As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail In Las Vegas

I'm still actually trying to process what I saw today. I attended the at-large caucus at the Wynn Hotel and Casino. Suffice to say (for now) that it was the most surreal political event in American history, and I'm trying to be understated. Imagine a costume party with politics mixed in.

For the record, there are a lot of allegations flying around about voter intimidation and voter suppression and all of that, on the Clinton AND on the Obama side (the Edwards folks are saying they just didn't have the people and didn't have the money). To be clear, I saw none of that at the Wynn, though of course, there was so much media there nobody would have been able to get away with it.

I'll give a full report probably tomorrow.

P.S. The Nevada State Democratic Party is reporting that turnout is above 114,000 caucus attendees, with 88% of precincts reporting. That is a ridiculously high number. Something like 9,000 people voted in 2004. Another good day for Democrats.

P.S.S. The Obama campaign is claiming that they're going to end up with 13 delegates to Clinton's 12, because he outperformed Clinton in rural areas of the state. Indeed, in everything but Clark and Washoe Counties (Vegas and Reno), Obama won 55-45%. I have no idea if this is true, but considering the delegate count is what actually MATTERS, you'd think that this would be reported.

P.S.S.S. OK, I just spoke with Jill Derby, the head of the Nevada State Democratic Party. Regarding the Obama claim that he'll actually get more delegates out of this, essentially that's spin. Derby said that the caucuses are an "expression of the support of Nevadans today." Around 11,000 delegates were elected today. That will be winnowed down at county conventions and eventually at the state convention in May to the 25 that will go to Denver for the DNC. In 2004, Kerry didn't win every delegate on Election Day, but most of the delegates that eventually went to the DNC were his. Once there's a presumptive nominee, the delegate numbers are subject to change. It's non-binding.

If that makes your head spin, the short version is that this was a beauty contest, and you can't project delegate numbers at this time.

On the question of charges of voter suppression and intimidation, which the Obama campaign is officially alleging, Derby said this (paraphrase):

"We had strict standards in place for what went on in the caucus room. Outside of the room is not necessarily our purview. We did get a few calls over the course of the day, and we did eject some people from the caucus room for engaging in tactics that were not within the rules."

I asked her if she was going to initiate an investigation, and she demurred. She basically said that if Nevadans feel they have had their voting rights infringed upon, they should take it up with the "proper avenues," which specifically she said was the courts. She also basically said that there was a lot of passion on both sides, and these kind of charges get thrown around in those circumstances.

Trying to be hands-off here, just the facts, ma'am. I can tell you one thing - this will not go away, and it could end up being a very big part of the conversation heading into South Carolina.

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The Trap

Having now covered the campaigns for a full day, I completely see why our political media is as dysfunctional as it is. You're shuffled from one event to another. You watch speeches and town hall meetings. You're in big rooms with these candidates and watching them react to thousands of people. And you have to write a column and your editor is probably demanding that you determine who has the momentum. Furthermore, you start to think that you're equipped to make that determination. If I were to do so, I would say that Hillary Clinton will win today's caucuses, because she had the bigger and more enthusiastic supporters last night, and she gave the better speech. But in reality, I don't have a fucking clue, and really I don't think anyone does.

Watching a speech is not data that can be used in a "horse-race" story. You're not seeing volunteer action, you're not seeing how many are at the phone banks, you're not seeing the number of precinct captains, and in a race like this, that's what's going to win, because there's very little to suggest that there's even an election tomorrow outside of the occasional channel 3 News billboard advertising "live caucus coverage," and really the Wayne Brady billboard is bigger. There have been very few polls, and while the most recent ones have shown a Clinton lead, the turnout is fairly impossible to predict. Iowa and New Hampshire's turnout was enormous on the side of the Democrats because the campaigns put resources and face time in there for months. This has been more of a ten-day sprint, and so I'm hearing anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 caucus-goers, which makes the prediction process completely untenable. And the traditional media is gun shy of that type of environment, so they're not going there (although they're polling the heck out of South Carolina, having learned such a great lesson from New Hampshire).

