Bush wants to convince Palestinians that his attitude has changed, he should make sure that more follow-up aid is forthcoming.
Lebanon & Syria
Nearly three months after President Bashar Assad promised to do so, the withdrawal of Syrian military forces from Lebanon appears to be virtually complete. U.N. monitors are unable to verify whether any Syrian secret agents remain, but no one doubts that a substantial number did stay behind to maintain leverage with Hezbollah and other terrorist groups. The Syrians will be hard pressed to halt the burgeoning democracy movement in Lebanon, which was galvanized into action by the brutal bombing murder of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who dared to resist Syrian control. Of all the countries in the Middle East, Lebanon has had the most encouraging news for democracy. Within his own country, Assad has made some token reform gestures in recent months, but his country is even more of a pressure cooker than Egypt is. The regime he inherited from his father Hafez Assad in 2000 derives its political strength from the minority Alawite clan, which has stayed in power by ruthlessly suppressing rival clans. It is much like the way Saddam Hussein used to run Iraq based on his clan centered in Tikrit. The long-term systematized repression by the Baathist party military regimes in both countries crippled civil society, much like the totalitarian regimes of the Soviet Union under Stalin or Romania under Ceausescu, boding ill for the future growth of democracy. Assad maintains popular legitimacy by appealing to nationalist sentiment, through exerting control over Lebanon, defying U.S. pressure, and giving moral or material support to the Baathist remnants in Iraq.
The political objective behind the terrible recent wave of suicide car bombings in Iraq is all too apparent: to derail democracy before it has a chance to become established. The country managed to overcome its deep internal divisions and form a new government earlier this month, though some Sunni politicians boycotted the negotiating sessions. The recent U.S. offensive against insurgents based along on the border with Syria has implications beyond merely pacifying Iraq, as most of the suicide bombers apparently come from other Arab countries through Syria, possibly undergoing training there. Condoleeza Rice's surprise visit to Iraq underline how important that battle is for turning the the against the extremists. By coincidence, British Labor MP George Galloway testified to Congress about his part in the "oil for food" scandal. He was completely unrepentant and launched a blistering attack on U.S. policy in Iraq. freedom. See weeklystandard.com The fact that so many people share Galloway's point of view and turn a blind eye to the obvious financial incentives that underlay French and Russian opposition to the U.S.-led campaign to oust Saddam Hussein shows how far we have to go in this long war over the cause of worldwide freedom. Listen to what many Democrats are still saying about Bush and the war to liberate Iraq, and it becomes painfully clear: The domestic front remains very shaky.
A wave protests throughout Central Asia was touched off by the bogus report early this month in Newsweek over the alleged descreation of the Koran; see May 18. This came in the midst of a general upsurge in anti-government protests in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, and two weeks ago President Islam A. Karimov ordered troops to fire on would-be insurrectionists, killing at least 300 people, according to official U.S. estimates. In terms of sheer numbers, it may rival the May 1989 Tien An-Men Square massacre in Beijing. The confluence of various chains of events makes it difficult to trace exactly what precipitated the bloodbath. Even though the turmoil there has not exactly grabbed the attention of most Americans, such events are a real cause for alarm, however, because that country hosts U.S. air bases that are used in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan. (Now that Afghanistan is relatively secure if not entirely pacified, why do we still need bases in Uzbekistan?) The problem is that the U.S. has sought to cooperate with Karimov's government out of strategic necessity, even though that conflicts with the principles underlying the Bush foreign policy that rejects the old preference for stability at the cost of freedom. Gregory Djerejian writes of "Bush's long shadow" in that former Soviet republic, challenging those critics who charge that the United States is hypocritical in soft-pedaling democracy in Uzbekistan for strategic reasons. This will be a do-or-die test case for the Bush Doctrine. Interestingly, President Karimov just met with Chinese leaders, who showered him with praise. With a large Turkic Muslim minority (the Uighurs) in its western regions, Beijing has just as much to fear from Islamic militants, if not more, than Washington does.
The deadly violence touched off by Newsweek took many lives in Afghanistan as well. That country is making slow but certain progress in consolidating its new democratic regime, though regional warlords and Islamic extremists -- funded by narcotics traffickers -- still wield much power. The visit of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to Washington this week was expected to be another one of those touchy-feely photo ops heralding a newly democratic state, but it turned out to be rather interesting. President Bush declined recently Karzai's request to have a greater role in overseeing operations by U.S. military forces in his country. U.S. officials criticized Karzai's weak approach to dealing with poppy growers and drug traders, but Karzai downplayed the differences between the two countries, saying "We are happy with what Washington is doing in Afghanistan." See Washington Post Karzai gives every appearance of being a serious, competent, resourceful leader, and it is hard to imagine anyone better suited for his extremely difficult job than him. Afghani civil society is emerging, and popular support for Muslim extremists is weakening.
In a breathtakingly sudden fashion, a popular uprising ousted President Askar Akayev in March, in what has become known as the "Tulip Revolution." He was one of the last leaders from the Soviet era who took over as the U.S.S.R. crumbled in 1991, and wrongly calculated that he could nullify the results of parliamentary elections. He fled to Moscow and, like Alberto Fujimori of Peru, submitted his resignation in absentia. Many Uzbek refugees took shelter in Kyrgyzstan during the crackdown against protest in their country two weeks ago. [x] It is too early to say whether a stable democracy will emerge there, but Kyrgyzians have clearly taken a big step in the right direction.
President Bush's recent visit to Georgia highlighted that country's welcome but still-shaky transition to real democracy. There is broad, popular support for the new government, and a strong awareness of the very real threat to the freedom they have so recently won. Georgia used to be run by former Soviet foreign minister Edward Shevardnadze, who was ousted two years ago in a popular uprising known as the "Rose Revolution." New President Mikhail Saakashvili has withstood Russian pressure [aiming to halt the Transcaucasion oil pipeline, which just opened today. Oil from Azerbaijan and the Caspian Basin no longer has to be pumped through Russian territory or loaded onto tankers at Russian ports. Cynics will sneer, of course, but the new pipeline significantly enhances the energy security of Western world. Saakashvili is also] cooperating with the United States in hunting for terrorist organizations that have bases in his country. Russians have denounced wealthy financier George Soros for his role in aiding the Georgian opposition, which is ironic because Soros is a bitter enemy of President Bush.
On balance: Wait and see
There are clearly signs of hope in most of these countries, especially in Lebanon and Georgia, but the enemies of freedom continue to resist fiercely. For example, the mullahs in Iran seem to have subdued the nascent liberalization movement there, using national pride in the country's nuclear program to deflect criticism. Saudi Arabia held local elections for the first time recently, and the strong showing by Islamic extremists there does not bode well for continued liberalization. If we are to accomplish President Bush's grand vision, therefore, we must accept the fact that there will be frustrating delays and occasional tactical defeats along the way. Democratization will take place over the course of decades, not months. In the May 16 Washington Post, Henry Kissinger called for a balance between the pursuit of democratic values and the heeding of geopolitical realities: "The United States has made clear its conviction that a democratic evolution reflecting popular aspirations is a long-term necessity. But it has not yet defined what it means either by that phrase or an appropriate evolutionary process." Realists such as Kissinger face a paradoxical challenge at this historical moment, which is to harmonize interests and values, rather than emphasize the former at the expense of the latter, as is their normal preference. To his credit, President Bush has urged caution and patience in the long pursuit of a more democracy in the Middle East. (See Washington Post.) Such words must be matched by a more realistic actions, however. Otherwise, the Bush Doctrine stands in danger of becoming another Carter Doctrine -- a vain, universal, idealistic appeal lacking due respect for either U.S. national interests or the interests of the other countries.
The moderate "Gang of 14" senators "saved the day" last night, agreeing to invoke cloture and thereby assure a vote on judges Priscilla Owens, Janice Rogers Brown, and William Pryor. However, Judges William Myers and Henry Saad have been "thrown overboard," as Rush Limbaugh put it. The fact that Sen. Byrd was included among the "vital centrists" -- standing alongside McCain, Snowe, Lieberman, and Landrieu last night -- was a troubling initial sign that nothing has really changed. I listened closely to each senator's statement in the press conference, and I'm not entirely convinced by Senator Warner's explanation. He said he kept asking pro-rule changers what the consequences would be in the Senate, and they couldn't give him a satisfactory answer. Indeed, Who knows? Who can fathom the true intentions of the shrieking minority faction? Their posture seems to have spooked the reasonable folks into backing down. Ahh, the burdens of responsibility, turning the other cheek for the Greater Good...
In today's Washington Post, E.J. Dionne articulated a good reason for maintaining the old filibuster rules, that the supermajority requirement gives the Senate more clout than it would otherwise have. (All members of the Senate share a stake in this clout, to some extent.) The logic behind this effect is explained in Robert Putnam's "theory of two-level games," in which the principals negotiating on behalf of one country or organization gain more bargaining leverage when they can convince their counterparts that domestic opposition prevents them from delivering any more concessions. Dionne also pointed out the political agenda behind this showdown:
Frist is waging this fight because he wants to be president and needs support from social conservatives. But especially in a time of terrorism, politicians worthy of the presidency don't toss around the word "assassinate" with the alacrity of a small-market radio host. The Republican moderates knew this.
True, but Sen. McCain was also acting on behalf of his own presidential aspirations, albeit aimed at a different contituency. I would have had more confidence in Frist and other conseratives if they had adopted a more mature tone, agreeing to the kind of terms that a hypothetical detached, disinterested observer might suggest. The irony about this compromise deal is that postponing the conflict may only whet the appetite of both the secular Left and the Christian Right for an even bolder stance, making a reasonable long-term compromise even less likely when the next judicial showdown looms.
Having mixed feelings about this issue, I am in part relieved that something was accomplished without resorting to extraordinary prodedural means. Lost in the shuffle, however, are the merits of the basic issue of partisanship in the Federal judiciary, which is clearly out of kilter, in my opinion. Democrats have been pretending falsely that the filibuster is a sacrosanct tool by which judges pass muster among a broad spectrum of political opinion, when virtually the only case of a prominent appeals court judge being blocked by a filibuster was Abe Fortas, LBJ's ethically challenged Supreme Court nominee in 1968. Another commonly-propagated distortion of the facts is that virtually all of President Bush's judicial nominees have been approved by the Senate, but the vast majority of those nominees were for district courts, the lowest Federal level. It is the appellate court level where the important cases are decided. Among the compromise solutions that were being discussed was a formal pledge by both party leaders to release the members of their respective caucus from the obligation to vote with their party's leaders. That would have been a healthy move, depoliticizing the judicial nomination process.
Who blinked first? To me, that question is less important than who blinks next. As with much of political and social life, the ultimate results of this bargain will depend on what people make of it. That's why it's more important than usual to see how pundits of various stripes are weighing in on this.
Glenn Reynolds: "As I've said before, I'd probably care more about this issue if Bush looked likely to appoint some small-government libertarian types to the bench. Since he doesn't, I don't."
John Hinderaker: "And, rest assured, there will be a next time. I'm afraid the Dems have staved off a losing vote tomorrow, and lived to fight again another day, on a nominee less impregnable than Priscilla Owen."
Kevin Drum: "I guess I'm puzzled. ... As for the agreement to filibuster future candidates only under "extraordinary circumstances," well, who knows? That could mean pretty much anything, couldn't it?"
Josh Marshall: "It seems an awfully bitter pill to forego the filibuster on both Brown and Owen, particularly the former. And the main issue isn't resolved so much as it's delayed."
"Jane Galt" (via Phil Faranda): "The fact is that Republicans are going to shove conservative judges down liberal throats because they can, not because there is some cosmic principle of justice involved."
Well, I acknowledged that Frist's move was in part a power grab, on April 28. But as any realist knows, politics always involves both power and principle; "Jane Galt" merely invokes the classic false dichotomy of idealists. Moreover, both sides regard promotion of their own ideologies as a matter of principle. It is now clear that both sides went a bit too far out on a limb in this historic showdown, and party leaders Frist and Reid were equally chastened. The strident Byrd at least had the political savvy to join the centrists at the last minute, thereby gaining greater influence for the next round. If reports of secret understandings (Sen. Lindsey Graham?) about voting against specific judicial candidates turn out to be true, there may be hell to pay. Anyway, it seems clear that observers from both sides agree: The peace that has been so dearly won is only temporary. Stay tuned.
* NOTE: This title, drawn from Neville Chamberlain's vain boast after Munich in 1938, is not intended to compare the Democrats to the Nazis, as Sen. Rick Santorum did, but merely to suggest that the deal fails to resolve the underlying issue and therefore merely postpones an inevitable future battle.
As the filibuster battle rises to a climax, the Washington Post reports that a bipartisan group is laboring mightily to avert what some fear would be Armageddon. With a 55-45 majority in the Senate, the Republicans would need to keep half of the eight moderates listed below on board. Vice President Dick Cheney says he would cast the deciding vote in favor of a rule change if it came to a tie, but I don't think the Republicans would want to risk a total breakdown in relations with the Democrats by imposing a rule change without a majority. The following senators are ranked in order of least likely to most likely to support the proposed rules change, with notes on leanings or factors influencing them.
John McCain (AZ) -- Active in negotiations; opposed to rules change because he must appeal to independents if when he runs for president.
Olympia Snowe (ME) -- Opposes rules change.
Lincoln Chafee (RI) -- Probably opposes rules change
Susan Collins (ME) -- Uncertain.
Chuck Hagel (NE) -- Critical of Bush policy in Iraq, may feel need to show loyalty.
John Warner (VA) -- Active in negotiations, no political agenda, very circumspect.
Lindsey Graham (SC) -- Has suggested creative compromises.
Arlen Specter (PA) -- Criticized for his independent leadership of Judiciary Committee, but emphatically denounced abuse of filibuster by Dems.
There is intense pressure from both sides in this debate, and many political organizations are rallying members to call their senators. For example, upordownvote.org on the right, and moveonpac.org (part of MoveOn.org) on the left, which is full of wild accusations about "radical Republicans" who want to "stack the courts with extreme judges." Whatever the political angle, frankly, I think all such calls to citizen action over a highly arcane procedural issue in Congress are a waste of time, and I hope senators don't spend too much time fretting over their standing with constituents.
Elephants & "RINOS"
GOP moderates are often called "RINOs" (Republicans in name only) by the hard-core conservative activists, the kind who gravitate toward Grover Norquist and Karl Rove. Even though I'm usually on the conservative side of things, I have a strong distaste for harsh rhetoric those guys specialize in, and I don't take kindly to impugning the motives of people who share party affiliation or general leanings. Moderates have a vital role to play within the Republican party and within Congress. True, some moderates pay more heed to expedience and popularity than to principle, especially those with a reputation for being "mavericks." Rush Limbaugh has often skewered McCain and Hagel for the way they wear that label as a badge of honor, and I agree. Dissenting from party leaders may be a mark of strong character and judgement, but contrary to what many journalists assume, there is nothing inherently virtuous in it. Parties exist for a reason, and they don't survive long if its leaders do not share a strong commitment to winning. Personally, I would be very disappointed if too many of the Senate moderates cave in to political pressure, but I would not engage in recriminations against them. That is the sort of behavior that losing parties indulge in. Rove often talks about reaching out to new groups (such as evangelical Christians) in building a "big tent," but many Republicans seem intent on keeping the "unpure" out of the tent. It makes me worry that back-biting among GOP party factions will help return the Democrats to majority status a lot earlier than most of us expect.
For his part, Sen. Rick Santorum, who owes his career to Christian conservatives, committed a awful rhetorical gaffe today by comparing the Democrats's attitude to the Nazis after they occupied Paris. That's just great.
Intellectuals weigh in
Interestingly, the National Review came out against the Frist proposal: "Republicans should insist on political accountability for filibusters instead of a rules change." That is essentially the same point I made on April 18. If the same objective can be achieved without the "nuclear option" rules change, so much the better. But in politics as in war, you don't force an enemy to retreat by holding back your assault forces. In a cliffhanger showdown like this, there can be no doubt about the willingness to follow through on the threat.
Are they finally going through with it? The sight of Bill Frist, Orrin Hatch, and others on the Senate floor speaking in favor of Judge Janice Brown was quite a relief. Frankly, I'm getting tired of hearing all the dire reports about the impending Senate vote to change the rules so as to put an end to judicial filibusters. Sen. Frist has been making thinly veiled threats for many months, and still nothing has happened. Just do it! The "nuclear" analogy calls to mind World War III movies with soldiers in missile silos with launch keys at the ready, which is misleadingly apocalyptic. Republicans are calling it the "constitutional" option, meaning that the proposed rules change will do nothing more than return Senate practice to the way it used to be. Both houses of Congress have made major rule changes from time to time over the decades, and the world did not come to an end. Senator Reid's reference to the proposed change as "illegal" was way off base, since Article 1, Section 5, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution states:
Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member.
