Thursday, August 28, 2008

Clinton and Biden: topline thoughts

I’ll admit it, I sold President Clinton a little short today.

When asked about my thoughts (biases, really) going in to the Wednesday night speech, I wrote this:

The Dem Party of Bill Clinton circa 1992,3,4,5,6 is not the Dem Party of BHO 2008. The Big Dawg may not love that, may even be bitter (imo) that he is not being given more credit (earned or not) for what he "accomplished" in the 90s, but both Clintons know that what is best for them is what's best for the Democratic Party this cycle--and that is the election of Obama-Biden this November.

Bill might not give the best speech of his career, but he will embrace BHO in word and spirit--at least for public consumption.

But Bill Clinton exceeded my expectations by a goodly amount. First, Clinton wholly embraced the Obama candidacy, with lots of full-throated “I support Barack Obama,” “Barack Obama is the man for this job,” and “Barack Obama is ready to be the president of the United States.”

Clinton neglected—wisely—to say that Obama would be ready on “day one.”

My favorite lines from the Big Dawg’s speech (transcribed from scratch-pad notes):

Barack Obama knows the world will be more impressed with the power of our example than the examples of our power.


America can do better, and Barack Obama will do better.

Joe Biden met my expectations, but maybe just barely.

I have often thought of Biden as an informed speaker, but not so much a great orator (I don’t think I am alone here). Tonight’s speech basically confirmed that belief. It had the “red meat” that every anchor and pundit told us that this speech must contain, but it didn’t soar rhetorically. It was a little long, and peppered with those much too over-used call and repetition lines, which have mostly failed (as they did here) ever since Al Gore trotted out “It’s time for him to go” back in 1992.

Joe Biden’s best moment—and, again, I am sure I am not alone here—was his “Freudian slip,” accidentally calling John McCain “George.”

Biden—along with so many at this convention—stressed that John McCain just represents a continuation of the failed Bush Administration. Polls show that this argument tracks very well with voters. In this case, I am happy that the Dems are poll-driven.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Breaking News: Obama is Still Black

Though far from quieted, the constant drumbeat of “party disunity” is being drowned out by the thunderous sound of conventioneers cheering BOTH its top primary candidates. Senator Hillary Clinton spent 23 minutes on Tuesday night talking up and wholeheartedly endorsing Barack Obama, and, with the exception of a few small pockets, delegates and assembled guests inside the Pepsi Center embraced the message with several standing ovations.

By the time the Big Dawg finishes barking Wednesday night, the schism that has so dominated the establishment media narrative will have been officially and publicly put to bed. (I am not denying that some private rifts still exist between specific members of the campaigns, but all that I speak to here—and I have made a point of asking everyone I meet, from delegate to campaign official to fundraiser—expresses first and up front that everyone knows what has to be done to elect Democrats in November, and that starts with uniting behind Obama-Biden.)

Troubling, I know. Because without an unofficial official through-line, we might actually have to make this campaign about access to affordable healthcare, or a post-hydrocarbon economy, or Iraq and Afghanistan, or about the hundreds of issues where Barack Obama and John McCain. . . and that would take time and at least one google search.

But, do not furrow your pancaked and powdered brow, it appears that the broadcast media, at least, have gotten word of a new and groundbreaking meme: Barack Obama is apparently (are you sitting down?) African American.

Oh, what am I saying, that’s not how they put it. Take two: Barack Obama is black.

And he’s running for president, too! (Talk about your audacity of hope!)

This "Breaking News" was broken (or is it that this is broken news?) by Joe Scarborough on Wednesday’s Morning Joe—I will let leevank give you the rundown:

It seems that Barack Obama is like Ivy League MBA who shows up on the shop floor and lays everybody off. And then it got to how Barack Obama managed to get into all of those elite schools he attended. Pat Buchanan volunteered a story about hearing from an alumnus of some Catholic high school that they'd had three members of their most recent graduating class admitted to Harvard, and how he'd said, "That's great!" And how he'd heard in return, "They were all black."

I was stunned. The story line is now EXPLICITLY that Barack Obama is the unqualified black guy who is taking YOUR job, or YOUR kid's spot in college, simply because of the color of his skin.

But, apparently, it is not enough that Scarborough and Buchanan hip us to (what is actually half of) BHO’s racial background—Obama needs to tell us himself.

A few hours after Morning Joe, Brian Williams was anchoring DNC coverage on MSNBC and asked if there wasn't "some point during this campaign—maybe during one of the debates—when Obama has to look into the camera and say to America, 'I'm black.'" (Not an exact quote—I am catching TV on the fly here in Denver—but it is very close to a verbatim.) Williams qualified it, sort of, by saying this was about acknowledging that some people won't vote for an African American.