Furthermore, I'm only seeing a piece of the state, albeit the piece with the largest population by far; Las Vegas may be the only city where you can credibly judge things that way. But my colleagues at Calitics are in the northern part of Nevada volunteering , and they were transferred by the campaign from Reno to Carson City because there were too MANY volunteers. That's at least a data point. So is Obama's campaign buying banner ads on Yahoo! and other search engines that say "caucus this morning at 11am," meaning they know that I'm connecting from Nevada. That's an under-the-radar data point.

As a pundit simply following the campaign from event to event, your data is verbal tics and reactions and other things that are actually indicative of nothing. It could be that David Axelrod flipping out is not the behavior of someone who's winning; it could also be that he's legitimately pissed off about the opponent's campaign making these claims and giving themselves an excuse to downplay the significance of any win by saying that it's Vegas and "the fix is in." Obama's speech was definitely lackluster, for his standards; the crowd appeared to be listening more than buying in to what he was saying, and he fumbled around in the middle. Clinton was really fired up and gave a speech that had emotional highs and lows to a packed high school gym with an overflow crowd in a separate room (which was where we were, as we arrived late; even the OVERFLOW room had a real sense of excitement and an investment in the speech). You actually can't do some sort of psychological analysis and arrive at a conclusion that Clinton knows she's winning and Obama knows he's losing. But that's the only data a lot of these people following the campaign have. And the pundits only typically have a televised feed of that. I'm not absolving them of blame at all, but they're doing the equivalent of gauging the score of a football game by watching the fans in the parking lot.

What you can glean from these events, in fact the only data, is what the two candidates are actually saying, and I wish that reporters would stick to that. So, that long wind-up complete, let me do so:

(oh, and by the way, let me say AGAIN that Edwards was long gone before we got to town, otherwise I'd include him in this story.)

Both Obama and Clinton gave somewhat partisan speeches. Both decried the influence of special interests, both discussed changing our foreign policy of unilateralism, both highlighted "predatory lending" in the mortgage and student loan industries, and both ended up with many of the same ideas (student loan forgiveness in exchange for national service, green energy and green jobs, and an end to the war with fairly vague definitions of what that end would be). Obama, who had international media covering him from Brazil, Korea and Japan just in our little section, talked about the tragedy of homeless veterans (sounds awfully like a certain Mr. Edwards), indexing the minimum wage to inflation (ditto), "healing our racial wounds," a fair criminal justice system, and admonished the crowd "not to demonize immigrants - this is a country built by immigrants." (I appreciated that). He peppered his speech with the usual jokes and stories, like the "fired up, ready to go" story of the lady in the small town in South Carolina, which seems to get more and more like a Paul Bunyan tall tale every time he tells it (I mean, Obama's day up until seeing the fired up lady sounds so progressively horrible, you'd think next time it'll include bad medical news or something). There's a section about that point in the debate where he gave his greatest weakness, and the other candidates gave theirs, and how their weaknesses were things like "I care too much about people" and "I'm frustrated we haven't changed the country", ending with "That's what happens when you're in Washington, you don't speak English. You speak Washington-speak." He talked about how change "comes from the bottom up, not the top-down," and how we have to organize to challenge those special interests that resist progress. But in the end, the message is pretty much this (from notes):

We need a politics based not on ideology, but common sense; not on spin, but straight talk... we're having a friendly battle in the Democratic Party about who we are... are we willing to find unity, to put aside point-scoring and summon the country to a higher purpose? That is why I want to be the President of the United States of America.

OK, I don't think the battle of the Party is to find unity. It's to find the best ways to push the Republicans and successfully set the agenda. We actually do need a politics based on ideology, unless the "common sense" that Obama suggests is actually ideological.