Got it? There are no requirements for super-majorities to change internal procedural rules, and the situations in which super-majorities are required are clearly stated. Presumably there are still one or two moderate senators (most notably, Sen. John Warner from Virginia) who are sitting on the proverbial fence. Today's Washington Post outlines a "A Likely Script for the 'Nuclear Option'." Someone may yet come up with a clever procedural resolution, possibly involving a postponement of the rules change so as to avoid setting a precedent for an abuse of rule-writing by future Senate majorities. If so, it had better be iron-clad. The Democrats must be held accountable for their irresponsible abuse of minority prerogatives.
Political "train wrecks" such as these are usually the result of the two sides having sharply different perceptions of reality, which makes the leaders of each side prone to think that the other side will eventually come to their senses and compromise. When I heard one of the Democrats talking about one of the judicial nominees as being "extreme" and "outside the mainstream" today, it only reinforced my conviction that compromise at this late date would be utterly futile. To my mind, judges who rule that the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional are extreme, but that's just me. Arguing in general terms about who is really "extreme," and who is not, is a waste of time. For a factual background, plus a list of some myths often promulgated by Democrats and their allies in the mainstream media, see judicialselection.org.
So what will the consquences be if Majority Leader Frist gets his way with the rules change? Given the heated state of mind exhibited by many Democrats, one can't exclude the possibility of screaming, paper-throwing, or walkouts. That is another situation in which the above-cited clause from the Constitution would apply. There will no doubt be demonstrations from MoveOn, etc. staging rallies bemoaning the "death of democracy" in America. Violence cannot be discounted. If the Republicans let fear of what their adversaries might do, however, they will never accomplish anything. Eventually, I hope and expect, a substantial number of Democrats will learn to work with Republicans in a constructive fashion, at which point the moderate Republicans will regain greater influence in the party. Other Democrats, the ones who follow Al Gore and Howard Dean, may indulge in fantasies of building an underground "resistance movement." Anything is possible, and this country is in dire need of guidance. Let us pray.
Speaking of the mainstream media, the blogosphere is once again in righteous indignation over Newsweek magazine's erroneous story about U.S. military interrogators in Guantanamo, Cuba, who allegedly flushed a Koran down a toilet. Bloody riots broke out in Afghanistan and other countries, and as blogger Michelle Malkin cried out, "Newsweek lied, people died." I would not go that far, but Newsweek obviously has a lot to answer for, and its retraction is only a first step. At least it didn't take them as long to admit the mistake as it took CBS News to admit that the story on Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard was based on phony evidence. There was nothing wrong with the Bush administration putting heavy pressure on Newsweek's editors to retract the story, even though it's much too late to undo the damage to U.S. prestige in the Muslim world.
Tiffs in blogosphere
I've always found Andrew Sullivan to be among the most erudite and intellectually honest of the right-leaning bloggers, even though I disagree with him on some issues. He is understandably more harsh on social conservatives than I am, and of late he has spent an inordinate amount of time bewailing the abuses of prisoners in the war on terrorism and complaining about the fiscal deficits under President Bush. Both are certainly valid concerns, but I just don't see them as gloomily as Sullivan does. Glenn Reynolds responds to Sullivan's critiques and concludes with this understated yet devastating put-down: "But, I confess, I find the question of what Andrew thinks less pressing than I used to."
To my surprise, yesterday morning C-SPAN broadcast live from Arizona, where volunteer border patrols have caused great controversy lately. (See my post of April 19.) Doing a remote broadcast feed is rare if not unprecedented for the staid Congress-focused television service, a clear indication of how hot the immigration issue has become. In recent weeks Latino activists in Maryland have protested the proposed "Real ID" bill that would be a step toward a national identification card, something that libertarians and civil rights folks have warned about for many years. See Washington Post. The REAL ID Act of 2005 was introduced by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) on January 26. "H.R.418 : To establish and rapidly implement regulations for State driver's license and identification document security standards, to prevent terrorists from abusing the asylum laws of the United States, to unify terrorism-related grounds for inadmissibility and removal, and to ensure expeditious construction of the San Diego border fence." See "Thomas" (Library of Congress), and a FAQ page from the usually reliable C-NET. Most of it makes perfect sense and is long overdue, but there are some provisions that may be a cause for concern.
The entitlements issue
Seldom acknowledged in all the discussions over immigration is how our own country's social policies create artificial shortages for labor that create a "great sucking sound" (How's that for irony -- remember Ross Perot?) drawing workers northward. Part of the problem is all the social safety net entitlement programs that make it easy for parents to shirk responsibility for providing for their offspring. It is not that working class people are too lazy to pick tomatoes or mop hospital floors, it's that there are so many labor regulations and minimum wage laws that discourage legitimate hires. Data are simply not available of course, but it is almost certain that the vast majority of firms that currently hire undocumented immigrants fail to live up to all the worker protection laws or Social Security. Indeed, many if not most illegals get hired by submitting fraudulent Social Security numbers, and the employers typically just wink or look the other way. Hey, it holds down costs, doesn't it? And besides, everyone else is doing it, right? (Thanks, Wal-Mart.) Toleration of this disgraceful practice is tantamount to indentured servitude and is unworthy of a country that prides itself on freedom and opportunity. Enough is enough. ¡Ya basta!
The requirements that states uphold stringent documentary standards might be construed as a classic "unfunded mandate." Like President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" education reform, it risks upsetting the balance of power between the states and the Federal government. It is on that basis that I think we need to think through the implications of the REAL ID Bill and give it some REAL scrutiny before putting it into law.
In the midst of all the recent somber news of escalating suicide attacks in Iraq, it brought great cheer to see President Bush being received by huge applauding crowds in the former Soviet republics of Latvia and Georgia last week. Perhaps this outpouring of popular support was in response to Vladimir Putin' recent declaration that the dissolution of the USSR was among the last century's biggest catastrophes. Folks in Riga and Tblisi would beg to differ with that. Or it may be that people who have a very vivid recollection of tyranny are more likely to understand and approve of the Bush foreign policy, based on defending and advancing freedom, than are those who have been "comfortably numb" for many decades. In any case, Bush did well to take the opportunity of the commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe to remind everyone what a high price the world paid when the U.S. opted for stability at the cost of freedom. By this, he tacitly acknowledged the U.S. failure to stand up for its own principles as the Iron Curtain descended upon Eastern Europe in 1945.
Democrat blogger Josh Marshall was outraged at Bush's comparison of the Yalta agreement with Munich or the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and the implication that FDR was a weak-kneed appeaser. The irony here is that Bush has been accused of utopian Wilsonianism in raising the importance of values in U.S. foreign policy far beyond our nation's capacity to carry out those values on a consistent basis. It used to be that those on the Left were considered utopians, but the post-9/11 world has seen a remarkable role reversal in that respect. Moreover, the same lesson about freedom vs. stability could be just as easily derived from El Salvador or Indonesia, and an astute, less defensive person on the Left would have made a rhetorical riposte highlighting that moral weakness often found among "hawks." Mr. Bush would do well to leaven his foreign policy pronouncements with more frequent cautions about our limited means and frank acknowledgements of our concrete interests at stake in the Middle East and other troubled regions.
Just as the President's plane was arriving in Europe, the Democrats' leader in the Senate, Harry Reid of Nevada, commented during a visit to a high school that President Bush is a "loser." See Washington Post. This was a direct violation of one of the basic norms of American politics -- that the president is not to be ridiculed or harshly castigated while travelling abroad. As any teacher knows, loser is probably the worst insult that a teenager in today's hypercompetitive world could ever hurl at another, so given where he was at the time, the epithet uttered by the Nevada senator is not to be dismissed lightly. At first Reid and his staff appeared to apologize, but later he recanted, boasting that he's a "tell it like it is" kind of guy. Utterly tactless, utterly disgraceful. Is that the kind of bipartisan comity that those opposing the "nuclear option" are seeking to preserve?
As the moderate Republicans in the U.S. Senate ponder whether to follow Bill Frist in "going nuclear" to restrict use of filibusters of judicial appointments, word comes of a possible compromise deal. See Byron York in the National Review. Part of me wishes that a sensible compromise could be reached, but I remain convinced that if the Republicans don't act decisively now, they will forfeit a precious opportunity to resolve the fundamental impasse in Washington on favorable terms. If there is a deal, it had better be a good one, with a clear understanding by both sides to exercise their powers in a responsible way from now on.
To understand why it has come to this, read what E. J. Dionne wrote in today's Washington Post, and pay close attention to his underlying premises. Dionne explained why his side (the Democrats) are so fiercely resisting GOP pressure to compromise on the judicial nominations.
"The current acrimony in politics is incomprehensible unless it is understood as the inevitable next act of a long-term struggle. Its ferocity arises from the Democrats' refusal to accept the role assigned them by their opponents. They are taking a stand across a broad front not simply to "obstruct" current GOP designs but to reverse a Republican political offensive that began during Bill Clinton's presidency.
In fact, every one of today's fights can be seen as a response to something that happened in the 1990s."
That is another strong hint that Dionne is among those who cannot get over the "Clinton wars" and see everything in terms of getting revenge. He may have a point about those Republicans who used to deny the need for more federal judges and are now complaining of a "vacancy crisis." His attempt to equate the Democrats' current obstructionist posture with the Republicans during the Clinton years, however, is simply not valid: The Republicans were in the majority for six of Clinton's eight years, and therefore had every right to expect a greater say in what kind of judges would be approved. For a minority party to demand the same degree of power is extremely unreasonable. Dionne correctly states how both sides understand the extremely high stakes in this, and yet he is the perfect example of the presumptuous thinking that assumes that enough "sensible" Republicans will back down when push comes to shove. That is why people like me have become so thoroughly fed up with getting suckered while trying to "build bridges." Dionne did manage to make another good point, however, when he recalled the gloating words of famed anti-tax activist Grover Norquist after the last election:
"Once the minority of House and Senate are comfortable in their minority status, they will have no problem socializing with the Republicans. ... Any farmer will tell you that certain animals run around and are unpleasant. But when they've been 'fixed,' then they are happy and sedate. They are contented and cheerful."
Classic hubris, the intoxication of power. Will Norquist end up ruining the Republicans' ability to govern effectively as a majority party? It would be a hell of a lot easier to convince moderate Republicans to go along, or to convince moderate Democrats to make concessions, if GOP leaders didn't have to disavow such tactlessly demeaning words.
Sean Hannity had George Will as a guest on his radio show today, but I'm not sure if Hannity grasped Will's point that he opposes the "nuclear option" on the grounds of prudence, not justice. Will clearly sympathizes with Senator Frist, but as a devout constitutionalist, he said, "I'm for thwarting majorities on occasion." Me too, "on occasion." Heeding minority concerns as a top priority amounts to self-neutering.
Amidst all the hubbub over the filibuster showdown, the vote by the House of Representatives to restore the ethics rules that had been rewritten for partisan reasons in January was hardly noticed by the mainstream media. (See MSNBC and my January 5 post.) The chastened Speaker Hastert and the Republicans deserve credit for promptly cleaning up their own mess, and making sure that no further ethical lapses take place.
Speaking of which, there have been some nice side-effects from the recent DeLay uproar: Many congresspersons are hastily paying for past junkets and other favors provided by lobbyists, most notably Maryland Democrat Steny Hoyer, the ultimate partisan insider. (See Christian Science Monitor.) I'm reminded of P.J. O'Rourke's book, Parliament of Whores, written back in the days when the Dems ran Capitol Hill like an imperial fiefdom and no one could imagine it being any other way. Of course, some still can't, and that's the problem.
Once again, the battle over teaching evolution is back in the news, but this time the religious activists on the Right have gone too far. Not content to make the (quite valid) point that evolution is a theory, and therefore subject to correction or refinement, some are now organizing to undermine evolution on patently bogus pseudo-scientific grounds. A subcommittee of the Kansas State Board of Education, a majority of whom are Republicans, has been holding hearings on the matter, and most scientists in the state have refused to dignify the proceedings with their presence. Advocates of a purported alternative theory known as "intelligent design" believe that existence of a Creator can be inferred from the fact that evolutionary science cannot answer all the questions about how life arose. That is both true and trivial; science is an ongoing work of advancing human knowledge about the universe that by definition is never-ending. Attacking the firmly-established theory of evolution on the grounds that there are gaps in what it can explain, therefore, is utterly senseless.
One disturbing facet of this case is that one of the "expert witnesses," Jonathan Wells, is a member of the Unification Church. According to the Washington Post, "Wells refers to church leader Sun Myung Moon, saying, "'Father's words, my studies and my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism.'" Wells is also a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, based in Seattle, headed by Bruce Chapman. On its face, the Institute looks legitimate, and although they specifically disavow promoting "intelligent design" or "creationism," they clearly support the efforts of educators who do promote it. It is a flimsy disclaimer at best. Jack Krebs, vice president of Kansas Citizens for Science, correctly summarized what the evolution opponents are up to: "They have created a straw man. They are trying to make science stand for atheism so they can fight atheism." (See above Post article.)
Ironically, that is precisely parallel to what some scientists on the Left are trying to do: trying to make atheism stand for science. In the minds of some people, religion is nothing more than superstition, and by nature, therefore, it is subversive to scientific pursuits. I recall reading a couple months ago about a scientist who was quoted as saying he believes in evolution "with ever fiber of his being," or something like that. Those are the words of a true believer, not a true scientist. I wrote at length on this controversy on January 14, and made further comments on March 1, January 21, January 19, and January 17. In classic dialectical fashion, the insistence by some "pro-science" types that evolution is an established fact, not "just a theory" (false dichotomy) elicits a counter-attack by anti-science people, leading to an escalating spiral based on mutual distrust, like an arms race. Both sides in this absurd "debate" fail to appreciate the respective limits of faith and reason, which is why they ironically need each other as rhetorical foils. Contrary to what either side would acknowledge, however, nothing in the theory of evolution contradicts the notion that a Divine Creator set the world in motion. You certainly don't have to believe in the literal truth of Genesis to accept that. From a detached, philsophical perspective, it may be the case that God exists, or it may not be the case. Some people can't deal with such existential anxiety, but that very tension is what human life is all about. Deal with it.
To sum up, I have zero patience with dogmatists, whether secular or religious, who crusade to impose their vision on truth on the rest of the world. If the Republican party at the national level cannot figure out a way to disentangle itself from the kind of people who are behind the nonsense going on in Kansas, it will have a hard time holding on to its majority status.
A week or two ago I saw the Rev. Gene Robinson, the Episcopal bishop of Vermont who happens to be gay, on C-SPAN, speaking to a Planned Parenthood breakfast meeting. I tried to listen with open ears, but was quickly mortified by Robinson's defiant tone and self-certain attitude. There was not even an inkling of humility or repentance, in spite of the fact that he once abandoned his family, and yet he spared no effort in condemning religious conservatives. On one hand he urges people to see issues in a nuanced way, shunning sharp black vs. white dichotomies, but on the other hand he expresses blisteringly vehement personal opinions about the role of faith in public policy that rival the edicts of Muslim ayatollahs. Quite ironic. Coming from the academic world, I share his appreciation for "shades of gray," but it is the duty of religious leaders not to hem and haw but to provide moral guidance, i.e., follow the rules. See the Washington Times. All this reminds us that, although the Religious Right is getting all the headlines for its excesses these days, the Religious Left is active behind the scenes, promoting an agenda that is overtly hostile to traditional culture and values. I mentioned Robinson on April 8 this year and October 23, 2003 (scroll down). If leaders in the Episcopal Church do not convince him to stay out of politics, I can't see how an outright schism can be avoided.
There has been a lot of commotion in the blogosphere lately about proposed regulation of blogs by the Federal Election Commission, on the grounds that blogs constitute a form of political communicaton on par with television advertising. The problem is that some bloggers are not really independent voices but serve as mouthpieces for the political parties or organizations for which they work. See Washington Post. So, just for the record, I am not getting paid anything by the Republican party for doing the local swacgop.org Web site, beyond being reimbursed for what the Web hosting service charges. The views expressed in this blog come straight from my own mind and/or heart. Of course, that should be obvious, given the frequency with which I take issue with some of the party's policies and leadership.
I don't normally cheer for socialists, but us Yanks owe Tony Blair a lot of gratitude for his loyalty and stubborn determination to press on in the war against terrorism. Where would we be without our British allies? As things stand now, Mr. Blair's party has won a third consecutive election, matching the feat of Margaret Thatcher. Just like in the U.S. elections last fall, the early projections hinted at a possible upset win by the Conservatives, but Labour will retain a substantial edge. As of now, Labour has won 329 seats, a slim majority, while the Conservatives have won at least 159 seats and the Liberal Democrats 51. The popular vote margin is much closer, however: 37%, 32%, 24%, respectively. How undemocratic!? Actually, that's the way single-member district representation (which we also have) works. See the BBC Web site. It's ironic that popular antipathy toward the war was frustrated by the parliamentary system. People choose their local legislator on the basis of party and have little to say about how the parties choose their leaders. Voting for the opposition Tories (under Michael Howard) would probably have resulted in even closer alignment with U.S. foreign policy. Blair says he does not intend to run as the party's leader in the next parliamentary elections, and his chancellor of the exchequer [Gordon Brown] is expected to succeed him in the next three years or so.