Then there is the “gentleman of the Old School” (to quote Media Bistro), Charlie Gibson of ABC, who has been dragged (kicking and screaming, apparently) into the blogosphere as part of his convention coverage. What does Charlie have to say about this experience? Well, it seems what comes to mind is that Barack Obama is, um, you know. . .

They throw around the word historic a lot in conventions and yet this one really is. . . .

If you had told me that before I died, one of the major parties in this country would nominate an African American for president, I'd be amazed.

To be fair, Gibson is reflecting on how far America has come since his personal experiences reporting some 40 years ago in a segregated Lynchburg, VA, and even I think that there are many aspects of Obama’s rise to become the Democratic standard-bearer that could be called “historic,” his mixed-race background among them. But, still, I think a lot of us in and outside of the medias (sorry about the plural plural) have been aware of and moved on from the color of Obama’s skin being issue one in this election.

Still, old memes never die, they just get repeated (that’s pretty much by definition, I guess), and the New York Times, perhaps sensing that they have but one day left to flog this dead stalking horse, led with this:

Mr. Obama’s name will be put in nomination some time after 3 p.m. local time (5 p.m. Eastern time), but only after his primary rival, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, is also nominated. Roughly half of her 1,640 delegates said in a pre-convention poll that they intended to vote for her when her name is put in nomination, but there have been intense private negotiations between the Obama and Clinton camps to cut short the roll call and make Mr. Obama the unanimous nominee.

. . . .

But the formal nomination of Mr. Obama will not end the drama that has riven the Obama and Clinton camps and provided a consuming story line of this convention.

Say, what? As I wrote earlier, and has been seconded, even in the establishment press, this is not the consuming story line of this convention for anyone who is actually at the convention.

As I am writing this, the roll call is proceeding—and proceeding smoothly. Is that a story? Only, I suppose in contrast to the establishment reportage.

Tonight, Bill Clinton will make his speech, and

An aide to the former president said Mr. Clinton will be as supportive of Mr. Obama as Mrs. Clinton was in her 23-minute address on Tuesday.

"It’s as strong as she was in every respect," the aide said. "And shorter."

And then what will John Broder and his establishment buddies have to write about?

I guess the broadcast media is ahead of the press, so we can shed the anxiety that we might sympathetically feel for our better-paid friends. The troubles with the Clintons might be yesterday’s non-story, but Barack Obama continues to be black.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Establishment Media Desperately Seeking Disunity

Riding the 16th Street bus between venues this morning, I encountered a young woman, DNC delegate credentials slung around her neck, sporting two buttons on her shoulder bag—one said “Hillary ‘08” and the other “Obama ’08.”

And that, as best my impressions tell me so far, is the extent of party disunity at the Democratic National Convention.

Perhaps you have a different impression, and if you happen to be somewhere else this week, maybe a place where your best news options are USA TODAY or a cable news channel, I don’t blame you.

Just take a gander at the number one story on the cover of today’s USA TODAY:

Poll: More than half of Clinton backers still not sold on Obama

DENVER — Fewer than half of Hillary Rodham Clinton's supporters in the presidential primaries say they definitely will vote for Barack Obama in November, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds, evidence of a formidable challenge facing Democrats as their national convention opens here today.

Sounds grim, right? But read past the first paragraph. . .

In the survey, taken Thursday through Saturday, 47% of Clinton supporters say they are solidly behind Obama, and 23% say they support him but may change their minds before the election.

Thirty percent say they will vote for Republican John McCain, someone else or no one at all.

The way I see it, that is an aggregate 70% strong or moderate support of Democratic nominee Barack Obama among former supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Perhaps this lead, from the New York Times, is more to your tastes:

Delegates for Clinton Back Obama, but Show Concerns

Delegates to the Democratic National Convention arrive in Denver having largely put aside the deep divisions of the primary fight between Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, although some hold lingering concerns about Mr. Obama’s level of experience, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll.

More than half of the delegates that Mrs. Clinton won in the primaries now say they are enthusiastic supporters of Mr. Obama, and they also believe he will win the presidential election in November, the poll found. Three in 10 say they support Mr. Obama but have reservations about him or they support him only because he is the party’s nominee. Five percent say they do not support him yet.

The poll, which was taken before Mr. Obama selected Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware as his running mate, also suggests that Mrs. Clinton’s 1,640 pledged delegates are evenly split over whom they plan to vote for on the floor of the convention during the roll call vote on Wednesday evening.

A much more accurate read, as I’m seeing it here in Denver.

Of course, the two articles above are based on different polls, so you might assume that the given biases of Gallup/USA TODAY versus NYT/CBS might account for the different takes on the same story. Or maybe you’ve noticed that the USA TODAY survey is of registered voters, while the Times story focuses on DNC delegates. But my look at the numbers (as far as the two news organizations will let me look, anyway) tells me that the stories with the disparate headlines are based on very similar stories.