Before you think that this unity stuff is particular to Obama, let me talk to you about Clinton's rally. Her speech was definitely stronger, and more partisan, actually. She said things like "it is not rich people who made America great" and "health care is a right, not a privilege" and "Republicans are the party of ideas - of bad ideas," and she highlighted things like the balloon payment to the failed CEO of Countrywide ($115 million dollars to blow up a company, nice work if you can get it). There was talk about massive deficits under Bush, and stories of health insurers cancelling policies after the patients get sick, and talk of ending the unfunded mandate of No Child Left Behind, and a 21st century GI Bill, and more. But at the very end... well, let me give you over to Matt Stoller, who was there as well:

After a laundry list of items she's going to get done, she posed a rhetorical question of how all of that would be possible. Her answer? By reaching across the aisle, like she has done in the Senate. I hope she's checked with the Republicans on that one.

She says that all the time, actually, and so did Bill Clinton at his earlier event, highlighting her work with Lindsay Graham and JOHN MCCAIN. Um, don't you two know that you might actually have to RUN against John McCain, and the time for puffing him up to increase your own credibility should kind of be over?

Is there some super-secret polling showing that Americans what to "end the partisan bickering" in Washington and come together for the common purpose? I really don't see that. I see a country who has turned on George Bush and wants to go in a new direction. Yet two of our main candidates BOTH keep stressing this theme of unity, and the third candidate, who actually does reject this, doesn't get any love from the media and has been practically shunted aside. What is behind this?

Actually, I don't think it's so difficult. In a time tailor-made for progressive ideas, when the conservative brand is almost entirely trashed, we have two centrist candidates running to lead the party. They say this every day, and no matter what kind of onion-peeling and "no, what they actually mean is THIS" you try to do, that's pretty much the answer.

UPDATE: Let me revise and extend. The strategy Clinton and Obama appear to be employing is a perfectly normal general election strategy. “Bringing the country together” isn’t all that radical a political theme, and after 8 years of “my way or the highway” conservatism, I can see how it would have some limited appeal. But we’re in the middle of a Democratic primary. I think it was Stoller in a post about a month ago who wondered if we could be pandered to just a little bit before we were ditched for independents and swing voters. It could be that the first few primaries are open to independents. But yesterday I felt like I was watching the candidates for the nomination of the Independent Party of America, and it rankled me.

And I do believe that this stress tells you how a President Clinton or a President Obama will govern, as well as telling you how much influence progressives will actually have in their subsequent Administrations. Ultimately, as I have said, we the people are going to have to be the “agent of change” through political pressure, movement-building, and successfully using the primary process to take back the party piece by piece (the most important elections on Feb. 5 are for Mark Pera and John Laesch in Illinois, and the most important one a week later is for Donna Edwards in Maryland). Obama at least talks about how he can’t do it alone, and how change happens from the bottom up. And I’m not averse to talking about “working together” with Republicans. But Republicans ARE, and the conservative movement is not likely to give up so easily and watch as an agenda to which they are diametrically opposed gets installed.

Partisanship is a good thing. It gives people choices. There are legitimate differences about how to meet our challenges. The point in between those two differences is not necessarily the best; in fact it’s often the worst. When one side of the political aisle has leaders who believe in the value of that middle point, and the other side believes in the extreme, guess where we’re going to end up. “Screwed” would be the word I would use.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Wherein David Axelrod Blows A Gasket

I'll be brief because I'm blogging this from my iPod. Barack Obama finished a good-sized rally where he kind of lost the crowd in the middle but ended well. It was pretty much the same stump speech we've heard; I'll elaborate later. But as we were leaving, we spied Obama campaign manager David Axelrod and asked him about Bill Clinton's very odd comment that he personally saw Culinary Union bosses threatening to stop workers from voting for Hillary.

Axelrod lost it. He said, "I don't believe it, and if Bill Clinton actually saw that, he can take it to the NLRB. This is the rankest form of voter intimidation I've ever seen." And with that, he stormed off.

It felt like being on Hardball for a second.

(for my money, if Clinton does claim he saw a union supervisor threatening to violate voter rights, then he should take it to the NLRB.)