Give D.C. a seat in the House
Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA), who recently chaired the hearings on steroid use and has long been a strong backer of baseball in Washington, has introduced the "D.C. Fairness in Representation Act," which would give the District of Columbia a voting seat in the House of Representatives. Good move. Because some Republicans want something in exchange, the bill would temporarily add another seat from Utah, a GOP state with growing population. One of my favorite Republicans, Susan Molinari of New York, appeared at the announcement, along with Mayor Tony Williams, council Chairman Linda Cropp, and Jack Kemp. See Washington Post. Personally, I think it would be better to get this done on its own merits, not as part of a deal. I wish this would be enough to satisfy those folks in D.C. who demand full statehood rights, but I doubt it. Two senators for D.C.? A governor as well as a mayor? Forget it.
Will on Religious Right
George Will, the voice of sobriety and caution on the right, wrote a piece in the Washington Post that warns the Republicans not to get any more closely tied to Christian activists than they already are. Will referred in particular to the "imprudent" legislation concerning Terri Schiavo, and reminded readers that the Constitution forbids making religious belief a qualification for holding public office. He's right. Will cooler heads prevail in the GOP leadership, so they can get back to their job of reducing the size of government? Or have they given up on that already? Interestingly, Will mentioned that Pat Robertson recently said he would accept the liberal-moderate Rudy Giuliani as the GOP nominee in 2006, suggesting that the Religious Right is itself worried about getting carried away with its own agenda, risking a loss in the next election.
Starbucks had a full-page ad in the Washington Post heralding "Cover the Uninsured Week," a prime example of corporate feel-goodism. Almost no one seriously questions the notion that expanding insurance coverage to a broader segment of the population would be a good thing -- as long as someone else pays for it, that is. Most Americans are blissfully unaware of how the health care sector operates, because they are relatively insulated from the ultimate consequences of their cherished health insurance benefits: exponential growth in the cost of medical services. Hence arises the extreme hypocrisy of calling for universal health coverage while hiring illegal nannies and making excuses for those who cut business expenses by employing illegal aliens who are not eligible for such entitlements. The fact that health benefits are largely untaxed means that average folks don't know how much they are really paying for their health care, indirectly that is. One of these days the government will have little choice but to start taxing employer contributions to health insurance, which will provoke a rebellion by the clueless middle class. The problem is not that poor people don't have insurance, it's that the politically mandate entitlements demanded by the middle class create huge distortions throughout our health care sector, resulting in excessive tests for some and inadequate or tardy treatment for others. Maybe we should have an "Uncover the Insured Week" instead.
Here's some background on the basic policy issue. Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation proposes modest incentives via tax breaks to make it easier for small businesses to offer health care insurance coverage, accepting the mainstream premise that universal coverage is the ideal goal. His plan would do nothing to address the insurance-caused upward spiral of health costs. In contrast, John Goodman of the CATO Institute is keenly aware that drastic reforms of entitlements are essential for us to maintain socio-economic vitality. Many people consider libertarian arguments too extreme, but in the long term, such market-based policies are the only alternative to gradual decay à la Europe. The idea that public policy can ignore fundamental objective economic realities and be based entirely upon the subjective preferences of the public is flat-out delusional, but pandering to popular delusions is one of the things that democracies do best.
In terms of corporate politics, it is entirely possible that Starbucks is motivated by bottom-line concerns as much as by pandering to its cleints' egos. They don't like having to compete against firms that are less generous to their workers, or who pay less to foreign coffee bean suppliers. There are currently five Starbucks shops or booths in Charlottesville, and one more coming, but absolutely none in the Shenandoah Valley! Is it possible that this might have something to do with the sharply diverging political affiliations on the respective sides of the Blue Ridge? Martin Sieff at The Globalist thinks so. After the last election, he made a provocative interpretion of American consumer tastes in psycho-sociological terms:
Wal-Mart, for its part, wants you to imagine that you are living in value-driven, small-town America, where down-to-earth people like yourself go about their everyday lives.
Starbucks, on the other hand, wants you to believe you are in a sophisticated club or restaurant where only you and the Nobel Prize winner for molecular biology at the next table drink that particular sugar-free, vanilla, extra-foam latte.
Seen from this perspective, the division of Republicans and Democrats, 'red' America vs. 'blue' America, makes vastly more symbolic sense. The election returns have made sure of that.
In this sense, shopping at Wal-Mart is about doing well for the family -- while the needs of the nation are neglected.
In contrast, sipping coffee at Starbucks is ultimately about individual psychological and emotional health. It is about taking a few minutes off to stroke the frazzled nerves and the wounded ego.
In short, Starbucks is selling classical short-term gratification absolved of guilt, and its left-liberal politics are just one part of the marketing campaign.
I have often expressed doubts (January 4, March 30, April 7, and April 12) about the ultimate "mean-spirited Republican," Tom DeLay of Texas, on the grounds that he seems to be doing the GOP more harm than good. Nevertheless, I keep an open mind, and on January 6 I actually complimented him. In his column yesterday (Chicago Sun-Times), Michael Novak provided some solid reasons for keeping DeLay, mainly that he has played a key behind-the-scenes role in getting important legislation passed, including the recent budget resolution. I would feel better about that if the Republicans in Congress these days weren't acting so much like Democrats in handing out budget-bleeding tax breaks to their favorite constituents. (As I keep saying, simply abolishing the corporate income tax would negate that pernicious prerogative of Congress in one fell swoop.) Anyway, the ethics charges against DeLay still seem trumped up to me, but that's par for the course in Washington these days. The recent series of "DeLay death watch" comic strips in Doonesbury were worth a chuckle, drawing an ironic if less-than-tasteful parallel to the agonizing last days of Terri Schiavo. For the moment, however, reports of DeLay's impending political death seem greatly exaggerated.
What a week it's been in Washington! After weeks of rumors and speculation, it does appear that Senator Frist -- a likely presidential candidate for 2008 -- is determined to force the issue of changing Senate rules on use of filibusters once and for all. On Sunday he appeared on a religious broadcast and suggested that opposition to the conservative judges nominated by President Bush indicated hostility to people of faith. (See Monday's Washington Post.) The Democrat leaders in the Senate, Harry Reid (NV and Richard Durbin (IL), as well as Joe Biden, suggested that a compromise is possible in which some but not all of the conservative judges in question would be confirmed. (Washington Post.) On Tuesday, Frist turned them down. He has put his reputation on the line, and has left himself no room to back down. Ultimately it will be decided by a few GOP moderates in the Senate, such as John Warner. In the Washington Times last week, he was quoted as saying "the right of unlimited debate has been a hallmark of the Senate since its inception."
As a conservative who strives to see issues from a detached perspective and puts a high priority on maintaining a degree of civility in our nation's political life, I see this choice with grave trepidation. As a scholar in political science I have a strong appreciation for the unique role and customs of the United States Senate, "the greatest deliberative body in the world." Yet contrary to what many Democrats are charging, ironically, the proposed rule change would not be a "threat to democracy," but would actually be a move toward a majoritarian form of democracy in which the popular will is translated more directly into public policy. Whether that is good or bad depends on your view of whether serious reforms our needed in our political system, and what the public's role in that reform should be. Traditionally, the Senate has served as a buffer against sudden fluctuations in public opinion, striving for broad consensus wherever possible. So if we are to accept that this proposed rule change to limit filibusters is necessary, we must be very clear on the reasons pro and con.
"Save the filibuster!"
A good starting point for laying out the aspects of this issue is the television ad campaign sponsored by People for the American Way, the left-liberal group co-founded by Norman Lear. It begins with a scene with Jimmy Stewart from the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and ends with a plea from a Los Angeles firefighter, Ted Nonini, who identifies himself as a "common-sense Republican." The ad and the associated Save the filibuster Web site are obviously reaching out to folks like me. Here is a quick assessment and rebuttal of their talking points:
The notion they advance that the Republican Party aspires to "absolute power" is patently absurd, something only a paranoid person would believe.
Dire warnings based on the fact that Federal judges get lifetime appointments suggest that the political stakes in their selection may be too high. So why not limit them to a ten-year term?
Republicans are not seeking to do away with the filibuster, but merely want to limit its use; minority voices will still be heard.
This issue is not about "checks and balances," in which parts of government prevent each other from getting out of hand, it is about the Senate's own (internal) procedural rules. The Constitution allows each chamber to set its own rules, and clearly specifies the circumstances in which a two-thirds supermajority is required. Filibustering judicial appointments is a matter of custom, not law. Unfortunately, it has gotten out of hand since the Democrats became the minority party.
The ironic subtext to this campaign is that these Democrats acknowledge, albeit implicitly, that they themselves might get carried away with policy mischief if they returned to power and the Republicans weren't around to keep them honest. That, of course, was the normal state of affairs from roughly 1964 until 1980: virtual one-party rule. The Republicans are not even remotely close to attaining the degree of power the Democrats wielded back then. Nevertheless, the Republicans do need to remember a fundamental point: What goes around comes around.
Some Democrats are outraged that Sen. Frist used his appearance on a religious broadcast for political purposes, and I can understand how they feel. When Bill Clinton was president, he often made highly charged political speeches from the pulpits of friendly churches, which seemed highly inappropriate to me. In my mind, the less that places of worship are used for political purposes, the better. So I would agree that Frist went too far in pandering to a constituent group, wrongly equating obstructionism by Democrats with hostility to faith.
Almost lost in the shuffle is the original question of whether the seven judges nominated by President Bush but thwarted by the Senate Democrats are well suited for the Federal Appeals bench. So, what about the nominees' qualifications? I don't pretend to know enough to make a firm assessment, but both Priscilla Owen and Janice Rogers Brown do at least have solid careers and have issued controversial opinions. The following comment about Janice Rogers Brown from the Save Our Courts Web site speaks volumens: "In addition, Brown has often been the lone justice to dissent on the California Supreme Court, illustrating that her judicial philosophy is outside the mainstream." To them, dissent from what it politically correct is an unforgiveable sin. To an impartial observer, such dissent plays a vital role in weighing the scales of justice. Remember Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the "Great Dissenter"?
According to a Washington Post poll on Monday, two thirds of the American people are against the rule change. It sounds suspiciously like one of those sleazy "push polls" used during campaigns. What's more, how many Americans have the slightest idea about how Congress operates? Most have a hard time naming their own House representative and senators, much less being familiar with the issues being debated. So while such polls have little bearing on how Congress runs itself, the very fact that the arcanery of congressional procedures are making headline news may have a very positive effect: Average folks might actually start paying attention to what goes on in the Capitol building from now on. The fundamental point remains, however: Democracy does not mean policy is driven by polls, it means that policy is driven by the representatives elected by the people. If they don't like the results, the vote the bums out in the next election.
Glenn Reynolds has been reticent on this question, but has expressed occasional qualms about the religious right, which I share. See (InstaPundit). Andrew Sullivan has become utterly disgusted with the Republicans, seeing them as a tool of "theocrats" like James Dobson, and the risk of alienating more serious (economic) conservatives like him must be taken into account. Josh Marshall is predictably contemptuous toward everything the Republicans are doing, calling attention to a student "filibuster" of the Frist Center at Princeton University. See Talking Points Memo.) The Daily Kos recently provided a very apt interpretation of what is going on:
the "nuclear option" moniker isn't just appropriate because of its threatened effects on Senate comity, as so many current media accounts would have it. Rather, I think the name is appropriate because it captures just how raw a power play Frist's intended maneuver really is.
Exactly! An unwarranted grab for power by one side in a political contest, as we saw by the well-funded left-wing media campaign pushing John Kerry's election last fall, generally elicits an equal but opposite reaction by the other side, in a process of mutual escalation that continues until one side or the other backs down.
The ethics of bluffing
The "nuclear" metaphor may carry more extremist connotations than is really warranted, but it does shed light on a very apt precedent or model on which to base our decision on this question. Back in the early 1980s, many antinuclear activists cited the position paper of the Roman Catholic Church on nuclear weapons and the ethics of the strategy of nuclear deterrence. Is it moral to base a defense posture on the threat of using weapons of mass destruction that would kill millions of people? The Catholic bishops said that nuclear deterrence could be justified as long as it serves to prevent war from breaking out, but that the actual use of such weapons could never be permissible. The logical inconsistency of this position was all too transparent, but one could not seriously expect divinely-oriented thinkers to articulate a military strategy, any more than generals could give a sermon. Likewise, in the situation today, one could say that threatening to make the "nuclear" rules change is OK as long as the GOP senators don't actually follow through with their threat should the Democrats call their bluff. This highlights the difficulty, or near impossibility, of average citizens weighing in on an issue pertaining to how the Senate runs its own business.
Compromise: a virtue?
In the Outlook section of Sunday's Washington Post David Broder, brought a sensible perspective to the debate, urging the Democrats to compromise for practical reasons, not because he favors the judges. He believes the Democrats are in a losing position but don't yet realize it. There are many signs, however, that many if not most Democrats reject compromise outright, thinking the tide of history has turned in their favor. Yesterday Al Gore spoke to a MoveOn gathering, indulging in ever-more strident sarcasm. Curtailing the filibuster would "undermine the rule of law"? Utterly ridiculous. On the local front, a letter by a clergyman in today's Staunton News Leader referred to "Teams of raving fascist idiots in Washington D.C. calling themselves 'the Republican Party'." Well, isn't that special? There can be no compromise with people who think like that.
Going "nuclear"? A fair and balanced decision
Reasons to be "pro-nuclear"
Reasons to be "anti-nuclear"
It is the only way of tackling the underlying problem of too many elitist, unaccountable judges who lack respect for our nation's cultural heritage.
Curtailing the filibuster might come back to haunt the GOP if they lose a majority in the Senate; it would raise the stakes in the next elections even higher.
It would reward voters and conservative activists by carrying out policy pledges, thus living up to accountability standards.
It would risk alienating moderate and libertarian voters who don't want to go that far.
Flinching now would dishearten Republican activists while rewarding Democrat obstructionism, encouraging even stiffer resistance by leftists.
Republicans are on weak moral ground because they once filibustered against Clinton judicial nominees.
It would send a clear message that Republicans will not put up with diversionary nonsense and calumnies about Republican "extremists" from the left-fringe Democrats forever.
It would break a long-standing impasse, set the stage for a policy dialogue on new terms, and make it possible for moderates in both parties to start working together again for the public good.
How far to go?
Most Republicans are aware that restricting use of the filibuster could come back to haunt them some day, which is why there is so much reluctance about carrying out the threat. At the same time, there is an increasing awareness within GOP ranks that, if they want to get anything significant done in Bush's second term, it's now or never. The main problem is not "extremism" on the Republican side, but the inability of most Democrats to accept minority status. They never really came to terms with their historic defeat in 1994, which goes a long way toward explaining the feeling many of them had that President Bush was not legitimately elected. In the end, one's position on the otherwise-arcane procedural question depends on one's view of the fundamental public policy issue of whether or not the judicial branch has gotten out of hand by setting precedents and issuing rulings that facilitate and even encourage lawlessness and immorality. If you think that is the case, as I do, you need to take a serious look at the "nuclear option" as being our last best hope for serious legal reform. In politics as in life, opportunities that are not seized while the iron is hot are quickly lost forever.
Finally, it must be admitted that the Democrats brought this situation upon themselves. They've been spoiling for a showdown all along, confident that enough "common sense" (or wishy-washy?) Republicans will once again opt for getting along rather than getting ahead. As one who shares some of the moderates' discomfort with some of the more zealous religious conservatives, I am very attentive to opposition voices, at least the sensible ones. The fact that some moderate Democrats such as Joe Biden have offered compromises is encouraging, but at this late date it may not be enough. He, Lieberman, and others had a chance to distance themselves from MoveOn, et al., and now it's time to see which side has more determined support. If Republicans can't stand united against a patently bogus political campaign by far-left Democrats, they really don't deserve to govern the country. Backing down now would be tremendously disheartening to Republican activists, forfeiting a dynamic resource for future campaigns.
That leads me to the reluctant conclusion that the Republicans in the Senate must press ahead with a vote on the rules change, as long as there is a clear understanding that the added power will be used responsibly, and for clear principles. The power to either save the Republicans' long-term reform agenda, or put it in serious jeopardy by catering to fund-raising interest groups or certain factions within the party, is now in the hands of Senator Frist. If he lets majority control be used to advance an agenda that is not broadly supported within the party, there will be hell to pay one day, and the Democrats will not be in any mood to play nice when they eventually regain majority status. (It will happen some day, Grover Norquist notwithstanding.) If the Republicans flinch out of an exaggerated sense of duty to preserve (or bring back?) "good feelings" on Capitol Hill, they will cripple themselves for years to come. Once again, the Democrats will have succeeded in playing them for fools.