The campaign for the Democratic nomination was over-long (that’s the party’s fault, not the candidates’) and hard fought. A lot of time, money, energy, and self-esteem was invested, and with that much invested, it is hard for some to just flip a switch and sing Kumbaya.

But we do not elect presidents by group sing. We vote. And by the measures of both polls, an overwhelming majority of Democrats are going to vote for Barack Obama

So, why the fascination with the “schism” narrative?

Yes, in this giant sports metaphor we call American culture, conflict always seems like a sweeter story than unity. The “I belong to no organized political party—I’m a Democrat” narrative is older than the man that coined that phrase, Will Rodgers. And, if you buy into the idea that the establishment media has a vested interest in keeping the general election race (Obama vs. McCain) close, then stories about possible Democratic defections are a natural. But I can’t help but feel that there is something else, something, perhaps, much more insidious, at work here.

What does it say when you tell voters over and over that some people just can’t vote for an African American? What does it say when you repeat ad absurdum that Clinton supporters, mostly identified as women, are not team players? What does it do to paint well in advance of a possible victory a Democratic president with the taint of illegitimacy?

Besides reinforcing traditional biases, besides incubating distrust where there might have been none (or, at least, little), the repetition of these memes discourages participation in, and the evolution of, the system.

In sum, it breeds cynicism. And nothing kills hope like cynicism.

I don’t necessarily want to start singing Kumbaya myself. I have not been drinking the Kool-Aid inside the Pepsi Center (in fact, I have not been drinking ANYTHING—there is nothing besides a drinking fountain in the press center, and I am THIRSTY). I did see one man here passing out “Hillary ‘08” stickers. There are some divisions over issues inside the Democratic Party. And there are likely a few people here (and I think that is a very few) who will have an episode of blind cynicism themselves and vote for four more years of failed and corrupt Republican leadership. But all of that is so clearly outweighed here in Denver by a strong sense that in order to march the ball up the field (to use a sports metaphor myself), in order to move this country forward, in order to restore some modicum of responsibility and morality to the White House, Democrats of all stripes will be voting Obama-Biden come November.

But don’t take my word for it, read the papers—past the headlines if you must.

Can Democrats unite behind a single ticket this election cycle? From here in Denver, the word is (OK, words are): Yes we can!

UPDATE: Amy Sullivan of Time Magazine—who is here in Denver—gets it right:

Given all that buildup, it may come as a surprise that the Democrats who will gather around the gavel in Denver are actually more united than perhaps at any other point in the past 30 years. When Obama accepts the Democratic nomination on Thursday night, he will inherit a party focused on its determination to take back the White House, and that overarching goal should paper over any lingering resentments or policy differences, at least until after Election Day.

It’s a solid article all the way through. Does being in Denver give reporters a different perspective?

(h/t Ian Fried)

(cross-posted on The Seminal and Daily Kos. . . and, I hear, Air America, too! Welcome!)

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

A few words about a few words

WASHINGTON — A Justice Department plan would loosen restrictions on the Federal Bureau of Investigation to allow agents to open a national security or criminal investigation against someone without any clear basis for suspicion, Democratic lawmakers briefed on the details said Wednesday.

. . . .

The senators said the new guidelines would allow the F.B.I. to open an investigation of an American, conduct surveillance, pry into private records and take other investigative steps “without any basis for suspicion.” The plan “might permit an innocent American to be subjected to such intrusive surveillance based in part on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, or on protected First Amendment activities,” the letter said. It was signed by Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

As the end of the Bush administration nears, the White House has been seeking to formalize in law and regulation some of the aggressive counterterrorism steps it has already taken in practice since the Sept. 11 attacks.

. . . .

The Democratic senators said the draft plan appeared to allow the F.B.I. to go even further in collecting information on Americans connected to “foreign intelligence” without any factual predicate. They also said there appeared to be few constraints on how the information would be shared with other agencies.

[emphasis added]

The story speaks for itself, except in one paragraph. That would be the third one excerpted above. It is subtle—I actually missed it the first time I read the story—but it is as powerful and insidious as it is sloppy and wrong.

See it?

. . . the White House has been seeking to formalize in law and regulation some of the aggressive counterterrorism steps it has already taken in practice since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Since the story itself will point out toward its end that the Bush-era Justice Department has shown no evidence that these methods work, they are not “aggressive counterterrorism steps”—they are just aggressively intrusive and patently counter to the Constitution.

And, when is the establishment going to give up the canard about the administration’s illegal spying starting after the attacks of 9/11/01. There is evidence, submitted in open court, upheld by a judge (and mentioned in many of my posts, including this one), which confirms that the White House went to the nation’s telecommunications giants within weeks of Bush’s first inauguration. This is not a counterterrorism program implemented as a response to September 11th—this is a premeditated policy by this administration to go around the Constitution in order to collect information on Americans without court order or congressional oversight. This is not an issue of striking a balance between law enforcement and civil rights—there is no law enforcement intended here, and you don’t get to decide how much to abrogate the US Constitution.