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The Big Dog In North Las Vegas

So we're in the Obama press area awaiting his arrival (in about an hour, I'm told). We just got back from a Bill Clinton event in North Las Vegas at a local YMCA. There were about 150-200 people there. Bill came out and said he mostly wanted to take questions, and then proceeded to talk for about 45 minutes (hah!). It was a solid speech, completely extemporaneous, talking about the challenges we must face in the next four years and how his wife is best able to face them. Specifically he honed in on subprime mortgages and the trouble with Big Shitpile ("people who have never missed a mortgage payment will lose their homes" because the banks will need to refinance to recoup their losses from bad investments), America's stature in the world, and building a clean energy future ("Nevada is perfect for this - the wind blows and the sun shines, and we can capture all of that"). He highlighted Hillary Clinton's "consistent record in public life of making positive changes," including school reform in Arkansas, improving foster care and increasing adoptions as first lady, and the creation of SCHIP ("You need to know how the President responds to failure – with Hillary, it was SCHIP.") It was a substantive, reasoned, and worthy case for his candidate. Here's a paraphrase from my notes:

Obama says we need to turn over a whole new leaf, we must begin again. He has explicitly argued that prior service is a disability in picking the next President. Hillary wants to put the country in the solutions business. We must come together by doing. The purposes of politics is to live your hopes and dreams by making changes in people’s lives. Vision and inspiration is important, but so is perspiration and delivery. The ultimate test of our service is who’s delivered for the American people.

Which is an excellent case to make. He also said that he claimed he was in his hotel in Vegas last night, and a bunch of members of the Culinary Worker's union came up to him and said that they weren't going to listen to their union and they would caucus for Hillary. Which is fine. Then, he claimed, a shift supervisor or someone in a position of authority came up and said, "If you do that I'm going to change your schedule so you can't be there to caucus tomorrow." It's a pretty amazing allegation (a union boss is going to threaten and intimidate the voting rights of workers in front of a former President?), and Todd from MyDD and myself have some calls in to Hillary's press people to get some clarification. There's no way to really independently verify it, but it strains credibility to believe that it went down the way President Clinton said. And he said it TWICE, so it wasn't a slip of the tongue.

I do want to highlight this other moment. Among the mostly substantive questions that he eventually took from the audience, Clinton was asked where his favorite places were to travel. He took this softball, began a meandering audio travelogue of all these different places he's been, rambling like an old uncle telling a story with seemingly no end, and then he told this amazing story about this woman in Rwanda who met the man who killed her son and how she forgave him, and he wrapped it up by saying we can all learn some lessons from every place we visit, and he went back over every place he named and gave some vital lesson that came out of it. It was like watching Michael Jordan do some behind-the-back, double-reverse, doesn't-even-know-where-the-basket-is, eyes-closed and it goes in anyway bank shot. It was almost poetic. That's Clinton's real gift, to weave what he called "the story of America" and bring these arcane policy issues into some kind of immediacy for people, making it real to their lives.

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An Embarrassing Human Being

Unca Fred Thompson not only has no interest in being President, he has no interest in politics or the economy.

Republican White House hopeful Fred Thompson made light of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's call for a quick economic stimulus Thursday and said it might be best to leave the economy alone for now.

Thompson was answering questions in a restaurant where Bernanke could be seen on a TV urging short-term relief to avert a recession. Thompson was asked what he would do.

"You could probably get a 'Law & Order' rerun on TNT there if you wanted to switch that around a little bit," quipped Thompson, who acted on the series. When the host reminded him Bernanke is a South Carolina native, Thompson joked: "That looks a little boring to me. I don't care."

That's your clear conservative choice in action.

By the way, Freddie's come out against the global AIDS initiative.

At a campaign stop attended by a CBS reporter in Lady's Island, S.C., Thompson was asked if he, "as a Christian, as a conservative," supported President Bush's global AIDS initiative. "Christ didn't tell us to go to the government and pass a bill to get some of these social problems dealt with. He told us to do it," Thompson responded. "The government has its role, but we need to keep firmly in mind the role of the government, and the role of us as individuals and as Christians on the other."