With all the recent talk about culture wars, intolerance, and dogmatic virtuecrats on both the Right and Left, it is fitting to recall a proud chapter from our country's past that took place in the village of Vlishing (now called Flushing), on Long Island, in 1657, while England was embroiled in civil war. I recently saw a book review about the Flushing Remonstrance and remember learning about the event, as well as Susan B. Anthony, George C. Rogers, and other bits of American history, from my stamp collecting days. It was a formal letter of protest to Governor Stuyvesant, who had decreed that Quakers and other religious noncomformists should be banned. It set a precedent for multicultural tolerance and pluralism, which became fundamental cultural norms as the colonies evolved toward independent nationhood. It should remind us all that public policy and laws should never coerce people into behaving according to the norms of any particular denomination. That principle might not be enough to settle the Terri Schiavo controversy, for example, but it certainly would accord professional pharmacists the right to dispense or not dispense medications and treatments as their own ethical standards dictate. For the full text, see www.nyym.org/flushing/remons.html
UPDATE: Donald Sensing talks about religious tolerance in light of the overtures by new Pope Benedict XVI toward the Muslim world. Given the ongoing persecution of Christians and "blasphemers" in Pakistan and other Muslim countries, it would seem that reciprocity in that regard is a long way off.
I noticed that the Washington Post is using the phrase "announced attendance" (as in 30,728 yesterday) when referring to games at RFK, a subtle hint that a lot of paid-for seats are not occupied. I have noticed nominal attendance being at least ten or twenty percent in excess of apparent attendance at some games on TV and in person, and I wonder if anyone has tabulated actual human attendance and the difference between that and paid attendance. Why would anyone in their right mind buy tickets without intending to see the game? Well, most of those empty seats are for season ticket holders, of course, and most of those are bought by corporations and lobbying firms who use them as deal-making incentives. Since they get to write off ticket expenses on their tax returns anyway, the bosses really don't care so much if the tickets don't get used on some days. That is one more reason why I favor elimination of the corporate income tax (replaced by a luxury tax so as to be revenue-neutral), to eliminate all those accounting loopholes that create needless distortions in our economy. (Unbeknownst to most people, total corporate income tax revenues are much less than the total of personal income tax anyway.) Of course, such a radical reform would take most of the fun out of being a congressperson, most of whom spend much of their time monkeying with the U.S. Tax Code in order to satsify lobbyists, in order to raise funds for reelection, in order to ... why did they originally run for office, again?
Yesterday's surprising postponement of the committee vote on whether to recommend confirming John Bolton as U.N. Ambassador raises important policy issues in its own right, but it also provides fascinating analogies with past controversies over high government officials. Conservatives were so embittered by the way Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork was treated on Capitol Hill in 1988 that they made his name into a verb, a very appropriate one at that. Senator Voinovich (R-OH) withdrew his support for Bolton at the last minute, forcing Chairman Lugar to postpone the vote. See Washington Post. Voinovich was vilified today by Rush Limbaugh and quite a few Republicans today, but I watched that committee meeting on C-SPAN2, and I thought he made an excellent point: If being an arrogant S.O.B. disqualifies a prospective nominee, then what about Richard Holbrooke, who served in that post under President Clinton? By all accounts, he was a brutal bully in private meetings, and was used to getting his way at the negotiating table by indiscriminate use of bluster. And what about the legendary (but concealed from the public) fury of Bill, Hillary, Henry Kissinger toward hapless underlings? Are we detecting a pattern here? Clearly you don't claw your way to the top of the heap in Washington by being Mr. Nice Guy, nor should we expect to get much reform done at the United Nations with a "Herman Milquetoast" approach.
So, I am less concerned about Mr. Bolton's social graces or the way the Democrats are gleefully taking cheap partisan potshots at him than I am about the possibility that he may have persecuted and isolated dissenting analysts. If he indeed kept vital intelligence information away from Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, as is alleged, that alone would be grounds for rejection, I think. There is nothing wrong with allowing more time to find out whether some of the accusations against Bolton might be valid.
Coincidentally, Mr. Holbrooke had a piece in the Washington Post today, putting an upbeat spin on the continuing ethnic conflict in Kosovo. The 1998 U.S. intervention there was as much his doing as anyone else's, so he has a lot to answer for. What should have been a job for Europeans instead ended up with U.S. forces enmeshed in an intractable conflict that had no direct bearing on U.S. interests. As The Economist put it at the time, it was "liberal imperialism" at its finest. I must say, though, I was struck by Holbrooke's conciliatory words towards Condoleeza Rice and praise for recent active engagement by the Bush administration with regard to the Darfur/Sudan atrocities. That is one issue on which nearly all Americans can agree. Is this the rebirth of bipartisan foreign policy?
After criticism from Sen. John Warner and concerns about the appropriateness of such a venture in war time that were expressed by some generals, the National Guard decided against spending $6 million for a three-year naming rights contract at RFK Stadium. It's probably all for the best, but I just hope the contract doesn't go to some group like BDM, AFGE, or AARP. Speaking of which, Rudy Riet sends word of a citizens' group in D.C. that wants to call RFK "Taxation Without Representation Stadium." That, of course, harkens to the slogan of D.C. statehood rights advocates, such as Adam Eidinger. Personally, I think the original constitutional rationale for excluding congressional representation for residents of the Federal District no longer makes any sense, since most of the political insiders against whom that constitutional provision were aimed live in the suburbs anyway, and I don't think Maryland or Virginia would accept any loss of their precious congressional seats. So I say give D.C. a seat in the House, but not in the Senate, since the District never existed as a state in its own right but is an artificial creation of the rest of the states, and remains beholden to them.
By now we are well accustomed to the scare tactics and distorted logic being employed to try to thwart President Bush's proposed reform of Social Security. As a prime example, an editorial in last Wednesday's New York Times denounced President Bush for saying while in West Virginia (see speech text HERE) that the Social Security "trust fund" is nothing more than IOUs. They say, "Mr. Bush wants Americans to believe that the trust fund is a joke. But if the trust fund is a joke, so is the full faith and credit of the United States." That totally misconstrues the point that Mr. Bush was making, which is simply that what you put into Social Security system has almost nothing to do with what you get back from it. U.S. Treasury obligations per se are most certainly not a joke, but one must keep in mind that "investing" in them does not promote the creation of real wealth, as with corporate stocks and bonds, but merely facilitates the transfer of financial burden from one generation to the next, in a never-ending game of passing the buck. Phil Faranda put it very succinctly: "Mr. Okrent: debits are on the left, credits are on the right."
Precisely because Social Security is not a real "trust fund" but operates just like any other government "entitlement," with automatic benefit payments, it needs periodic fixups and occasional major reforms. In some years there is a surplus that every elected leader wants to spend as quickly as possible, and in other years there is a deficit, and everyone points fingers at each other. That is no way to provide for retirement or family emergencies. E. J. Dionne unwittingly proves that point in today's Washington Post . His first sentence offers hope that some bipartisan compromise may be possible, and the next sentence shows, once again, that Democrats see Social Security not as a self-sustaining financial cushion in which all Americans share an interest, but as a redistributionist piñata:
You can reject outlandish claims that Social Security faces some sort of "crisis" and still acknowledge that it faces a gap in funding for the long haul. The estate tax should be part of the solution.
Frankly, I would agree with Dionne that the Republican plan to permanently eliminate the estate tax (what he calls "The Paris Hilton Tax Cut") was going to far, but the fact that he regards a 45 percent rate as reasonable shows that it's just an easy cash cow for him. Like any narcotic that is harmless in small doses, ever-growing reliance on the estate tax has had terrible consequences in the past, such as forcing many family farms out of business. Say what you will about the equity of the federal estate tax, it should have nothing to do with shoring up the long-term deficit in Social Security.
But isn't Bush getting killed politically by touching "the third rail"? A poll in the Wall Street Journal would seem to indicate deep divisions within the Republican party over the Social Security issue, but Bush seems limber enough and determined enough to score at least a partial victory. Indeed, almost everyone tacitly acknowledges that the current system cannot be sustained in the long run, so it's mostly just a matter of putting up with populist heckling and navigating the procedural rapids on Capitol Hill. I'm encouraged by the frank talk of bold alternatives by such Republicans as Lindsey Graham, and President Bush to his credit welcomes open debate. Nevertheless, Bush shares some of the blame for failing to articulate his intentions and ultimate purposes more clearly, as lampooned in Sunday's Doonesbury strip. It was a mistake to say there is a "crisis" in Social Security. I'm more convinced all the time that the term privatization is scaring people off, and that the emphasis should be on eliminating the automatic escalation of Social Security benefits, while providing more incentives for people to save (via tax exemptions), rather than diverting funds from Social Security payroll taxes.
For the curious and/or confused, here is a do-it-yourself alternative Social Security benefits calculator, from Patrick Ruffini:
Former Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger pleaded guilty to charges of stealing government documents from the National Archives and will avoid jail time. The possibility that he was not trying to hide something that would have been very damaging to the Clinton administration when he stuffed White House policy drafts in his pants is so small that it's not even worth pretending. The whole episode was ludricous but also very revealing, on several fronts: "Where's the outrage?" Imagine what would happen to Condi Rice if she ever did something like that? You're right, I can't imagine her doing such a thing either.
Rep. Chris Shays (R-CT), the vocal moderate who recently grandstanded during the steroid hearings, has sharply criticized Tom DeLay, which will no doubt help garner a few hundred votes back home. No surprise there. There may be rumblings about DeLay in the GOP's social conservative wing, however: Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) said that DeLay should come forward and answer the ethical and legal questions. He reminded everyone that just because one doesn't like something DeLay did doesn't mean it was illegal or improper, which is a refreshingly forthright position. (See news.yahoo.com.) DeLay now has the choice of either airing his laundry, or else clinging to power, whatever the cost may be to his party. Our local newspaper, the Staunton News Leader opined today that "DeLay should relinquish his post as majority leader for the good of the Republican Party." Do they have the party's best interests at heart? The fact that they put DeLay's (probable) infractions on the same level as the dirty deeds of Jim Wright, while stating erroneously that Republicans have rallied around DeLay (only some have, in fact) makes me think not. DeLay may turn out to be entirely innocent, but I fear that Republican leaders will soon regret making party loyalty a higher priority than ethical integrity. (Remember what happened to Rep. Joel Hefley?) Then I heard Rush Limbaugh ranting about the Democrats' objective of undermining the Republican majority, which is no doubt true, but then he went on to proclaim in fervent tones what a decent and honorable person DeLay is. Click.
Prince Charles and Camilla will "acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed" at tomorrow's nuptials. Episcopalians (the "Church Lady," perhaps?) will recognize those lines from the General Confesson (traditional version) in Holy Communion services. It's an appropriate solemn gesture of repentance for this tragic couple, who will be married in a small, private civil ceremony, and then be blessed by the Church of England in a star-studded gala service at Windsor Castle. Then it's off to an idyllic honeymoon on the barren, windswept hills of Scotland. See foxnews.com.
This otherwise-marginal historical landmark happens to have great relevance for the Anglican Communion, in light of recent events. Ever since Henry VIII and the break with Rome, the English monarchy has had a special role as "defender of the faith." Would the Church of England's moral authority erode under a king with a sullied past? The Anglican Communion has teetered on the edge of outright schism ever since Gene Robinson was consecrated as bishop of Vermont in November 2003. Robinson left his wife and children back in the 1970s to live with another man, raising grave questions about the church's position on morality and the sanctity of marriage. Most Anglican churches in Africa and Asia, which account for a rapidly growing fraction of the global population of Anglican communicants, insist on traditional morality and reject the ordination of homosexual priests and bishops. Many Episcopalians (i.e., American Anglicans) seem to give little regard to such protests by traditionalists, but last month the Episcopal Church U.S.A. agreed to a moratorium on the ordination of new bishops, to give the church time to heal. Fine.
Then this week Bishop Robinson reopened old wounds when he suggested that Jesus Christ might have been gay; see The Telegraph. That article mentions a Web site, Virtue Online, "the voice for global orthodox Anglicanism." Robinson later said he that had been misinterpreted, but the general thrust of his comments does little to raise confidence that he puts a high priority on healing the church. Robinson's ordination has opened a can of worms, and as long as he assumes a high public profile as bishop, reconciliation among the Anglican faithful will be be very difficult.
Yesterday's Washington Post had another article on Tom DeLay, accusing him of taking money from lobbyists to pay for a trip to Russia in 1997. Earlier reports made similar allegations about his trips to Great Britain in 2000 and South Korea in 2001. I have high regard for journalistic integrity at the Post, whose news reporting is not nearly as subject to editorial bias as the New York Times or CBS News. Yet all the recent negative stories about DeLay do make one wonder whether there just might be some political agenda behind it. Remember how the Democrats' allies in the press forced Newt Gingrich to retire as House Speaker over that stupid book deal? There are a lot of similarities between these two cases in terms of gruff personalities and how each man brought problems upon himself, but DeLay is not strongly identified with any particular reform campaign, as Newt was. DeLay has denounced the attacks as part of a campaign to cripple the conservative movement, and there may be some truth to that, but a biased press does not excuse a party leader from poor judgment that reflects poorly upon his or her party. Anyone who remembers the "Keating 7" savings and loan scandal (all the guilty congressmen were Democrats except for John McCain) or the Jim Wright book deal scandal of the late 1980s should know how important it is to maintain high ethical standards. Some Republicans in Congress are rallying behind DeLay, but I will wait and see. Based on what I know right now, however, I don't think he's worth defending. President Bush will be much more likely to overcome skeptics and get something passed on Social Security reform this year if he is not burdened with the baggage of more Tom DeLay scandals.
Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II in 1978, was one of the true giants of the 20th Century. He is, along with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, widely regarded as playing a pivotal role in resisting and ultimately overthrowing communist rule in Eastern Europe. In the Catholic Church, he put the brakes on the leftist "Liberation Theology" movement which was expounded by Gustavo Gutierrez (Peru), Bishop Oscar Romero (martyred in El Salvador), and Jean Bertrand Aristide (Haiti). He was not a stodgy traditionalist, however, and he put Christ's teachings into action, inspiring millions to follow in his footsteps. His campaign against what he called the "culture of death" (linking abortion, euthanasia, war, and capital punishment) was rejected by many people, but one must give him credit for being consistent and sincere. Being put on a feeding tube just as Terri Schiavo's feeding tube was taken away put this issue in sharp relief, and briefly raised the uncomfortable possibility that the Pope might be kept alive, but in a coma, for many weeks or months. He also encouraged tentative meetings between Catholic and Anglican bishops and theologians, offering a glimmer of hope for an eventual end to the schism occasioned by the Protestant Reformation. In the realm of policy, he put a big effort into Jubilee 2000, the millennial campaign to get the banks of rich countries to forgive debts owed by Third World countries. He was right to identify a critical problem that needs to be addressed, but I take issue with the proposed solutions.
For me it is sad that all of John Paul's visits to Latin America, where he beatified several indigenous martyrs and other revered persons as saints (with the notable exception of Sarita Colonia in Peru), did not do more to revitalize the Catholic Church, which remains divided in political and social terms and is losing members to various evangelical churches. Just as the deep love and devotion to him by Catholics in this country is often tempered by disagreement with his dictates regarding abortion, divorce, etc., so too are many Latin Americans reluctant to fully embrace what he preached. For further reflections on the Pope, see Phil Faranda. Also, see the official Vatican Web site.
Whatever findings come from the autopsy, no one on earth will ever know what if anything Terri Schiavo was feeling as she starved to death this week. Personally, I'm in favor of allowing people who are in agony or without hope of recovery to die peacefully, but I do not presume that other people should think as I do, and I simply cannot understand how the law could prevent parents from keeping their own child alive if they so choose (and are willing to pay for it). Much of the commentary about this sad case has focused on the political ramifications, and whether most of the folks on either side are truly sincere or merely opportunistic. Such efforts are in vain. Every time I hear another sarcastic comment about this case, I'm more convinced that much of this country is spiritually numb, if not dead.
Many pundits are already writing the epitaph for President Bush's push for Social Security reform, but it will be many months or even years before the final outcome of that initiative are known. In the mean time, however, this battle has raised fears that the Republican tide has already begun to ebb. E. J. Dionne took a welcome step back from his usual partisan trench warfare to apply his powers of semi-objective political analysis in yesterday's Washington Post. Noting the abysmal esteem the two parties have for each other at present, he observed,
The paradoxical result of this mutual contempt is that each side is simultaneously underestimated and overestimated. As a result, current political arrangements are seen as permanent and the possibilities of political change are missed -- even when change is in the process of happening.
Pretty astute: all the recent petty cacaphony on Capitol Hill and GOP threats of using the "nuclear option" against Democratic obstructionism may conceal the fact that the general public is leaving the politicians behind. Dionne goes on to detail the splits between social conservatives and economic conservatives (or libertarians) in the Republican party, and what that portends. (Hint: He can barely contain his glee.) One leading pundit who shares that assessment of recent trends but is not happy about it, is Andrew Sullivan, who writes:
It's been clear now for a while that the religious right controls the base of the Republican party, and that fiscal left-liberals control its spending policy. That's how you develop a platform that supports massive increases in debt and amending the Constitution for religious right social policy objectives. But the Schiavo case is breaking new ground. For the religious right, states' rights are only valid if they do not contradict religious teaching.