Shame on the White House for committing these egregious abuses. Shame on Congress for abdicating their responsibilities to stop it. And, shame on the New York Times for perpetuating the administration-generated myth that this abuse is somehow a counterterrorism tactic.

(cross-posted on The Seminal and Daily Kos)

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Mrs. McCain’s sister act

Leo Tolstoy famously wrote that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I have sometimes wondered whether Tolstoy had that quite right, and so, by way of explanation, I submit to you (and to Leo) Mr. and Mrs. McCain.

Last Tuesday, NPR did a story about Cindy McCain, second and current wife of presidential wannabe John McCain, and referred to her as the only child of wealthy beer baron Jim Hensley. It’s not surprising that they reported such:

McCain herself routinely uses the phrase "only child," as she did on CNN last month. "I grew up with my dad," she said then. "I'm an only child. My father was a cowboy, and he really loved me very much, but I think he wanted a son occasionally."

There’s a problem with that touching little anecdote, however—Cindy McCain has an older sister, and Cindy McCain knows it.

Documents show Kathleen Anne Hensley was born to Jim and Mary Jeanne Hensley on Feb. 23, 1943. They had been married for six years when Kathleen was born.

Jim Hensley was a bombardier on a B-17, flying over Europe during World War II.

He was injured and sent to a facility in West Virginia to recuperate. During that time, while still married to Mary Jeanne, Hensley met another woman — Marguerite Smith. Jim divorced Mary Jeanne and married Marguerite in 1945.

Cindy Lou Hensley was born nine years later, in 1954.

She may have grown up as an only child, but so did her half sister, Kathleen, who was raised by a single parent.

[Kathleen Hensley, now Kathleen] Portalski says she did see her father and her half sister from time to time.

"I saw him a few times a year," she says. "I saw him at Christmas and birthdays, and he provided money for school clothes, and he called occasionally."

Big Jim helped put Kathleen’s kids through college, and did give about $10,000 in gifts to their family, but when Jim Hensley died in 2000, he left all of his vast fortune to Cindy. Kathleen got $10,000; her children—Jim’s grandchildren—got nothing.

It is a slight that Cindy Hensley McCain has never attempted to redress.

While it is true that Cindy McCain is not the one running for president, I think there is still something here to explore.

My takeaway on this is that Cindy McCain is icky. I know that sounds a tad juvenile and reductive, but I mean it to be visceral, because that's how I think this story is relevant to the presidential election.

Had her husband chosen a less public line of work, Cindy's family schism would be her affair, but thinking about it in the context of the life and career of Arizona’s oh-so-senior senator, this revelation just adds a (OK, another) sleazy taint to the whole McCain clan. Yes, Pa Hensley made this mess, but Cindy could have gone a long way toward cleaning it up by first correcting the reports that billed her as an only child, and second by sharing some small part of her substantial fortune with the family her father chose to screw.

All families have past sins—it is what a person does to address those sins that matters.

According to campaign surrogates and a fawning press, we are to believe that one of John McCain's great strengths is his judgment. He himself harped on judgment Monday in a speech before the VFW. His camp loves to talk up the idea that you can judge how maverick-alicious he is by the company he keeps. Well, what does it say about McCain and his judgment that he chooses a life partner that is so, I'll say it again, icky?

Obviously, when attacking McCain, this wouldn't be the head of the spear—there are plenty unsavory alliances to fill an anti-McCain quiver—but I am all for letting McCain be judged by the company he keeps. The icky company.

And, I'll just add a nagging question that says so much, I think, simply as a nagging, unanswered, question: Why was it important to the McCain campaign to perpetuate the idea of Cindy as an only child?

Is it perhaps because the Hensley’s unhappiness is so similar to the unhappiness John McCain caused his first family?

What would Tolstoy think?

(cross-posted on guy2k, The Seminal, and Daily Kos)

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Celebrity: McCain doth protest too much

With all the back and forth on “celebrity” in the presidential campaign ad wars, and with John McCain’s camp continuing to run ads calling Barack Obama “the biggest celebrity in the world” or some permutation thereof, I think you might find this interesting.

I stumbled across a post I had written just ten weeks ago titled “McCain ‘Smitten with the Celebrity of Power’” that takes on new meaning given the current ad cycle. In that piece, I include this excerpt from one of the stories in the New York Times’ series “The Long Run”:

Mr. McCain has often said he decided to run for office because he felt his war injuries would make attaining the same rank as his father and grandfather “impossible.” But Mr. Lehman, now an adviser to the McCain campaign, and two other top Navy officers familiar with Mr. McCain’s file insist that was not the case.