Thompson went on: "I'm not going to go around the state and the country with regards to a serious problem and say that I'm going to prioritize that. With people dying of cancer, and heart disease, and children dying of leukemia still, I got to tell you -- we've got a lot of problems here. . . . "

I think the only war Thompson's going to be fighting is the war on narcolepsy.

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On The Ground In Vegas

We just arrived on the Strip about 20 minutes ago. We'll be at campaign events for Obama and Clinton tonight, and out at the caucus sites tomorrow (Mittens Romney will be out at a caucus site at 7:30am, so that could be fun).

I find it instructive to watch the local news reports on caucus eve. Despite what you'd think, there's been about 3 minutes of coverage of the caucuses in the last half-hour. They've actually devoted more to the local women's roller derby team than the caucuses. (ah, local news). One station had an end-of-the-newscast story where the reporter showed a bunch of pictures of the candidates to people on the street and asked them to name them. It wasn't pretty.

When people say they don't know who'll show up to these caucuses, I believe it. It doesn't seem as central to the local scene as, say, the Danny Gans show.

One thing I did notice on the news: Nevada's unemployment rate is up to 5.8%, the highest rate since April of 2002. I've heard that it's been a bad winter in Las Vegas, which may impact the desire of people to caucus if it means missing their shift at the casinos. (By the way, the casinos made $25 billion last year, so they're not exactly hurting; but the employees aren't doing all that well.)

Obama and Clinton both have ads up; Clinton's has this old NFL Films music on it, and it's a little surprising that they went el cheapo on the score).

More later...

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Friday Random Ten - Pre-Hit The Road Edition

About to head out to Vegas, here goes.

The Rat - The Walkmen
Gone Daddy Gone - Gnarls Barkley
Revolution - Grandaddy
Citysong - Luscious Jackson
You Said Something - PJ Harvey
You Know I'm No Good - Amy Winehouse
The Fake Headlines - The New Pornographers
I've Got A Match - They Might Be Giants
Rock The Bells - LL Cool J
Smile Like You Mean It - The Killers

And the last song is by a Vegas band - deeply ironic.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Your Intrepid Reporter

So I am headed to Las Vegas in the morning to drink in the sights, sounds and smells of the big city on the eve of the caucus. It's not quite Edward R. Murrow at Dunkirk, but what can you do. My bud Todd Beeton of MyDD fame and I will be out at the closing Obama and Clinton events Friday night (Edwards is in Vegas in the early morning and then moving on to Oklahoma, so sorry folk), and at selected caucuses Saturday morning (probably those at-large casino ones, just to see what the deal is). I'll be checking in when I can.

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Short Thought

Hillary Clinton is running to change the President.

Barack Obama is running to change our politics.

John Edwards is running to change the country.

Yes, there has been some crappy stuff of late, most recently Hillary Clinton aping Republican rhetoric on taxes, in response to Obama's Social Security plan that would actually make taxes more fair. And this has led to some very strong rhetoric by both sides, some painful stuff about race that appears to have had a real impact, as well as some unseemly sexism. But if you look beyond all that, I really do believe that the above three sentences is the race. If there was fair treatment across the media for all three candidates, maybe there would be a real choice along these lines.

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Do Better Than Bad Singers Singing, AMPTP

So Fox and its a-hole entertainment boss Peter Chernin thought that, in the absence of most new programming because of the writer's strike, they'd clean up with the premiere of American Idol. Turns out that their year-over-year ratings were down. People have figured out other ways to take up their time. A sinking tide lowers all boats.

Couldn't happen to a nicer guy than Peter Chernin. Maybe if you negotiate with your employees in good faith for reasonable rates for their work, things can get back to normal. Calling for informal talks is a good start.

(Meanwhile, the DGA has come to a tentative agreement and it's not all that bad, and it could be a launching pad for WGA talks.)

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World Report

I've got a lot of international stories that probably aren't worth a full post, so here goes:

• Opium: it's not just for Afghanistan anymore.