I would grant that a "conservative crackup" is possible, but I don't think it's the most likely scenario. Though Dionne and Sullivan are correct to point out latent tensions among the factions on the Right, I think they overplay it. Personally, I don't share the intensity of feelings about the Terri Schiavo case that many religious conservatives do, but for the most part I respect their position. I certainly don't look down on them, as many elitists do. Indeed, I think the issues raised by social conservatives are often quite valid, but I see the breakdown of values as a direct consequence of New Deal/Great Society programs. That is, most social ills are caused, directly or indirectly, by a clumsy Big Government -- however well-intentioned its bureaucrats may be. Fixing those ills, therefore, does not require draconian new laws but simply the abolition of failing "nanny state" institutions and the dull, mediocre mindset that goes with them. (Obviously, easier said than done!) If enough social conservatives and economic conservatives could only grasp this basic point and see how their long-term goals converge, the Republicans can still hope to maintain a durable coalition of reform. Some of the religious conservatives are despairing right now, but I have a feeling that their cause may yet serve a purpose in shedding light on "What's become of us?"
More generally, all these fascinating cross-currents of American politics highlight the paradox of what it means to be a conservative in a place and time when the status quo is so deeply liberal. Forget what the polls say about Americans' self-identification, we are a lot more like the coddled, complacent welfare-state Europeans than we would like to imagine. Thus, as with many "conservatives" in Europe, there is a strong tendency to play it safe and acquiesce in a statist paradigm, pretending that things will somehow get better on their own. Not bloody likely.
What worries me more about the Republicans these days is a seeming reluctance to engage in critical self-reflection. The dominant attitude is a nervous "don't rock the boat." We all know about President Bush's low regard for contrary opinions, which "Doonesbury" has lampooned over the past several weeks. If that sort of thinking spreads, and tolerance for wayward behavior among party members increases, then the Republicans will have lost any chance of becoming the "party of reform" to which they aspire.
For example, Thor Halvorssen (link via Instapundit) notes that Jack Kemp was recently negotiating a major oil deal with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, near the top of Washington's list of foreign rogues. Kemp has also been associated with Samir A. Vincent, an agent of Saddam Hussein who was part of the U.N. oil-for-food scam.
Likewise, in the March 22 issue of New York Times, conservative pundit David Brooks exposes some "Masters of Sleaze" on the Right, folks like Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and Jack Abramoff. Like the bosses of Tammany Hall in the 19th Century, these policy advocates let success go to their head after the 1995 Republican Revolution and decided to cash in while the gettin' was good. They lobbied on behalf of notorious bad guys such as Angola's Jonas Savimbi and Congo's Mobutu Sese Seko, promoting them as champions of liberty. Brooks writes, "Soon the creative revolutionaries were blending the high-toned forms of the think tank with the low-toned scams of the buckraker." I was never particularly impressed by Norquist's single-minded obsession with cutting taxes without regard to consequences, and the more I learn about him, the less impressed I get.
Another heavyweight giving the Republicans a bad image is House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who is in a heap o' trouble back in Texas over (possible) campaign finance irregularities and the redistricting controversy. (I drew attention to his dubious role in the Schiavo case on March 22.) I was greatly encouraged when I saw Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute make some scathing criticisms of DeLay in a television commentary. It needed to be said by someone of Ornstein's stature and impeccable conservative credentials.
Another recent breath of fresh air in Washington is Karen Hughes, the capable and forthright former Bush White House adviser who returned to Texas two years ago, an apparent victim of "mastermind" Karl Rove. She just returned to Washington to become an Undersecretary of State for public diplomacy. I tend to be skeptical of "winning hearts and minds" around the world, but she is probably one of the best suited for that extremely challenging job. In sum, the cause of mainstream, sensible, non-hysterical conservatives is not yet lost, but more such leaders need to step up to the plate.
In a reasonably sane world there would be no occasion to comment on the terrible tragedy of people like Terri Schiavo in a political context. Laws would be written in such a way that would enable people to pay, if they so choose, to keep alive close family members who are in a prolonged state of unconsciousness, in cases where no living will can be found. Conversely, no court would force anyone to assume the financial burden for artificial life support or feeding. In our ugly world of reality, however, it is the fate of Terri Schiavo to serve as the pawn of warring political factions. Some people are passionately concerned with the case, such as Phil Faranda, who notes that the Florida judge handling the case may be trying to cover up malfeasance. Others such as Glenn Reynolds have no particular opinion. In principle, I tend to agree with husband Michael Schiavo that Congress should not intrude upon his family's personal life. The facts of this particular case raise serious questions, however, and I find it annoying that we should have to scrutinize him in order to form an informed opinion. In my opinion, the fewer headlines and speeches that are made about these kinds of heart-wrenching family situations, the better.
Some people such as Laura Flanders (link via Connie) have noted that the Republicans in Congress may have ulterior political motives for convening in a special session to pass a bill enabling a federal court to hear the case. Obviously so (Rush Limbaugh candidly admitted as much today), but that does not necessarily mean there is not also a substantial degree of sincere ethical and/or religious belief motivating them. A fundamental principle of politics is that decisions and actions almost always embody some mixture of interests and values, and it is generally futile to argue that one is more important than the other, or why someone is "really" doing something. The fact that Rep. Tom DeLay took such a high profile position on this case, just as he has been getting bad press over alleged scandals in Texas, does not strike me as particularly sincere, however. Nor did I appreciate his remark that cutting off Terry's feeding tube was an act of "terrorism." (That label was ironic, as Randall Terry, a violent anti-abortion activist, was among those demonstrating in Florida.) I will give credit to President Bush for making a good point: In extremely delicate cases such as this, it is better to err on the side of life.
One of the 20th Century's leading scholars and practitioners of diplomacy died today at the age of 101. George Kennan made his first big mark by writing "The Long Telegram" from his post in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 1946. He meant to alert the complacent bureaucrats in the State Department that the Soviet Union was not content to merely defeat Germany, but was determined to expand and fill the power vacuum in Europe and elsewhere in the Eurasian continent. Unlike the Red-baiting purveyors of panic that soon came to dominate the Cold War environment, however, he remained calm and clear-eyed about the nature and extent of the Soviet threat. In his mind, Communist ideology was only part of the explanation for Soviet behavior, which embodied traditional Russian imperialistic tendencies, as well as paranoia. Later that year Kennan wrote the famous Foreign Affairs article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," developing the thesis outlined in the "Long Telegram" and expounding his proposed policy of "containment" which guided U.S. foreign policy for the next 44 years. (These were among the canonical works that my colleagues and I pored over in graduate school at U.Va.) He went on to serve in various diplomatic capacities and wrote several highly regarded books, including one that bemoaned the nuclear arms race. He was a sober realist who always aimed to maintain a balance of power, but he was not a militarist. His pragmatic, non-ideological approach to foreign policy influenced thinkers and statesmen such as Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft, and to some extent Condoleeza Rice today. Can the force of this intellectual tradition prevail over the gung-ho neoconservatives in the Bush administration?
UPDATE: For an assessment of Kennan's legacy by a current scholar at U.Va.'s Miller Center, where I used to work, see David Adesnik at Oxblog. He says that Kennan was often misunderstood, and gives as an example the obituary for Kennan in the New York Times. Adesnik says the Times editors completely missed the point about Kennan's contributions. Specifically, Kennan would have recoiled at an ideological foreign policy based primarily on the promotion of democracy. Is Mr. Wolfowitz paying attention? Well, he's heading to the World Bank, if President Bush has his way...
Wow! Yesterday's eleven-hour hearings on the baseball steroid problem more than lived up to expectations of high drama. What a memorable scene: the titans of the political world versus the (formerly) pumped-up titans of the sports world, in a fierce contest to determine who is more righteous, or perhaps less corrupt. Not having C-SPAN3 where we live, I only saw the last three hours of the hearings live after regular C-SPAN switched from the House floor to the committee chambers, and I stayed glued to the tube as the earlier highlights of the day were rebroadcast later in the evening. There weren't many surprises in terms of what was said, since the principal figures had already let their positions be known. What I found intriguing was the wide array of emotions and attitudes displayed by the inquisitors and the witnesses. Curt Schilling was on top of his game, making a long, thoughtful statement and answering questions in a forthright, sincere manner. He is right that the drug problem and the attitude of winning at all costs is society-wide, not restricted to baseball or the sports world. Baseball's new black sheep Jose Canseco, in contrast, was subdued and apologetic. Inconsistencies in his story undermined his credibility somewhat, but not many people seriously doubt the general thrust of the charges made in his book. As for one of the most off-the-wall particular misdeeds he alleged, ABC later replayed a recent Jimmy Kimmel show with an extremely tacky skit reenacting the supposed Canseco-McGwire buttocks injection, while the hapless guest Canseco watched, quite red-faced. (No such thing as bad publicity?) Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro, now Orioles teammates, issued flat, grim denials reminiscent of Bill Clinton.
But it was Big Mac himself who made the biggest scene, getting teary eyed as he lamented the problem and straining to explain why he could not answer the question. This recalls the memorable line by Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own: "There's no crying in baseball!" (David Pinto cited that line in regard to weeping by Canseco.) It was embarrassing to hear McGwire rehash ad nauseam the trite cliche of wanting to focus on the positive and not worry about the past. I really think he was sincere, though I'm not sure exactly which aspect of this tragedy troubles him the most: The teenage boys who committed suicide or ruined their health because of steroid abuse, the disappointment felt by his family and fans, or the mortal peril to his legacy this scandal has wrought? His predicament is eerily similar to that of Pete Rose: whatever he says or does from now on, he is damned. Selig's position that the batting records of recent years will stand without asterisks or other qualifications is not convincing. There has to be some kind of accounting for artificially enhanced performance. Fallen heroes are tragic.
Since I had low expectations of the publicity-seeking politicians on Capitol Hill to begin with, I was prepared for all the crowd-pleasing rhetoric they spouted. Amidst all the hoopla and pious cacaphony, however, a lot of good points were actually made. For example, Rep. Charles Dent (R-PA) rose to the occasion by pointing out what I have long insisted is the basic structural problem with baseball: The way franchise owners exploit baseball's exemption from anti-trust statutes to blackmail their host cities into funding new stadiums, the "field of schemes" problem. (Did D.C. have any other choice? No.) This huge unwarranted subsidy works against the public interest by facilitating unchecked inflation of players' salaries and ticket prices. Rep. Chris Shays (R-CT) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) harshly attacked Commissioner Selig and other MLB officials for allowing the problem to get out of control. Some of that criticism is fitting, I think, but as at least one member noted, hindsight is 20-20. Thus, I came away from the hearings with a slightly more sympathetic view of Rep. Tom Davis and his House subcommittee than I originally had. Baseball needed to be chastened if there is to be any hope for "self-policing." There are serious loopholes in the drug testing procedures, and the "graduated" penalties so strongly defended by Players' Assocation head Donald Fehr seem pretty lame. Five strikes and you're out? Much was made of the Commissioner's new powers of discretion to enforce the doping rules during the hearings, but it is precisely the low-key, consensus-seeking style of Mr. Selig that raises questions about having his office shoulder such a big share of the burden.
In the end, the doping problem will not be fixed by tighter rules, tougher penalties, greater scrutiny, or more appropriate mechanisms so much as by a renewed spirit of sportsmanship. No legislation or collective bargaining agreement can accomplish that; it will require leadership on the part of the star players. How many of our beloved overpaid egomaniacs will "step up to the plate" and do what must be done?
Many thanks to David Pinto (Mr. Baseball Musings) for plugging this site, which is perpetually "under construction." I've just made a thorough revamping of the links to blogs and other Web sites on throughout this site, aiming for consistent format and functionality. Through my bleary eyes I think I see the light of an actual guestbook at the end of the tunnel...
The "steroid hearings" in Congress just got underway, and lest there be any doubt about their function as a platform for "grandstanding" politicians, it took over an hour for committee members to make their opening statements. (Live audio is available via C-SPAN Radio.) Hall of Fame pitcher Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) is one of the few members of Congress qualified to make judgments about this matter. (He just barely won reelection in November.) He set the proper tone in his introductory remarks, reminding everyone that the government should not meddle in sports unless there is a compelling public interest. I do not underestimate the gravity of this problem and am not making excuses for the dopehead sluggers or for Selig's past foot-dragging. I merely want to point out that the power of Congress to put public pressure on institutions can be abused. I think MLB and the Players' Assocation got the message, and I don't think much more browbeating in the public arena is necessary. If Davis's committee is out to wrench shamed confessions from Sammy, Rafael, and the rest, the only thing it will accomplish is leave a bad taste in our mouths, at the very moment when we should be celebrating baseball's long-overdue return to Washington.
One year ago yesterday nearly 200 innocent people were murdered by Islamic terrorists in the central train station in Madrid. Actually, slaughtered would be a better word. I happened to learn about the atrocity via the Web while in an Internet cafe in Cuzco, Peru. A few days later the incumbent government of Prime Minister Jose Aznar was defeated by the anti-war Socialists, confirming in many people's minds the political strategy behind Al Qaeda's attack. I didn't comment on it at the time, however, because I generally refrain from pontificating unless I have something special to say. (How quaint!) Also, I was extremely busy. Yesterday, however, Latin America blogger Randy Paul reopened old wounds by adding to his expression of heartache for Spaniards this jarring comment: "May God forgive those who called you appeasers or cowards from the comfort of their keyboards because you could not bear having your grief and suffering be used for political purposes." I looked at the three blog posts he cited (whose links I included as in the original) and found nothing that could be considered obnoxious enough to warrant Divine pardon. I've been trying to decipher the last clause of that sentence and its logical connection to the first clause. Randy seems to be saying that many Spanish people voted out the People's Party because its leader Aznar was consciously exploiting the Madrid bombing for political purposes. That strikes me as a bizarre interpretation. Aznar bears some responsibility for his party's defeat for having initially blaming the bombing on the Basque ETA, but I know of no analyst who believes that Aznar tried to take political advantage from the attack.
As for the "appeasement" charges, I'm inclined to think fear of terrorists played a major part in the last-minute swing in votes in favor of Zapatero and his Socialists. It's really impossible to say for sure, however. This is a good example of how public opinion surveys often fail to accurately reflect true popular sentiment because many people are ashamed to state their true opinions. Differences of opinion on how to interpret the Spanish elections are perfectly normal, and perhaps the huge chasm between points of view on Madrid, on Iraq, and on 9/11 is merely a sign of the tragic times we live in. I hope for a narrowing of differences on these vital questions some day, but I don't count on it. Very conscious of "the comfort of my keyboard" and the frailties of my human intellect, I make it a point not to invoke God's name to make a political argument.
"Franco Aleman," a.k.a. barcepundit, lists the Madrid victims' names. Reading through it is one way to pay respects, and once you do, no further commentary is necessary.
Congressman Tom Davis, known as an avid fan who lobbied for baseball's return to Washington, ruffled some feathers in MLB this week by announcing that Jason Giambi, Sammy Sosa, and other suspected steroid users would be subpoenaed to testify before the House Government Reform Committee, which he chairs. Somehow Barry Bonds did not make the "cut." See the Washington Post. Congressman Davis has a superb reputation for his knowledge, ability, and ethics, but this action raises some questions. For one thing, the timing of this seems unfortunate, just as the regular season is about to begin. Baseball is already taking strong steps to address the problem, and while it is too early to say whether the new testing measures will be effective or not, they should at least be given a chance. Commissioner Selig has had a lot of headaches lately, and though he has often been slow to act in the past, he seems to have gotten the message about the seriousness of the problem. As in other scandals investigated by Congress, these public hearings may complicate any criminal trials that may come about. Interestingly, Mike Schmidt declined to blame steroids for the fact that four steroid-suspected sluggers have passed him on the all-time home run list over the last four years. He says the increased number of homers is due to smaller ballparks, harder bats, and harder balls.
Estadio Dennis Martinez
For the first time, I've added a page for a stadium in Latin America, complete with a diagram and photos: Estadio Dennis Martinez, formerly known as "Estadio Nacional," located a mile west of downtown Managua, Nicaragua. Because I was not allowed to take photos inside, however, the diagram is subject to greater error than I usually tolerate.