Instead, many who knew him say, Mr. McCain seemed bored by Navy life. “Sitting down with Anwar Sadat or Deng Xiaoping and being treated as an equal — that is pretty heady stuff,” said Rhett Dawson, a former aide to Mr. Tower who is now president of an electronics trade group. “It had opened his eyes to a much broader world.”

Mr. McCain was captivated, recalled Jeffrey Record, then an aide to former Senator Sam Nunn, the hawkish Georgia Democrat. “He thrives on competition, and he thrives on political combat,” Mr. Record said. “He saw the glamour of it. I think he really got smitten with the celebrity of power.”

[emphasis added]

McCain? Smitten with the celebrity? Gosh, ya’ think?

(cross-posted on guy2k, The Seminal, and Daily Kos)

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Intel abuse: as if you needed more evidence

For all you scared, greedy, stupid, or cynical Representatives and Senators who voted for the FISA revisions last month, here’s a little something that got lost in the Friday Olympics-vs.-sex-scandal news dump:

WASHINGTON — The Federal Bureau of Investigation said Friday that it had improperly obtained the phone records of reporters for The New York Times and The Washington Post in the newspapers’ Indonesia bureaus in 2004.

Robert S. Mueller III, director of the F.B.I., disclosed the episode in a phone call to Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, and apologized for it. He also spoke with Leonard Downie Jr., the executive editor of The Washington Post, to apologize.

F.B.I. officials said the incident came to light as part of the continuing review by the Justice Department inspector general’s office into the bureau’s improper collection of telephone records through “emergency” records demands issued to phone providers.

The records were apparently sought as part of a terrorism investigation, but the F.B.I. did not explain what was being investigated or why the reporters’ phone records were considered relevant.

While these cases probably didn’t fall under the direct purview of FISA/FISC (though we really have no way of knowing), it is yet another example of Bush Administration spying on journalists (Lawrence Wright, Christiane Amanpour). And, it should serve as a yet another wake-up call to lawmakers and citizens alike, reminding them that the Bush/Cheney obsession with warrantless surveillance has little to do with the legal pursuit of terrorists, and a lot more to do with the suppression of information and dissent.

The FBI now says that they have corrected the problem that led to this latest known incidence of illegal spying, but as both the New York Times and the Washington Post make clear, the Department of Justice has continued to reenact the same sorts of abuses, just under a different name. Without aggressive congressional oversight and investigation, the arrest and prosecution of lawbreakers, and a rewriting of a decade’s worth of Constitution-eroding laws, there are simply no guarantees that this sort of abuse won’t happen again—indeed, there is no real guarantee (beyond the occasional and absurd “trust me”) that the abuse has ever stopped. Be it the Patriot Act (I & II), the Military Commissions Act, the Protect America Act, or the recent FISA capitulation, Congress has repeatedly chosen the coward’s path—synonymous with the White House’s path—rather than exercise its rights as a coequal branch of government.

I have argued in the past that if we know of illegal administration spying on journalists and other non-suspects, and we know of pre-9/11 surveillance, then we for all intents and purposes know that these are not programs designed to fight some foreign terrorists threat. I have often wanted to ask Democratic leaders if they realize that their phone calls and e-mails are being swept up in Bush Administration dragnets—and then I want to ask them if they care.

You see, while the New York Times and the Washington Post have their lawyers to turn to when they are the victims of intelligence abuse (and the lawyers have been brought in for this current case), most of us only have our elected representatives to watch out for our Constitutionally guaranteed rights. If Congressional leaders can’t be convinced of the gravity of this situation, we’re all screwed.

And that’s a gold medal scandal.

(cross-posted on guy2k, The Seminal and Daily Kos)

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Monday, August 11, 2008

In the “war on terror,” looking for the “right front” makes diplomacy take a back seat

In her recent AlterNet column, Iliana Segura gets a lot right:

If the United States really wants to improve the situation in Afghanistan, it should start by ending the occupation. It should then cough up money for humanitarian aid and reconstruction. (One estimate puts the tab at $10 billion.) This is not just for the sake of Afghanistan, but for the sake of Americans as well, who are no safer today than they were when the planes hit the towers. Ending the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan is the first, crucial step in that elusive goal of "winning hearts and minds" that the United States claims to be so committed to in the region. As Iraq has demonstrated, occupying armies are not a deterrent to terrorism. Occupying armies breed terror.

Most important, it's time to stop thinking of Afghanistan as the "right front" of the so-called "War on Terror" -- an idea that has been perpetuated by everyone from Barack Obama to Jon Stewart (who idiotically told Colin Powell in 2005, "the Afghanistan war, man did I dig that. I'd like to go again") -- and start questioning the legitimacy of the "War on Terror" itself. It is an idea that has been utterly and catastrophically discredited, most recently by the most unlikely of institutions, the RAND Corporation, which recently released a report that undermined the notion that soldiers can fight a "war on terror."