The cultivation of opium poppies whose product is turned into heroin is spreading rapidly across Iraq as farmers find they can no longer make a living through growing traditional crops.

Afghan with experience in planting poppies have been helping farmers switch to producing opium in fertile parts of Diyala province, once famous for its oranges and pomegranates, north- east of Baghdad.

Failed states eventually become narco-states. It's a fact of life. And the real question is whether or not this money is flowing, like to the Taliban in Afghanistan, to insurgent and anti-government forces.

• By the way, Pakistan is a complete mess. A fort in Waziristan has been overrun by Islamists, and the intelligence service has lost control of the key elements of the militant networks there. At the same time, the United States is slowly creeping forward with a greater military role inside the country, leading us into yet another untenable conflict.

• In Kenya, amidst credible evidence that the election was rigged, the resulting unrest has once again turned violent, with riot police using live ammo and killing protestors. The anti-government forces are now looking to economic boycotts and other peaceful protests to make themselves heard. What is very worrisome is the continued tribal violence, which is not limited to Kenya inside the region. Just next door in Rwanda, the ideology of genocide is still being taught in schools.

• Nicolas Sarkozy is no longer the darling of the right, I'd gather, after the fairly trashy saga of marrying an ex-model months after a messy divorce, after his ex-wife called him "a man who likes no-one, not even his children." Of course, the Republicans are the party of Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, Henry Hyde, Bob Livingston... so maybe it's not a big deal.

• The fallout from President Bush's "Ignorant Abroad" act through the Middle East is just starting to be felt. After a right-wing faction pulled out of Ehud Olmert's government because of the slightest hint of peace talks with the Palestinians, Olmert put his hawkish hat on.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed on Thursday to wage a "war" to stop Gaza militants firing rockets into Israel, despite warnings by Palestinian leaders that Israeli military strikes would harm peacemaking.

"A war is going on in the south, every day, every night," Olmert said in a speech.

"We cannot and will not tolerate this unceasing fire at Israeli citizens ... so we will continue to operate, with wisdom and daring, with the maximum precision that will enable us to hit those who want to attack us," Olmert said, minutes after the air strike.

Israel has a right to defend themselves, but it seems to me that the immediate fallout from Bush's visit was a break away from peace and talk of war.

• Elsewhere, the Ignorant Abroad talked about freedom and democracy in Saudi Arabia while not meeting any democracy activists or dissidents, claimed that Egypt is moving toward political reform when he has done nothing of the sort, and basically spent his trip lavishing gifts on the Gulf states in the hopes that they would raise production of oil. And by the way, got no concession for his efforts. So, lies, incompetence, and failure. Just like at home!

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A Televised Thrashing That's Never Been Made With Such Detail Or Care

Jon Stewart obliterated Jonah Goldberg last night, and apparently there's 12 minutes of the interview that we at home didn't get to see. PLEEEZE, put it on the Web somewhere. I'd pay to see it and I'd give all the money to the striking writers. Because what we did see was genius.

Most touchy moment for Jonah came when Stewart asked him if one of the things he was against was people throwing around the charge "fascism" far too easily. Jonah said yes, then Stewart picked up a copy of the book and simply pointed to the title, "Liberal Fascism" -- adding, so why are you doing this?

Jonah got all pissy and does what he always does, accusing Stewart of not reading his book (not that Goldberg managed to read any of the primary source material about fascism, in particular Mussolini's "The Doctrine of Fascism"). But I want to focus on another thing he said. He criticized Hillary Clinton for wanting to "put big TV screens everywhere and tell us all how to raise our kids." This is hyperbolic, of course, and Stewart dialed it back. Turns out what she was talking about were the kiosks we're starting to see at gas stations and supermarket checkout lines, which right now have paid advertising. So she's basically talking about replacing the ads... with public service announcements. PSAs, you see, are fascist. I wonder if that means Pantload considers Nancy Reagan and her "Say No To Drugs" campaign was fascist.

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John Edwards Rocks Downtown LA

(more pics, courtesy of the Edwards campaign, at this photo set.)