Shannon Love, at the Chicago Boyz blog (link via Donald Sensing), wrote an excellent piece about the contradictory attitude toward evolution held by many on the Left. On one hand, they exalt evolution because it casts doubt on religion and traditional authority structures, but on the other hand they loathe to acknowledge the corollary aspect that differences among individuals -- such as regarding intelligence and based on gender -- are universal and indeed necessary for evolution to function. So I made the following comment:
This is a very thoughtful posting and comment thread. I do think the "blank slate" aspect is drawing too much attention, however, and I'm also a bit surprised that so little has been said of the huge irony that Leftists refuse to incorporate the adaptation to environmental factors into their understanding of social behavior or public policy. For example, the mere suggestion that welfare recipients may become trapped in despair as the result of perverse incentives created by the (well meaning) government is beyond the pale. Remember how Republicans got savaged for daring to bring this up? In contrast, Hayek's writings on how free markets work is full of evolutionary insights. He rescued the liberal capitalist intellectual tradition by bringing it out the the 18th-19th Century scientific paradigm based on Newtonian mechanics. Just as Darwin himself was superseded in some ways by those who benefited from subsequent scientific and intellectual advances, Adam Smith has been superseded and refined, thereby keeping his ideas alive. The same cannot be said for the followers of Karl Marx, however. Unless they learn to adapt to reality (not utopia), they will keep marching toward doom, dragging down as many unwitting victims with them as they can.
UPDATE: I had to cut the previous post short, because I'm sharing this computer with other guests at Kap's Place. Also, I was determined to visit the University of Costa Rica this afternoon, and I did. I was graciously received by the director of the Political Science Department, Dr. Jose Miguel Rodriguez, inquiring about the free trade issue in Costa Rica. Then I took a pleasant stroll around the beautiful campus, which is filled with lush groves of bamboo, palm, and pine trees, great bird habitat. (It's also filled with anti-free trade posters and grafitti.) Gary Stiles, the lead author of A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica, which I've been scouring every day since I arrived here, teaches at UCR and is going to give a seminar here one week from tomorrow: "How to Arm a Hummingbird? Ecology, Adaptations, and Philogenia." (That's my English translation of it.) Too bad I'll be gone by then.
Anyway, back to the previous topic. (No, please, not more evolution!) I meant to call attention to other ironic aspects of evolution and politics. First, the Right has traditionally been associated with the self-reliant, do-or-die ethics of competitive markets, sometimes flirting with Social Darwinisim. The contemporary Republican Party, however, is full of Christian fundamentalists who reject Darwinian thinking outright. This suggests that there may be latent tensions among the factions that make up the American Right. Meanwhile, as one of the people who posted a comment on the Chicago Boyz blog noted, the Catholic Church has a strong tradition of reconciling scientific learning with revealed truth, something with which I heartily concur but is largely absent from Christian fundamentalism. However, the Catholic Church's modern social teachings run strongly counter to capitalist principles, holding that wages, for example, should be based on needs of a worker's family, rather than on supply and demand. Indeed, throughout Latin America, public policy is heavily influenced by the Catholic rejection of free market principles. This results, for example, in inefficient labor markets, where some workers can't find jobs even though there are potential employers who would be willing to hire them. Antipathy to markets also impedes the resolution of the Third World debt issue; creditors ought to be able to liquidate their nonproductive foreign debt holdings at an appropriate discount, but that would render many poor countries ineligible for future debt, which many people believe is intolerable. Thus we reach the apparent conclusion that no present-day political or social organization seems capable of dealing with the consequences of evolutionary theory in a consistent manner. I may draw further lessons from this in a future posting.
* This blog entry was originally posted along with other material at Archives/2005/03/01la.html while I was in Costa Rica, but has been retroactively renamed and placed in the Politics category, where it belongs.
Unlike many bigtime pundits in the "blogosphere," I generally refrain from commenting on every political controversy that comes along unless I have something special to say. The sorry case of University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill hits rather close to home for me, however. Thanks to C-SPAN, I happened to see his recent speech to a raucous crowd at UC; it was very disturbing. Also, I am familiar with the utopian community known as Boulder and have at least driven by the UC campus. Prof. Churchill, who teaches ethnic studies, specializing in American Indian culture, had been scheduled to speak at Hamilton College, near Utica, NY. Then he was disinvited after it was discovered that he had once written an abominable essay on the 9/11 attacks, saying that the financial analysts who worked in the World Trade Center were "little Eichmanns" who only got what they deserved, since they had (allegedly) prospered at the expense of millions of dead children in the Third World. In his defiant refusal to apologize for his past statements, he left no doubt that he is a dedicated enemy of capitalism and frankly sympathizes with the goals of Islamic terrorists. See usatoday.com
Obnoxious though Prof. Churchill may be, he is tenured and therefore largely immune to being dismissed on the grounds of controversial opinions he has expressed. As one who holds certain very unorthodox opinions about certain political and economic issues, I take very seriously any threat to academic freedom, and would object if the Colorado Board of Regents moves to dismiss him out of political expediency. Another reason for my hesitation about denouncing him is that Churchill's views are dreadfully commonplace in most universities these days. America-hating profs are a dime a dozen: so what? As I marveled at the mob student audience cheering him on, it occurred to me what may be the fundamental impetus behind "political correctness": the institutionalized pandering to the rebellious nature of youth. In other words, many professors may say harshly leftist things not so much because they believe it, but because that is the way to gain popularity among students. But that's just a conjecture on my part...
There may be grounds to question Churchill's tenured status, however: He somehow rose to the rank of full professor in spite of the fact that he never earned a doctoral degree. (Hmmm...) In terms of his speech and manner, Churchill just didn't strike me as a serious thinker. He's an aging activist from the 60s who apparently once pretended to have Indian blood but later retracted that claim. One member of the audience had the nerve to confront Churchill, who responded by saying that the Ninth Amendment (which reserves to the states or people any rights not specifically enumerated elsewhere) limited or offset the questioner's free speech rights under the First Amendment. That was a bizarre interpretation, casting further doubt on Churchill's qualifications as a scholar. Nevertheless, as long as Prof. Churchill confines his dissent to rhetoric and avoids any activities that overtly give aid and comfort to our enemies -- such as Lynne Stewart, the defense attorney who was just convicted for abetting terrorism -- I think he should be left alone.
Today's Washington Post details the proposed "Trans-Texas Corridor," a massive highway system that is estimated to cost $184 billion over a 50-year period, some parts of which would be as much as a quarter mile wide. Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, touts the plan as "visionary," but to me it has the distinct aroma of boondoggle. The first stretch of the new system will connect Dallas to San Antonio, but the entire system would amount to 4,000 miles. Most of the new roadways would be paid for by tolls, which is fine with me, but many thousands of acres of wildflower-covered prairies would be ruined in the process. Beyond the enormous scope of the project, and its likely detrimental effect on the environment, the Post article points out a problem on the financial side:
Private-public transportation contracts make some analysts wary. The Southern Environmental Law Center, which monitors transportation projects in six states, found that similar agreements in Virginia, for example, are costing taxpayers millions through the subsidies or tax-exempt bonds the state has provided to private road contractors.
In other words, the cost savings that are supposd to come from giving the private sector a greater say in implementing such transportation projects may be illusory at best. Speaking of which, the Virginia Department of Transportation has been discussing a similar public-private project to widen Interstate 81 across the entire state, which was proposed by STAR Solutions. (They are a business technology consulting firm that is apparently a subsidiary of the Halliburton Corporation, but no such link appears on either entity's Web site.) For the last year or two there have been preliminary public debates on the issue, and now the issue is coming to a head. The report by the Southern Environmental Law Center cited by the Post criticizes the 1995 Virginia Public-Private Transportation Act and makes these principle recommendations:
Provide for additional public input;
Require that proposals be part of normal planning processes;
Give the Commonwealth Transportation Board greater authority over proposals;
Require private entities proposing a project to invest a certain amount of capital in a project;
Require them to pay for independent verification of traffic and cost estimates.
SELC is a decidedly liberal organization, so their inherent skepticism of private enterprise must be taken into account. Even so, this kind of mega-project should raise the eyebrows of fiscal conservatives. As I mentioned on January 17, Delegate Ben Cline (R-Rockbridge Co.) offered a sensible compromise economy-size proposal to upgrade I-81 only at the traffic "choke points," while providing incentives to multimodal shipping via railroads. But even that is going too far for State Sen. Emmet Hanger (R-Augusta Co.), who has come out against the proposed widening of I-81 on the grounds that its costs cannot be justified. Sunday's Staunton News Leader harshly ridiculed Hanger for what they say is his tardy declaration of a position on this issue, but they really don't take issue with the merits of his argument. This bears further study... Is it really prudent for a state government to invest so much public money into an infrastructure that is geared toward 20th Century vehicles? What if the price of energy reaches the point that trucks lose their competitive edge over railways, and travel via passenger cars becomes more of a luxury than a "necessity"?
Indeed, what about the alternative 19th Century technology: are railroads the answer to our traffic woes? I'm inclined to have some sympathy for railsolution.org, and there is no question that more long-distance freight can and should be shipped via rail. We need to remember, however, that rail transportation firms tend to be bloated monopolies that resist innovation and depend on government guarantees. Reforming the way that railroads are regulated has to be part of any long-term transportation strategy. Encouraging innovative grass-roots pro-business initiatives can also yield big benefits; a prime example is the quasi-public Shenandoah Valley railway that took over the short (25-mile) rail line between Staunton and Harrisonburg which was abandoned by the CSX Corporation. And then there's AMTRAK, which is in desperate need of new thinking and flexibility, but remains shackled by its political patrons on Capitol Hill. The need for major reform there -- including the possible termination of some unprofitable long-distance routes -- should be painfully obvious to anyone who cares about rail travel.
On a related note, the Republicans in Richmond seek to carry through on the "no car tax" pledge that was the basis for former Governor James Gilmore's victorious 1997 campaign. He called for phasing out and ultimately eliminating the property tax on passenger vehicles, which many people consider regressive in terms of its disproportionate impact on middle- and lower-income people. The reduction scheduled for last year was canceled, however, as part of the controversial budget agreement between Governor Warner and the Republicans in the General Assembly -- an agreement that we now know was based on faulty if not deceptive forecast budget data. This year the Republicans are determined to rectify that. The Washington Post recently called the GOP position "demagogic," which is a strange and inappropriate. They're just doing what they said they would! And after all, there is an expected surplus of $1 billion in the state coffers this year! To their credit, Republicans have proposed spending some of that surplus to restore the Chesapeake Bay. But can't the people get some of their own money back? There are some reasons for hesitation, such as the fact that local governments have long depended on getting a share of the car tax revenues. State legislators should help find a replacement revenue source for cities and counties. And to the extent that state revenues earmarked for transportation have been cut by the car tax reduction, there should be new taxes targeted more appropriately: on gasoline and diesel fuel consumption!
If President Bush feels any sense of hesitation about his ambitious plans for the second term, he certainly didn't show it in his State of the Union address last night. (Transcript available from Washington Post) Bush really does seem to be getting the hang of speechmaking, while the Democrats in Congress seem to have lost their grip on reality, as evidenced by their atrocious boos and catcalls. Defying conventional wisdom about the politically lethal "third rail" of Social Security, Bush grappled head on with the problem. This time he avoided the term "crisis," fortunately, but left no doubt that the long-term prospects are indeed dire. (This reminds me of last year's red herring about Bush's alleged statement that Iraq posed an "imminent threat," when he in fact had said repeatedly that it was a "gathering threat.") Many Democrats booed when he said the system would be bankrupt by 2042, apparently offended by the idea of having to contemplate something so far in the future. No one can predict economic trends that far in advance, of course, but simple prudence dictates that we make allowances for variable scenarios. Step One: Remove head from sand...
To his credit, the President offered a variety of alternative approaches -- including past proposals made by Democrats Bill Clinton and the late Pat Moynihan -- oriented around the basic goal of giving individuals more choice about their retirement savings. This shows that he is not trying to impose a particular plan or serve some particular interests, but is genuinely trying to solve a national problem. Making sure that anyone born before 1951 won't have to worry about any changes is a good step toward calming nerves. As for the word game, I have shared the hesitation of some moderate Republicans such as Sen. Olympia Snowe about the term "privatizing" Social Security, which instills fear among some people. In my view, there's no need to give the Democrats any more rhetorical ammunition in their obstructionist campaign. (See below.) The proper goal should to restructure Social Security in a way that constrains the ever-inflating entitlement payouts without leaving truly needy people out in the cold. Whether or not one happens to agree with Bush, that broad objective is at least something that reasonable people can agree on.
The President also devoted a considerable amount of time to the tort reform issue, likewise eliciting partisan cheers and boos. He tied the problem of frivolous lawsuits to the rising cost of health care, small business vitality, and overall productivity. One comment seemed out of place to me: "I welcome the bipartisan enthusiasm for spending discipline." In fact, Republicans legislators last year showed an increasing fondness for old fashioned Democrat-style pork barrel projects. The FY 2005 budget was stringent in many departments, mostly because of wartime funding priorities, but taxpayer vigilance and activism from groups like the Concord Coalition will be necessary to keep a lid on things.
Bush saved the biggest parts for last, when he put "meat" on his strategy for pursuing the long-term global war against terrorism. Obviously encouraged by the successful elections in Iraq, he bluntly called on the governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt to begin allowing more citizen participation in public affairs. This made my jaw drop, and must have rattled nerves across the entire Middle East. Then he turned to Syria, which has served as a refuge for terrorists operating in Iraq, and Iran, whose ruling mullahs squelched a burgeoning pro-democracy movement last year. Without making a threat, he put both those countries on notice that the United States would not be indifferent to policies that sustain hatred and violence. Not many people have taken Bush's pro-freedom rhetoric at face value, and the possibility that is really is serious poses the prospect of massive upheaval in the region. [Good upheaval, mind you -- like Eastern Europe in 1989.]
In terms of symbolism, the moment when Iraqi human rights activist Safia Taleb al-Suhail embraced the mother of fallen Marine Corps Sergeant Byron Norwood in the audience gallery was simply breathtaking. If that spontaneous gesture does not convince skeptics that our soldiers' sacrifices in Iraq are paying off, then nothing will. A cynic might ask if an American soldier's life is worth an Iraqi citizen's right to vote. If the ratio were one life to one voter, then perhaps not. But look at the big picture: We are talking about 1,400 U.S. war dead so far, as compared to 25 million newly freed Iraqis. I can't speak of the families of American soldiers killed in Iraq, but the sacrifice seems to me to be yielding benefits many times over.
In sum, Bush has seized the moment. He senses his power, he has a clear vision where to lead the country, and he can count on a large, enthusiastic base to carry forward his agenda. As long as remains focused on practical medium-term goals and doesn't fall victim to egotism or other tragic foibles, he stands a real chance of defying expectations and achieving historical greatness.
In the Democrats' response to the President's address, Sen. Harry Reid (who has replaced Tom Daschle as Senate Minority Leader) tried to strike a folksy note with some odd personal anecdotes. What struck me most was his call for an "American Marshall Plan," as if our country were in the throes of a deep depression. What an ironic contrast to the shining beacon of opportunity that the U.S.A. still represents to the millions of job seekers from around the world who try to cross our borders every year. (If anything, we need less opportunity!) For her part, Rep. Nancy Pelosi reiterated the negativity about Iraq that has become the dogmatic mantra of the Democratic side.
Along these lines, it is worth recalling that Sen. Ted Kennedy made an angry speech last week President Bush yesterday to begin withdrawing U.S. troops, calling the president's Iraq policy "a catastrophic failure." His view of reality is so far off it is no longer even funny. Ironically, a U.S. withdrawal at this crucial moment would be extremely "dangerous and reckless," which is how he described the present course of the Bush administration. How anyone takes him seriously any more is beyond me. See Washington Post.
As for the activist networks, MoveOn.org has begun running television spots aimed at stopping any of Bush's Social Security and tort reform proposals. Once again, their actions refute their progressive rhetoric, confirming that their real agenda is overtly status quo, if not reactionary. What seems to be happening is the converse of the old "Vietnam syndrome" -- the Democrats and most on the Left are so wrapped up in their own spin of recent events and interpretations of history that they have completely lost their political bearings. If they persist in badmouthing the accomplishments of American armed forces and strangling opportunities for financial growth in the younger generation, they will have aliented such a big portion of the American electorate that they will essentially put themselves out of business. Has a political party ever committed mass suicide before?
Sunday's Washington Post had an article on a big controversy right here in the friendly, laid back town of Staunton. For 65 years, the public schools have had a "weekday religious education" (WRE) program for elementary students, but there is a move to cut the program back or eliminate it entirely. The nearby town of Harrisonburg (home of James Madison University) eliminated their WRE program last year, and other towns in the Shenandoah Valley are considering doing the same. Ironically, it is said that adhering to the Standards of Learning and "No Child Left Behind" initiatives (usually favored by conservatives) is getting more difficult because students are away from the classrooms for WRE, even though it only takes up one half hour per week. Several Supreme Court rulings in 1948 and 1952 forced the schools to remove these classes from the school premises, and since then WRE sessions have been held in nearby churches. No public funds are involved, and those conducting the sessions do so on a volunteer basis. At least 80 percent of students participate in WRE, and hundreds of pro-WRE parents have shown up at recent school board meetings to protest the proposed elimination of the program.