"Terrorists should be perceived and described as criminals, not holy warriors, and our analysis suggests that there is no battlefield solution to terrorism," wrote Seth Jones, the lead author of the study. "Military force has rarely been the primary reason for the end of terrorist groups, and few groups within this time frame achieved victory."

If the RAND Corporation, a think tank that traditionally operates in the service of war-making, no longer believes in the "War on Terror," why on Earth should we?

As did Nicholas Kristof (citing the same Rand research) in Saturday’s New York Times:

Our intuitive approach to fighting terrorists and insurgents is to blow things up. But one of the most cost-effective counterterrorism methods in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan may be to build things up, like schooling and microfinance. Girls’ education sometimes gets more bang for the buck than a missile.

A new study from the RAND Corporation examined how 648 terror groups around the world ended between 1968 and 2006. It found that by far the most common way for them to disappear was to be absorbed by the political process. The second most common way was to be defeated by police work. In contrast, in only 7 percent of cases did military force destroy the terrorist group.

I absolutely concur with Segura and Kristof that it is time to refocus efforts on aid, reconstruction, and negotiations, as I would concur with the Rand study (and some past presidential candidates) that fighting terrorists is best done by fighting crime rather than fighting wars. And, while I am not entirely ready to pass judgment on a complete withdrawal of every NATO body from Afghanistan, I would like to again go on record and restate that I thoroughly opposed the original invasion in 2001. At the time, it was instantly apparent to me—a person that witnessed the World Trade Center attacks and aftermath at close range—that the Bush Administration’s efforts (for lack of a better term) with regard to Afghanistan were all about revenge, domestic politics, and personal face-saving—and nothing else—and it amazed then (as it still does) that so many of my compatriots on this side of the political spectrum somehow thought this particular Bush war to be appropriate or well-considered.

As history has proven, the Bush Administration had no interest in the imminent threat posed by Osama bin Laden back in the spring and summer of 2001—just ask Richard Clarke. What’s more, as was very apparent at the time, the White House had little serious interest in unseating the Taliban prior to 9/11/01. The political and religious repression didn’t trigger action; nor did the misogyny. The shelling of the Buddhas of Bammiyan inspired as much of a response from Washington as did the bombing of the USS Cole—that is to say, none. In fact, soon after the Buddhas were destroyed, the Bush Administration sent $43 million to the Taliban for what was billed as “poppy eradication.”

Both prior to and after the attacks of September 11, the Taliban approached the US with offers to handover bin Laden—either directly or to a third-party country. Between mid-September of 2001 and the start of the bombing of Afghanistan, Taliban spokesmen made attempts to open negotiations with the US—offering to alternately give up the al Qaeda leader if there was “proof” that he planned the 9/11 hijackings, or turn bin Laden over to a third country pending investigation—only to be dismissed without consideration by a Bush Administration hot for a hot war.

None of this is meant to discount the horrors of life under Taliban rule for the peoples of Afghanistan. I was very distraught prior to 9/11/01 that the US wasn’t doing more—with regards to diplomacy, sanctions, and pressure on allies—to dislodge the mullahs. But if you want to argue that it would have been somehow morally repugnant to negotiate with the Taliban in 2001, I would ask what you propose to do about stanching a resurgent Taliban today.

Kristof again:

“There is no battlefield solution to terrorism,” the [Rand] report declares. “Military force usually has the opposite effect from what is intended.”

The next president should absorb that lesson and revalidate diplomacy as the primary tool of foreign policy — even if that means talking to ogres.

That last point sounds like an endorsement of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama—and it very well may be—but Obama has also made it a point to advocate for an increased military presence in Afghanistan. While that might sound politically palatable and imminently pragmatic, it could well turn out to be counterproductive. It will be hard for any US leader, even one as naturally tactful as Obama, to maximize diplomatic efforts while still accepting the ineffective “war on terror” frame. Our next president should wholly embrace a proactive strategy of negotiated security instead of indulging in the reactive tactics of mechanized war.

(cross-posted on Daily Kos and The Seminal)

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Friday, August 08, 2008

Stupid is as stupid does

Paul Krugman, writing in Friday’s New York Times, crafts a cautionary tale about the current political landscape.

[T]he debate on energy policy has helped me find the words for something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Republicans, once hailed as the “party of ideas,” have become the party of stupid.

Now, I don’t mean that G.O.P. politicians are, on average, any dumber than their Democratic counterparts. And I certainly don’t mean to question the often frightening smarts of Republican political operatives.

What I mean, instead, is that know-nothingism — the insistence that there are simple, brute-force, instant-gratification answers to every problem, and that there’s something effeminate and weak about anyone who suggests otherwise — has become the core of Republican policy and political strategy. The party’s de facto slogan has become: “Real men don’t think things through.”