John Edwards has generated a bit of notoriety today for smacking down Barack Obama's suggestion that Ronald Reagan can be credibly seen as a model of change.

“I would never use Ronald Reagan as an example of change...

"He was openly -- openly -- intolerant of unions and the right to organize. He openly fought against the union and the organized labor movement in this country. He openly did extraordinary damage to the middle class and working people, created a tax structure that favored the very wealthiest Americans and caused the middle class and working people to struggle every single day. The destruction of the environment, you know, eliminating regulation of companies that were polluting and doing extraordinary damage to the environment...

"I can promise you this: This president will never use Ronald Reagan as an example for change."

Edwards didn't mention any of this today at a rally in downtown Los Angeles at the SEIU Local 721 headquarters, but he did have some choice words for another actor-turned-politician.

The speakers prior to Edwards included members of the Los Angeles City Council, Herb Wesson and Richard Alarcon (Janice Hahn was also in attendance). All of them made a straight electability argument for Edwards' candidacy, which was a little jarring (especially because Edwards did not do so). Wesson even added "I don't care who's the first this or the first that, I want the best candidate to lead our country."

(Wesson also asked "When was the last time California mattered in the Presidential primary, and I yelled "1968 and 1972," but I don't think he heard me. Incidentally, given that three of the intervening races between now and then weren't competitive, that was only 5 primaries ago.)

Edwards, however, stuck to the facts, and his powerful argument for why he should be President. He offered the same policy shifts on Iraq (all combat troops out in 12 months), health care (universal coverage mandated for every American, mental health, preventive and long-term care included), global warming (80% reductions in emissions by 2050, no new nuclear or coal-fired power plants), defending the Constitution (ending Guantanamo, torture, rendition, and illegal spying), poverty (expanded social aid and an increase of the minimum wage to $9.50 indexed to inflation), and labor (fair trade and tax policy, the Employee Free Choice Act, no scab hiring, strong support for unions). But I want to cite two moments that deviated from the script.

First, Edwards has been discussing the sad case of Nataline Sarkysian, the 17 year-old from Glendale who was denied a liver transplant by her health insurer CIGNA, and died shortly after the company reversed the decision. This time, Sarkysian's parents were on stage with Sen. Edwards, and when he related that tragic story, I couldn't help but watch Nataline's mother choke up. It was affecting, it hit you right in the gut. And when Edwards said, in respect to the health insurers, "Are you telling me we should sit down at the table with these people? Never! I don't want to be their President," it was undeniably moving.

Second, Sen. Edwards obviously did his homework before the rally. He brought up the California budget crisis, and the austere across-the-board cuts proposed by Gov. Schwarzenegger. It's fair to say that he wasn't a fan. Here's his comments (a paraphrase):

I spent a day earlier this year with an SEIU health care worker... the people she cares for need her. The last thing this or any state needs are cuts to that kind of health care. The last thing you need are cuts to K-12 education. Does anybody believe that we are spending too much on K-12 education in this country?

It's fantastic to have Edwards still in the race. He's obviously an underdog at this point, and he willingly acknowledged that, saying that he's going up against "two hundred-million-dollar candidates." The compression of the primary calendar will make it very difficult for him to get his message out to the February 5 states. Yet he said to the assembled crowd of several hundred that "you have the ability to send a message and build a grassroots movement, a wave across this state and across this country." There's no question that Edwards has driven the policy agenda throughout this race, and his bold strain of populism and unabashed liberalism is sorely needed in Washington. However, sadly, even some of his most ardent supporters were making the case for Edwards to stay in the race to horde delegates and extract something from the eventual winner, rather than a case for him winning.

UPDATE: A neat postscript: Cate Edwards, the Senator's daughter, was on hand, and after the speech she was chatting with Mimi Kennedy of PDA, our local election reform activist here in LA. Minutes later, I saw Cate with something written on her bag: "". Progress is slow, but it's happening.