Like others who moved here after having lived in Northern Virginia, my eyebrows were raised when I first learned about this. I knew that the numerous churches throughout the town are indicative of a strong and widespread religious belief -- which may explain the low crime rate and general good vibes -- but [until recently] was unaware of WRE. My feelings on this issue are torn: On one hand, many college students these days have an abysmal knowledge of the religious history which is such a vital underpinning of Western Civilization. On the other hand, I sympathize with families who are affiliated with minority religions, as well as agnostics and atheists. Feeling left out can be a very painful experience for young children, though most people in Staunton cited in that Post story insist that non-participating students are not made to feel bad. Later in life, some students may end up questioning their own faith if they come to believe that it may have been forced upon them.
In my view, this is not really a church versus state issue, but rather a community versus individual issue. If a given community overwhelmingly supports an institution that reflects their own cultural values, it would be hard to deny them that right, as long as minority rights are respected. Indeed, there is some precedent for this: For example, in much of Utah the Mormon Church has a quasi-established status, and there is a small town inhabited by ultra-traditional Jews north of New York City in which the "public" schools teach Jewish religion. What most concerns me is that the WRE program goes beyond education per se, it promotes specifically Christian beliefs and Christian values, including group prayers. I wholeheartedly agree that promoting Christian beliefs and values is a good thing, but it depends who is doing the promoting. In my view, parents who object to such tacit "evangelizing" by public schools have a valid point, even though some seem to be objecting too stridently. I would feel more comfortable with the WRE program if the curriculum were broadened to include other religions, perhaps with interfaith prayers like they do at public ceremonies such as the inauguration. But that might be too confusing for tender young minds, which would then suggest that the whole concept is flawed. Whatever the Staunton School Board decides, I just hope that the Christian activists pushing WRE take into account the need to accommodate cultural diversity, which may be an overused cliche but is nonetheless absolutely essential for any community to thrive and grow. The Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute, which takes on major legal cases involving religious issues, may get involved with this case, and it may go all the way to the Supreme Court.
On a related note, that organization's head, John W. Whitehead, wrote an interesting piece, entitled The Gospel of Darwin: Its Sordid History. How many people know that Darwin believed that women were biologically inferior to men, and that his ideas were used to justify totalitarian ideologies? (Well, he was only human.) And speaking of evolution (GROAN!), today's Washington Post has an eminently sensible editorial on "intelligent design," and the bogus attempts by some activists to portray it as legitimate science.
There has been much recent press coverage of the dismayed, stunned attitude much of Europe has toward the United States in the wake of President Bush's reelection and reinauguration. For example, see Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor. Apparently, Freedom is seen as a dangerous menace in many countries in which socialism or social democracy is the prevailing ideology, as if we might invade France to take away the six-week vacations their (white) citizens enjoy. Fear of U.S. "unilateralism" may simply reflect the refusal of people who have their heads in the sand to face up to the real threat in their own midst, that of radical Islam. The popular "war blog" Belmont Club has a nice interpretation of Euro-dismay:
It is perhaps the subconscious realization that it has awakened to a nightmare new world that drives the the Left's incredulous reaction to George Bush. ... The European ideologies of the last century have left the stream of history and will not, cannot acknowledge it.
Why anyone would look to such a dull, culturally and economically stagnant part of the world as Europe as a model for us to follow is beyond me.
One of the first requirements of being a good diplomat is having poise, which is often defined as "grace under pressure." In spite of a withering barrage of insults from Sen. Barbara Boxer during last week's confirmation hearings, Secretary of State designate Condoleeza Rice refused to buckle. Media critic Howard Kurtz asks a very pertinent question about that little Capitol Hill circus in the Washington Post: "Why on earth do senators who are supposed to be engaged in a serious "advise and consent" role spend so much of their allotted time giving endless speeches?" He counted the dozens of paragraphs of prepared text uttered by Democrat Senators Kerry, Biden, Sarbanes, and Dodd, which greatly surpassed what the Republican committee members had to say.
But all this paled compared to a 27-paragraph monologue by Barbara Boxer, who went way over her time limit in accusing Rice of changing the rationale for Iraq after the WMD thing didn't pan out, ending with:
"And you don't seem to be willing to . . . admit a mistake, or give any indication of what you're going to do to forcefully involve others. As a matter of fact, you've said more misstatements; that the territory of the terrorists has been shrinking when your own administration says it's now expanded to 60 countries. So I am deeply troubled."
That brought the day's sharpest exchange, when Rice forcefully defended herself, saying she has "never, ever lost respect for the truth" and didn't want anyone "impugning my credibility or my integrity."
Whatever point Boxer was trying to make about administration policy got lost in the disgraceful slurs. Even though her confirmation has been pointlessly delayed by the opposition party, Ms. Rice got off to a fine start in what will be one of the toughest jobs on the planet. Being young, articulate, and highly competent, one can imagine that she might aspire to even higher positions in the public sector...
Charles Krauthammer makes an interesting observation in today's Washington Post. On one hand, the prospects for democratic reform in such places as the Ukraine, Afghanistan, and even Iraq have been much greater than is usually recognized, suggesting a broad global shift in favor of U.S. interests and values. On the other hand, there is a growing, little-recognized strategic threat to the United States, apart from Al Qaeda and their similar terror groups. Krauthammer was
talking about the other, more subtle challenge to Pax Americana: the first stirrings of what might become an anti-American coalition involving at least two Great Powers.
He went on to focus on the growing strategic collaboration between Russia and China, including the recent announcement of Russian military exercises on Chinese soil, for the first time. Moreover,
China in turn is developing relationships with such virulently anti-American rogue states as Iran. Add such various self-styled, anti-imperialist flotsam as Syria, North Korea, Cuba and Hugo Chavez's Venezuela, and you have the beginnings of a significant "anti-hegemonic" bloc -- aimed at us.
Just like the good old days of the Cold War!? Nothing to panic about, but it's definitely something to watch. Here is a big irony about the perplexing renewed anger of the "Russian Bear" under the Putin administration: What prompted Moscow's growing alienation from Washington over the past several years was the (largely) needless expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, including the three Baltic States that used to be part of the U.S.S.R. In spite of strong warnings by Boris Yeltsin not to intrude into its traditional geopolitical sphere, the Clinton administration blithely pushed ahead with the "enlargement" of the Western Democratic realm as if there was no reason for Moscow to fear this severe shift in the European strategic balance. Advisers such as Anthony Lake, Joseph Nye, and Sandy Berger insisted that the world had forever left behind such "archaic" notions as balance of power politics. In fact, however, Clinton's brushing aside of Russia's objections was an insulting slap in the face to a country that has long been famous for its touchy nationalistic pride. In the eyes of most Russian elites, it voided what was left of Yeltsin's credibility, and made any Russian who favored more Western investment and political ties suspect as a traitor. And what did "enlargement" get us? A bigger but flabbier NATO that no longer has any real strategic consensus or common purpose. Aside from Poland, the Czech Republic, and perhaps Romania, which have been partners to some extent in the "coalition of the willing," the new members have not added to the security of the Western nations.
President Bush appeared calm, rested, and dignified for today's ceremonies, with just a touch of the typical Bush unease. He has a tough rhetorical task: to reassure the public that the nation is reasonably safe, while exhorting the citizenry to stay on their guard and persevere in the long campaign against our shadowy foe. In case anyone hasn't been paying attention, he drilled home once again the central theme to justify his administration's forward policy in the struggle againt the Islamic terrorists, without quite naming them as such. A key passage in his inaugural address came fairly early:
We have seen our vulnerability, and we have seen its deepest source. For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny -- prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder -- violence will gather, and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders and raise a mortal threat.
There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment and expose the pretensions of tyrants and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant. And that is the force of human freedom.
We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.
America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. ... [SOURCE: cnn.com]
The speech was remarkable for its tight focus on this one driving theme. The President reminded Americans of the need for patience, but he stopped short of asking for across-the-board sacrifice. Instead, he appealed to the idealism and sense of honor of those citizens who have heard the call to duty, in or out of uniform. As for the inaugural festivities, some people suggested that celebration is not appropriate in a time of war, citing FDR's curtailment of parties for his fourth (!) inauguration in January , but that probably reflected the fact that he was gravely ill by that time. Solemn reflection is surely called for. It was appropriate that our armed forces were given special honors at one of the inaugural balls, and President and Mrs. Bush even danced with soldiers, probably setting a unique precedent.
In the streets of Washington, hundreds of dissenters assembled in hopes of drawing attention or disrupting the ceremonies, but apparently achieved very little. The minimal level of violence is something to be thankful for.
An article in Wednesday's Washington Post suggested that a defection may break out within the Republican Party over the Social Security issue. They quoted Rep. Bill Thomas (R-CA) as saying that the President's plan is "a dead horse." (What "plan"? Bush has only laid out the general direction he wants to go thus far.) Thomas stated his main point in blunt terms:
"What I'm trying to get people to do is get out of the narrow moving around of the pieces inside the Social Security box," Thomas said at a forum on Bush's second term sponsored by the National Journal. "If we miss this opportunity . . . I think we will have missed an opportunity that may not present itself for another 20 years."
I happened to see most of that forum sponsored on C-SPAN yesterdat morning, and I came away with a somewhat different impression. I too have stressed how important it is to seize that "window of opportunity," before it vanishes, and Thomas seems to be one of the most committed to tackling tough issues on the Republican side. Also present at that forum was Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist who has earned a reputation as a political bruiser in Washington. Norquist emphasized the goal of enabling individual Americans to achieve their own financial freedom, as part of the vision of an "ownership society." Thomas noted that Norquist seems not to care whether the Social Security system goes belly up, and Norquist didn't try to deny it. My sense is that Norquist's focus on tax cutting blinds him to the urgency of other structural reforms, such as tort liability. The other discussants were Gene Sperling, a top economist under Clinton who agreed that some changes in Social Security are needed, and Celinda Lake, an activist from the Democrats' obstructionist wing who could scarcely contain her gleeful anticipation of regaining a majority in the House in the 2006 elections if, as she hopes, the Republican reform agenda crashes and burns. To his immense credit, Thomas emphatically scolded her irresponsible, hyperpartisan indifference to the public interest.
Donald Sensing talked about commentator (and misogynist?) Bill O'Reilly's rude treatment of a scientist who was talking about evolution yesterday. Here are the two cents I added to that discussion thread:
Very intelligent comments, but I almost wish someone were defending O'Reilly, whom I cannot honestly describe without violating the ground rules above. He is a discredit to conservatives, to TV, and to the male gender. Science and religion each have a separate domain, but proselytizers on both sides are vying for "hegemony." E.g., secularists have become so dogmatic that when someone (like me) calls evolution a theory, he or she is construed as trying to undermine it. NOT! The Pope once advised Stephen Hawking not to ponder what came before the Big Bang, for good reason. Speaking of the "Science Guy," I heard Bill Nye is doing a new TV show; boy, do we need him now!
On a related note, anyone who is interested in the philosophical or theological interpretations of Chaos theory, which I previously alluded to in passing, should read Paul Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint: New Discoveries in Nature's Creative Ability to Order the Universe (New York: Touchstone Books, 1989). My understanding is that Davies is an agnostic, but his writing is well worth the time of an curious person interested in such matters.
Tuesday's Washington Post had an op-ed column about bird and wildlife conservation issues by Pat Patterson, of the Fairfax Audubon Society. He mentioned "Pale Male," the famous Red-tailed hawk in Central Park, as well as the Cerulean warbler, which is suffering from a loss of woodland habitat in the eastern states. (For some reason, I have seen them in the Blue Ridge more often than some other warblers that are supposed to be more common.) I was pleased to learn that First Lady Laura Bush is a birder, and that the President "claims that he is managing habitat on his ranch for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler," which has a very restricted range in central Texas. I heartily concur with Mr. Patterson's call for Bush to "support $100 million in funding for the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act." As a first symbolic step at the outset of the President's second term, it would be nice to see a bird feeding station set up on the back lawn of the White House.
To me, it is just common sense that conservatives ought to be more attuned to conservation issues, but reality and popular perception both suggest otherwise. Though the Republicans' record on environmental issues is hardly as bad as some hysterical activists such as Robert Kennedy, Jr. would suggest, there is, sad to say, some reason for the Republicans' shaky credentials. Business lobbyists often get regulations waived on economic grounds, and if past Washington Post articles are correct, campaign contributions may be part of the equation. If President Bush really wants to broaden the Republican Party's base, he should broaden the definition of what conservatives want to conserve, and make it clear that good stewardship of the bounty of God's creation is a duty of all Americans.
Governor Mark Warner's "State of the Commonwealth" speech to the opening session of the Virginia General Assembly last week made a strong plea for bipartisan cooperation. The Democratic governor, an outsider who became a millionaire in the cell phone business, has shown himself to be more politically savvy than most people would have guessed. Early last year, it looked like the Republican majority in Richmond was going to have their way, but he outmaneuvered them and threatened a government shutdown until moderate Republicans relented, handing him a big victory. Having solid credentials as a businessman and as a "moderate southerner," Warner is often touted as a leading candidate for the vice presidential ticket in 2008, which may explain his present amicable posture.
State Senator Emmitt Hanger was one of the two legislators chosen to give the Republican response, and spoke very eloquently. He responded positively to Warner's offer, but cast doubt on the long-term budget projections, comparing them to early afternoon exit polls on November 2. (Ha!) Hanger took some heat from his own party for deciding to compromise with Warner and the Democrats during the big budget showdown in Richmond last June, when it appeared that the Commonwealth was in much bigger fiscal trouble than it in fact is. Since fiscal responsibility is a high priority for me, I agreed with Hanger's position then, and based on what I knew at the time, I would stand by that choice. Was Warner "cooking the books" to scare moderate Republicans into caving in, or was he just lucky that state tax revenues in recent months have outpaced expectations? Either way, "we won't get fooled again!"
The biggest issue in Richmond this year is what to do about the traffic mess on our highways. Interstate 81 is often a dangerous nightmare, with hoards of huge trucks clogging the two lanes much like cholesterol deposits clog a person's arteries. Delegate Ben Cline (R-Lexington) has come up with a solid, balanced long-term plan that aims at widening busy sections of main highways at the "choke points," such as hills, where trucks can't keep up the pace. (One alternative, very costly, would be to widen I-81 to three lanes across the entire state. Of course, that would just invite more truck traffic.) Cline's plan would also provide funds to encourage the use of railroads to haul trailers over long distances, which is an eminently sensible part of the solution. Will the trucking lobby try to stop that? What does the all-powerful Virginia Department of Transportation have to say about rail solutions? Unfortunately, no one seems to want to bite the bullet and raise taxes on gasoline, which is the only sure-fire way to ensure that there are sufficient funds for transportation needs in the long term. That measure, which I have long advocated, is no doubt unpopular in our fair "land of the spoiled," but it would also serve environmental and national security objectives.
On the other side of the Potomac River, meanwhile, the Maryland General Assembly overrode Governor Ehrlich's veto of a bill which will address the medical malpractice liability crisis by raising taxes and increasing state regulation. How typical of Democrats to come up with such a complicated scheme to make sure their main constituents (lawyers) keep raking in unjust dollars from bogus lawsuits, and how counterproductive in terms of health care quality! To his credit, Ehrlich stood firm against the bill. It does nothing to correct the fundamental structural imbalance which is behind the soaring cost of medical care nationwide: the absence or virtual absence of any demand-side cost containment by medical consumers who might otherwise be more budget-conscious but don't really care how much their medical bills are because insurance will cover the lion's share of it anyway. As long as employer contributions to health insurance premiums are not counted as taxable income, this implicit state subsidy will perpetuate the gap between what a person thinks he or she is paying for medical services, and what the full cost really is. This defeat has shaken Governor Ehrlich's already precarious position in Maryland.
Donald Sensing mentioned my blog post on evolution from last Friday: "While it seems that Andrew isn't very clear about what "theory" means, it also seems the judge was a bit whacko in the rationale for his ruling." Since erasing any possible confusion on this vital definition was one of my main objectives, let me reiterate: A theory is "a generalized, testable explanation of how facts relate to each other." Any questions?
A federal judge in Atlanta has just issued a ruling that was aimed at curtailing religious meddling in public education, but which ironically strikes a blow against against scientific thinking.
In ruling that the stickers violate the constitutionally mandated separation between church and state, U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper ruled that labeling evolution a "theory" played on the popular definition of the word as a "hunch" and could confuse students.
According to The Associated Press, the stickers read,
"This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered."
To me, the innocuous words on that sticker are just straightforward common sense, a reasonable attempt to avoid friction between faith and reason. To Judge Cooper and many others, however, those words amount to a disingenuous "Trojan horse" that seeks to instill doubt about science in impressionable young minds, as part of a fundamentalist agenda of imposing Christian beliefs in schools and other public institutions. No doubt, many of the people who were behind the policy of putting those labels in textbooks are religious fundamentalists. Were they a majority among the activists? Did they say whether they really care about science during public debates on this matter? It's hard for outsiders to know. Personally, I would favor a strong reaffirmation of the non-establishment clause in the First Amendment, making it clear that no particular religious group can force its views on the general public. But to interpret the words on that sticker as being tantamount to the establishment of religion is so utterly far-fetched that it makes the idea of dinosaurs on Noah's Ark seem plausible by comparison.