Krugman reminds us of the lies told often enough in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the media elites that happily repeated the party line, and the repercussions and recriminations that awaited those that did not. (Krugman was no doubt being self-referential. As he told a group of us last month at Netroots Nation, New York Times management came to him as late as mid-2005 and told him to “lighten up” on his criticism of George W. Bush, arguing that “the [2004 presidential] election settled some things.”) In fact, it was not until the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina hit home in September of 2005 that we began to see the end of the “cult of personality that lionized [Bush] as a real-world Forrest Gump, a simple man who prevails through his gut instincts and moral superiority.” Well, at least in some circles. . . .

[T]he state of the energy debate shows that Republicans, despite Mr. Bush’s plunge into record unpopularity and their defeat in 2006, still think that know-nothing politics works. And they may be right.

Sad to say, the current drill-and-burn campaign is getting some political traction. According to one recent poll, 69 percent of Americans now favor expanded offshore drilling — and 51 percent of them believe that removing restrictions on drilling would reduce gas prices within a year.

The headway Republicans are making on this issue won’t prevent Democrats from expanding their majority in Congress, but it might limit their gains — and could conceivably swing the presidential election, where the polls show a much closer race.

In any case, remember this the next time someone calls for an end to partisanship, for working together to solve the country’s problems. It’s not going to happen — not as long as one of America’s two great parties believes that when it comes to politics, stupidity is the best policy.

So, if we are to take the numbers PK cites at face value, we have to ask “Why?” Why does the insanely stupid “drill here/drill now” have any traction? Here’s what I believe:

When you are feeling the real economic pain caused by $4 gasoline, you want to hear something—anything—about what someone—anyone—is going to do about it. As much as I know and believe in the intellectual superiority of conservation measures and a shift away from a hydrocarbon economy, those that have to choose between, say, needed prescription medicines and a full tank of gas need something more tangible and immediate. And even though a tune-up and properly inflated tires might offer some a degree of savings at the pump, it still might feel like the government that let gas get so expensive is now telling consumers, “it’s your problem.”

As I discussed earlier in the week, I don’t think that addressing the gas price problem inside the Republican-defined “more oil/less worry” frame is ever going to be a winner for Democrats. Democrats need to link expensive gasoline to Bush/Cheney Administration policies (both re: the Cheney Energy Taskforce and the instability in the Middle East caused by the administration’s needless, reckless Iraq campaign), and they also need to introduce a plan that will ease some of the economic hardship felt by working Americans. (I suggested a restructuring of FICA, with a tax holiday for the first $10,400 earned by an individual, but I am open to other ideas.)

But there is probably another reason that an idea (no, it’s not really an idea, it’s really nothing more than a chant—a war chant) as lame as “drill here/drill now” just won’t die, and that is the breath of life that many Democrats (presidential nominee Obama included) have given it with talk of “compromise.”

And therein lies my biggest takeaway from the Krugman piece—and perhaps its true target audience, as well. As the conclusion makes clear, you can’t compromise with stupid. It doesn’t work from an intellectual standpoint, because to walk in that downhill direction only diminishes the credibility of your own stance. And it doesn’t work from a political angle because the party of stupid doesn’t ever agree to shake hands and call it a win-win. They will claim Republican victory (and Democratic defeat) on offshore drilling, funnel more money to their Big Oil benefactors, and then continue to bash and blame Democrats for the high cost of fuel.

It is a lesson that Krugman has gleaned from a bumper crop of stupid Republican initiatives over the last decade (two decades? three?)—he gets it. But if you read between the lines of Friday’s column, it seems he is asking why many in the Democratic leadership still do not.

(cross-posted on Daily Kos and The Seminal)

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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Don’t think of a big drill: acknowledging real pain with real solutions

My answer to the gas price question: fix Social Security! (Not that it’s broken, mind you.)

Much has been written in the last couple of weeks about McCain’s nonsensical “solution” to high gasoline prices—offshore drilling—and many a brow has been furrowed because it seems that Democrats have yet to synthesize as pat an answer to the real hardship brought on by $4/gallon gas.

Even I, a solid opponent of off-shore drilling, subsidies to big oil, and even, truth be told, cheap hydrocarbon fuel, have been saying for many months now that first, the Democrats need a good answer for questions about rising fuel costs, second, the Democrats don’t seem to have one, and third, this is going to be a persistent problem in this election cycle.

Though Senator Barack Obama has recently made a comprehensive speech that makes many a good point about the failed energy policies of Bush/McCain, and includes some intriguing proposals that might help stimulate an alternative energy economy in the United States, he has also muddied his message with the much more sound-bitable statement that he would be open to some forms of off-shore oil exploration. The idea that Obama envisions an America that does not need nearly as much oil has not made headlines, but, alas, the story that Obama has “softened” his stance on drilling to move closer to McCain—be it true or not—has.

The establishment media, with the help of big advertising dollars from big oil, seems eager to award this point to the Republicans, and Democratic standard-bearer has still not fed the beast a definitive answer about how he will lower gas prices.

Obama does not have an answer—and that is because there isn’t one (hard-to-explain arguments for a windfall profits tax notwithstanding). To talk about high gas prices strictly within the oil frame, or even within the energy frame, is playing on the Republican’s turf, and, after much brow-furrowing of my own, I believe that is a pitch on which we cannot score.

We will likely never see $2 per gallon gas again, nor would we want to (for may reasons involving consumption, conservation, pollution, ecology, economy, innovation, etc.). That said, it is hard to ignore the real pain that many Americans feel every time they pull up to the pump. How can Democrats respond to that pain?

The problem comes amidst so much economic upheaval, it is impossible to address in a vacuum—so how about we don’t? Rather than feel crippled by what the Republicans have wrought, let us seize this opportunity to set several things right. For, if handled correctly, this could present the country with the all-too-rare win-win-win scenario.

First up, we can’t make gas cost less, but we can give you more money to spend on it. To put it a slightly different way, government can’t do much to make gasoline cheaper right now, but it can immediately make its cost use up a smaller percentage of a working family’s budget.

Second, we will provide immediate and meaningful economic stimulus across the board—to every working American—but we will give most of that money to the people most likely to spend that money within the US economy.

Third, we give a substantial and permanent tax cut to the vast majority of Americans.

And, as a bonus “win,” fourth, we will “fix” Social Security (again, not that it’s really broken, but we can actually increase the size of the Social Security trust fund without cutting benefits—at all).

Here is how I propose we accomplish all of these lofty and presumably laudable goals:

1) Immediately eliminate the Social Security portion of the FICA tax on all income below the poverty line (currently pegged at about $10,400 for an individual).

2) Beginning January 1, 2009, eliminate the cap (currently set at $97,500) on the Social Security portion of FICA—completely—and

3) Also at the beginning of 2009, cut the Social Security FICA rate almost in half, to an employee contribution of 3.2% (from the current 6.2%).

And now for the large caveat: I am not an economist. However, I think I have read enough and thought about this enough to assert that my proposal will work.

Remember, roughly 80% of Americans pay more in payroll taxes than they do in income taxes, so a cut in the FICA will put more money in more pockets than any income tax rebate. And, because this is money withheld from weekly paychecks, it will put it back into the hands of workers almost immediately upon making this plan law—no waiting for some post-tax-day check when the stimulus is needed right now.

Those benefiting from the new FICA floor—and that would be almost everyone—could choose to use that money to help offset increased fuel prices. It would in most cases mean much more than any summer gas-tax holiday, and certainly more than the non-existent payoff from increased offshore drilling. That said, those that have discovered during the current crisis that they can get by using less gas/diesel/oil can use the additional income they would receive however they see fit (it is, as Republicans like to say, your money).

Come January, those making less than $97,500—and remember, that is 94% of Americans—will see another tax cut. This should provide another boost to economies—both personal and national—that will likely still need it.

And, for the bonus round:

With a flat rate and a cap, FICA is one of the most regressive taxes we have. This plan goes part of the way towards restoring a small amount of tax equity while still cutting taxes for the great majority of workers.

And, as for the Social Security trust fund, this is the part where I would welcome the input of experts. Here’s what I understand: that upper 6% of Americans, the ones that make more than $97,500, earn roughly 40% of the nation’s pay. Yes, the first ninety-seven-five for each of these workers falls under FICA’s cap, but a large portion of those incomes contribute not at all to the Social Security system. By eliminating the cap, so much extra revenue would become available to the fund that a cut of even more than 3% is probably feasible, but I wanted to actually increase the size of the trust, so I erred in that direction. How much would this affect the solvency of Social Security? This is where my limited modeling skills start to fail me—if someone out there can provide some numbers or additional options, I would be much obliged.

It is my belief that the additional 3.2% tax on income north of $97,500 would present a minor burden to most in that fortunate bracket, and since something like 80% of Americans think the rich should pay more into Social Security, and since 94% of us would see a tax cut, I think that this is a tax plan that we could actually sell to the voters.

I do not mean this plan to supplant the proposals to stimulate the economy by rebuilding and repairing our nation’s infrastructure, nor do I want to see this idea stop us from talking about creating the new green, post-hydrocarbon, carbon neutral economy as a way to more permanently reinvigorating the US economy. However, I want to turn the conversation away from the Republican-driven one of to-drill-or-not-to-drill toward a discussion of how a responsible government (a government responsible to its citizens and not the oil industry) can help ease the consumer pain caused by a generation of Republican energy policy.

I’d like to think that my proposal, or some refinement of it down the line, helps achieve that goal.

(cross-posted on The Seminal and Daily Kos)

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