Having some familiarity with education and with scholarly pursuits, this question is extremely important to me. Trying to disabuse students of the popular use of the word "theory" (cited by the Judge Cooper) is one of the most frustrating things I have had to deal with as a teacher. As I made clear to students in some of my classes at JMU last year, fossils and DNA samples are facts; evolution is a theory, that is, a generalized, testable explanation of how facts relate to each other. Calling something a theory does not mean it is lacks widespread support among experts, and anyone who disputes this is, wittingly or not, undermining scientific learning. A theory that stands up to empirical testing does not "become" a fact; it is, rather, established in the body of knowledge of a particular field until it is further refined, or until something better comes along. Hardly any learned person seriously questions the processes of genetic mutation or natural selection, or the general progression of life forms toward greater complexity and adaptive capacity over millions of years. Nevertheless, there is almost certainly some significant part of the Theory of Evolution that will eventually be found to be seriously flawed. (Otherwise, it would be called the Fact of Evolution.) Human reason and human perception are fallible, and always will be.
This should not even be an issue, but many secular-minded Americans simply refuse to acknowledge this fundamental distinction between theory and fact because of exaggerated or misplaced fear of the Religious Right. This makes me wonder whether there might be a certain nervousness or self-doubt among the secular segment of our population. How might we bridge the chasm of distrust that motivated the judge's ruling? First, by acknowledging that there are enemies of free thought and free scientific inquiry on both the Left and the Right. (The former danger should be painfully obvious to anyone who is at all familiar with campus political correctness; the latter is more subtle, usually manifested in public affairs campaigns funded by certain wealthy activists.) Second, by making sure that teachers are clear in the use of scientific terminology, resisting false popular notions. Third, by agreeing to uphold pluralism and open-mindedness in the public sphere, leaving a path open for those who, like St. Thomas Aquinas, seek to harmonize faith and reason. As long as the widespread mistaken belief that the First Amendment precludes any public role for religious faith persists, however, this task will not be easy.
Today's Washington Post, reports that the co-author of one of the biology textbooks that had been affixed with the stickers in Cobb County, Georgia, Kenneth Miller of Brown University, is involved with a similar case. Parents in Dover, Pennsylvania are suing the school system over the required teaching of "intelligent design," which is apparently a new version of "creation science." That approach is -- quite obviously -- based on religion, not science. To most nature lovers like me, nevertheless, it is hard to imagine that all the wonders of the Great Outdoors and the Universe Beyond are the end result of nothing more than random events, devoid of any Higher Purpose or fundamental ordering principle. Under the conventional, common-sense scientific paradigm of Isaac Newton, there seems to be an ever-shrinking space for the role of a Supreme Being and thus, religion. Reason! Progress! Order! The depressing prospect that the universe may be a closed, deterministic realm of finite complexity, much like a jigsaw puzzle that will be completely solved one day, is one reason why Chaos theory is such an aesthetically appealing alternative, with the strong suggestion that there are yet-undiscovered principles of order in nature, which itself is continuing to unfold. A good example would be the theory of "punctuated equilibrium" as a mechanism for evolution, as elaborated by the late biologist Stephen Jay Gould. (He was a Yankees fan, if I recall correctly.) His refinement of evolutionary theory, which departs from Darwin in certain respects, may be a step toward uncovering such broader principles of order. I happen to believe that the laws of nature are an expression of God's will, but I have no problem with people who believe otherwise. As philosopher Karl Popper -- a strong advocate for an open, free society and open, free thinking -- wrote in The Open Universe: An Argument for Indeterminism (1956), "the creativeness of life does not contradict the laws of physics." Amen.
In sum, as long as people keep their hearts and minds open and remember that science and religion are largely separate domains, the inherent tensions between faith and reason can be kept to within a tolerable level. Leaving behind comfortable old dogmas can be scary for some people, but the rewards of doing so can be sublime. The biggest and saddest irony about all this is that the advocates of "creationism" on one hand, and those who would shut out any consideration or discussion of religious heritage from the curriculum of public schools, on the other hand, are actually serving each others' purposes by setting up bogeymen to attack. This is a perfect example of the polarization in our fair land, leading toward an escalated "cultural war." But it doesn't have to be that way.
Just for fun, here is a suggested "secular/politically correct" alternative sticker for those textbooks:
"This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a fact, not just a theory, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an compliant, obedient mind, memorized by rote, and uncritically absorbed."
Conservative commentator Armstrong Williams was paid $240,000 by the Education Department in exchange for saying favorable things about President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" education initiative. Though probably legal, such expenditure of public funds does raise eyebrows. It reminds one of the radio station-record company payola scandals of the late 1950s and early 1960s, which left many disc jockeys with a black eye. Who will end up looking worse, the commentator or President Bush? The White House denies it had anything to do with the department's decision... Glenn Reynolds' techcentralstation.com column rightly condemns this instance of subsidized advocacy, but he also puts it in context. For example, FDR persuaded journalists to spread propaganda in favor of an expanded income tax during World War II, exploiting patriotic sentiment. (Does that ring a bell?) It might be said that all the anti-smoking, anti-drug, anti-teen sex "nanny-state" propaganda campaigns of recent years set a precedent for this sort of thing. It depends on whether you favor the particular policy initiative or not. To his credit, Williams at least showed unqualified contrition for this lapse:
"Even though I'm not a journalist -- I'm a commentator -- I feel I should be held to the media ethics standard. My judgment was not the best. I wouldn't do it again, and I learned from it." [SOURCE: cnn.com]
This is dreadful for conservative reformers, but there is a silver lining. Beyond the breach of trust itself lies the question of why did the White House feel the need to resort to state-subsidized propaganda. Isn't "No Child Left Behind" good enough on its own merits, or are the deep conceptual flaws in it? Apparently, it was thought that since Williams is African-American, black people in inner cities would be more receptive to Bush's unorthodox educational reform initiative. Here in Virginia, which is conservative, a number of school districts have asked to be exempted from the program, which they feel puts undue stress on students and teachers, for an uncertain benefit in terms of real learning. If I weren't skeptical of public schools' performance in general I might be more sympathetic. In any case, it does highlight the dilemma that emerges whenever the Federal government tries to promote some social objective across many states whose cultures and values vary widely. That used to be the bugaboo of liberal busybodies in Washington; now it's the burden of the President's increasingly questionable "compassionate conservativism."
Perhaps it is fortunate for Republicans that the Williams scandal was followed so closely by a scandal tarnishing their adversaries, or the final episode of an old scandal, that is. As a result of the independent investigation of the infamous "60 Minutes" forged documents scandal last September, which was conducted by former attorney general Dick Thornburgh (R-PA), Mary Mapes and three other employees of CBS news have lost their jobs. Rush Limbaugh pointed out that Ms. Mapes already has been offered a job with some cable television news outfit. Dan Rather never apologized for attacking those who brought this scandal to light, and he never admitted anything worse than poor judgment. As the report indicates, however, Mapes and others at CBS were driven from the very beginning by a fierce zeal to find dirt on President Bush. In other words, CBS was consciously working to stop the reelection of the President. Politicized, discredited news will be Dan Rather's sorry legacy (even if he is not sorry himself) when he leaves in March.
Nicholas Kristoff had an interesting, counterintuitive commentary on the link between environmental and social issues in the New York Times. Whereas public attention tends to focus on dramatic, photographic, discrete human tragedies, there are many bigger preventable causes of death in the world. He says, "Mosquitoes kill 20 times more people each year than the tsunami did, and in the long war between humans and mosquitoes it looks as if mosquitoes are winning." He points out the kind of painful dilemma between competing values that many environmentalists would rather not face. Perhaps there is room for limited reliance on that toxic, bird-killing substance, as he urges, but it would only be appropriate in countries where state authority is widely respected. Because of ineffective government regulation, many people already are spraying DDT in many Third World countries. How much? Nobody knows.
Andrew Clem Archives ~ Schwarzenegger on Redistricting
California's governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has called for a major reform in the way legislative district boundaries are drawn, assigning the task to a panel of retired judges. This would bring back meaningful competition in legislative races, where incumbents nearly always win.
Schwarzenegger ... noted that of the 153 seats in the California Congressional delegation and Legislature that were on the ballot in November, not one changed party hands.
"What kind of a democracy is that?" he asked in his address.
"The current system is rigged to benefit the interests of those in office and not those who put them there," he said. "We must reform it."
SOURCE: New York Times (via Donald Sensing); an analysis in the Washington Post suggests that Schwarzenegger may forfeit the bipartisan support he has enjoyed up till now. Indeed, even some of the Republicans (the minority in California) are leery about tackling such a sacred cow. I'm starting to admire the ambition and vision of Schwarzenegger, who seems to have a more substantial policy agenda than Jesse Ventura. (A movie coming in the next few weeks which focuses on his sordid early career in show business may take some of the luster off his image.) Anyway, fighting gerrymandering is one of my favorite (long shot) causes, but if Republicans fail to grab hold of such opportunities for much-needed reforms, they will once again become a minority party nationwide within a few years. And our country would then become even less democratic, ironically.
UPDATE: On the other hand, as most would argue, the Republicans would risk becoming a minority party as soon as 2006 if they were to take on too many high-risk "too hot to handle" issues, as Bush is doing with Social Security. It all depends on leadership at the top and communication between legislators and grass roots activists. If the GOP mobilizes its vast human resources in an effective manner and makes clear the connection between problems and proposed solutions, they can accomplish something truly historic during Bush's second term. However, if they sound the battle cry without having a clear strategy -- such as the Republicans in the Virginia legislature who were outmaneuvered by Governor Warner last year -- it will be like Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. Obviously, playing it safe and just tinkering with minor reforms is a very tempting option, but the underlying structural problems in our economy will get worse and worse unless something serious is done, and the Republicans would get blamed. So it's a question of either taking a calculated risk of losing in 2006 in order to achieve a monumental change in public policy on par with FDR's New Deal, or else clinging to power for the next two or three elections while frittering away the support of the conservative activists, thus setting the stage for a renewed march toward socialism under the Democrats.
Andrew Clem Archives ~ Tsunami: A view from France
A day that used to be a ceremonial, purely symbolic reaffirmation of our democratic heritage was spoiled by raucous and bitter debates over alleged voting irregularities in Ohio and elsewhere. Congress' role in certifying the Electoral College votes used to be supremely anti-climactic, but like everything else these days, it's an excuse for a pointless verbal brawl. The (Barbara) "Boxer Rebellion," the transparent attempt to undermine the legitimacy of President Bush's reelection, will surely fire up the Democrat activists for the next election, though the cost in terms of relations between the parties on Capitol Hill may be very high. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) began his remarks on the House floor by saying "We are not here as partisans of one candidate or another..." Well, perhaps not, but the timing of the objections certainly seem odd. Look at it from a different perspective: If he were in fact pursuing a partisan agenda, wouldn't today be the perfect opportunity for grandstanding and annoying his opponents?
The monumental scale of the disingenuousness on display by the Democratic side is quite breathtaking. Another House Democrat went so far as to say the United States has forfeited any right to judge the electoral practices of other countries such as Ukraine. Do they really expect us to take them seriously? As for the merits of the dispute, the Democrats certainly could have picked a more suitable occasion for ironing out problems if they were really aiming for cooperative action. After Florida 2000 the issue of voting rights received a huge amount of attention, and there was ample opportunity to put in place enough safeguards to erase any doubts about the electoral process. I heard a particularly articulate response to the Democrats' complaints while listening to the debate on the TV in another room, so I went in to see who it was. Wouldn't you know, it was good ol' Majority Leader Tom DeLay from Texas! Perhaps I should give him more credit, but I still think his role in the Texas redistricting was inappropriate. Anyway, late in the afternoon, the lower chamber of Congress finally confirmed the November 2 election results by certifying the Electoral College votes. Hooray!?
I checked the Carter Center Web site to see if they had any recent comments about the U.S. election or the Ohio recount. Not yet. Carter, you may recall (scroll down), approved last summer's referendum in Venezuela while claiming that the Florida 2000 elections were unfair. In fact, they still haven't weighed in on the hotly disputed Ukrainian elections, to my amazement. They are perhaps too busy monitoring elections in Palestine and Mozambique.
In belgravia dispatch (via InstaPundit), Gregory Djerejian writes about French resentment that the U.S. is taking a lead role in the "humanitarian coalition." As for the "stinginess" accuastion, one of the posts on that belgravia dispatch page included a link (PDF) to a Defense Department list of U.S. forces that are involved in the tsunami relief operation. His blog post includes a cartoon from Le Monde portraying the U.S. as a presumptuous imperialist, and the text sarcastically implies that U.S. aerial photographic missions to survey the damage are part of a sinister Pentagon plot. That's absurd, and it's sad that so many French people think that way.
True, the past U.S. record in supporting the military regime of Suharto during and since the Vietnam War is a somewhat blemished one. Here's a twist, though: until the 1990s, U.S. policy toward Indonesia was accommodative of nationalist sentiment. It was during the Republican administration of Gerald Ford in 1975 that Henry Kissinger sent a signal tacitly approving Indonesia's takeover of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor. It was under the Clinton presidency, in contrast, that the U.S. pushed Indonesia to let go of that culturally distinct half-island, angering the military leaders and infuriating nationalist sensibilities there. That was one of the best-justified examples of Clinton's aggressive global reformism, most observers would say, and the outcome in East Timor is certainly better than Bosnia or Kosovo. Because the destruction from the tsunami was centered in the province of Aceh, where there has been a violent separatist movement for many years, many Americans are for the first time getting a faint inkling of the complex ethnic strife in that far-flung island "nation." Students who have been in my Global Politics class know all about the ethnic and religious makeup of Indonesia, or should...
I was proud of Colin Powell for forcefully correcting the faulty premise of Diane Sawyer's interview query, that the U.S. response to the disaster was alllegedly tardy and weak. Few statesmen can speak as authoritatively and convincingly as he can. Have I mentioned he will be missed? Yes, I have.
For a grimly humorous review of the insipid mainstream Western reaction to the tragedy, see "The 12 most stupid tsunami quotes " at chrenkoff.blogspot.com. Beware, there are some extremely lame platitudes and expressions of utter ignorance. One woman letter writer from Kansas bewailed the "tsunami" wrought by the Bush administration on this country. Were 150,000 people killed by Bush?
On the first day of the 109th Congress, the Republican House leadership pushed through a revision to that body's ethics rules that requires at least one member of each party to agree before any investigation can go forward. This marked a partial retreat from the principled stand that Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) had taken, and he now says he expects to lose his post as chairman of the House ethics committee. See Washington Post. It's certainly not the best way to start off a new year of legislating. Perhaps the Republicans are driving home the point that they have given up trying to work with the Democrats in Congress. Personally I wouldn't have a problem with going along with a hardball strategy if I were more confident that the congressional Republicans are serious about enacting comprehensive reforms to entitlements programs, fixing the medical liability insurance mess, etc. Radical reforms are not generally based on widespread consensus, and I happen to believe that stiff, unpopular measures aimed at making our economy more free and more market-friendly are absolutely necessary. Some toes will get stepped on in the process, and many Democrats will scream bloody murder. It's a shame.
Thanks to a critical mass of courageous consciences in the Republican ranks on Capitol Hill, a proposed weakening of ethics rules -- aimed primarily at protecting Majority Leader Tom DeLay in case he is indicted -- was abandoned. Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), chairman of the House ethics committee, had denounced the proposed changes, putting his position and perhaps his career on the line. See Washington Post. Not that it's going to win any converts from the Democratic side, of course, but this stand for principle will earn the party credit among the more attentive voters and political observers. Three cheers! When you consider that the criminal charges being filed against DeLay in Texas are almost certainly politically motivated to some extent, the rule changes were understandable, if not justifiable. Two wrongs don't make a right.
In Monday's Post there was an ad on the Federal Page by the Committee to ReDefeat the President. They are challenging the Electoral College results on the grounds of (they say) fraudulent manipulation in Nevada, Florida, Ohio, and New Mexico. I got a kick out of the mail-in coupon for those wishing to donate: you either check "YES! I will help..." or "NO! You people need to get over it because God wants George W. Bush to be the president even if he got fewer votes than his opponent again." HO, HO, HO! I can't quite figure out, however, if that is how they really think most Bush voters think, or if they are just being sarcastic. I sure hope it's the latter... They will be among the lead organizers of the "CounterInaugural Ball" on January 20. (By the way, their Web site quotes "Audous Huxley" [sic]; it should be "Aldous Huxley." He, of course, was the author of Brave New World, where everyone was contentedly tranquilized by an all-powerful government, without any emotional ties to family members, or any moral compunctions about sexuality. In other words, a Democratic vision of utopia.)