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The Show Goes On At The Strip

The at-large caucuses will go on. Also, this idea that the Culinary Workers are bullying their members into supporting their endorsee is pretty much not true. There appears to be, far from coordination, a good deal of confusion about these caucuses among the Hispanic community (there's no word in Spanish for "caucus"), and it isn't even a slam dunk that many of these employees will be allowed to caucus by their employers even with the events at the hotel (which I believe is a violation of federal labor laws). The caucus system is far from perfect, but the point I was trying to make earlier was that inclusion over exclusion should be the general rule.

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Actual Progress on Stimulus

So it looks like the Republicans have backed off the effort to use the economic downtown and the need for a stimulus package in a Shock Doctrine way to try and make the Bush tax cuts permanent.

"I think there is a way to come to an agreement," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in an interview. "Not having an agreement is a lose-lose." [...]

A member of the GOP rank-and-file, Rep. Lee Terry of Nebraska, expressed the feelings of both parties when he said: "People expect us to act." If Democrats and Republicans can get together, he said, it will "let people know we can do something here."

Perhaps the most striking illustration of how much these developments were changing the atmosphere on Capitol Hill was the readiness of Republicans to step back from their long insistence that Congress make the Bush tax cuts permanent. Such tax cuts have been central to GOP economic policy for more than two decades.

Now Republican leaders say they are ready to put off action.

"It's impossible for me to believe that [permanent tax cuts] would be part of the agreement, as much as I would like to see that happen," Boehner said.

I think the overriding sentiment of the rest of this Congress has to be a limit to future harm. Making the tax cuts permanent would be intolerably harmful for fiscal responsibility. And with the downturn already underway (these Q4 banking numbers are awful), there's no need to just raise the future structural deficit problems any further.

And good for Ben Bernanke for saying this so clearly.

To elaborate a bit, Bernanke's basically saying-without-quite-saying that any stimulus package that Congress passes shouldn't include making permanent the Bush tax cuts. He's not taking a stand on the tax cuts per se, but instead saying that whether or not it's a good idea is a separate issue from any short term stimulus package. They're two different issues - short term stimulus and long run structural - and they should be seen as such.

This stimulus package is by no means a done deal. But it won't make a bad problem worse and put the next President in a deeper hole. That's progress.

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The Right To Vote

Patrick Leahy just endorsed Barack Obama, and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee had this to say about this flap over the "at-large" precincts in Nevada being set up for shift workers at the casinos.

Leahy also came out strongly against the ongoing lawsuit in Nevada, where the state teachers union and some Clinton backers are trying to shut down the special caucus locations for Las Vegas Strip workers. "If you're shutting people out from the nominating process, you're going to be discouraging people all the way down," Leahy said. "And that's not the approach we want to take in the United States."

John Kerry also came out very strongly against this tactic at TPM Cafe yesterday.

For too many years, American politics has been divided between two types of people: those who want more people to vote, and those who want fewer people to vote. Just last week, the Bush-packed Supreme Court heard oral arguments about the kind of law we’ve become all too familiar with these last years: an Indiana law putting more roadblocks in the way of people who simply want to vote. (Talk about a not so subtle reminder of why some of us filibustered Sam Alito’s nomination two years ago this month.)

Well, it’s troubling to me that now we see another kind of effort to keep people from voting in Nevada. But this time, it’s not the Republicans trying to limit the vote, it’s a fight within our own Party [...]

Here are the details. Last March, the Nevada Democratic Party came together and put together the rules of the caucus. Because of the high number of casino workers in Las Vegas, and because those workers have to work on weekends, the Democrats of Nevada decided to have special, at-large caucus sites in certain select areas (like right on the Vegas Strip) to give those working people a chance to make their voices heard. The Culinary Workers Union, who represents the workers, celebrated the move.

Suddenly, a mere days before the caucus, we now see a lawsuit to shut down those at-large sites and deny the casino workers their right to vote. Three of the plaintiffs voted for the very plan they’re now trying to block – reasonable people have guessed they’re changing their minds presumably because just a few days ago the Culinary Workers Union endorsed Barack Obama.

Here’s the bottom line. I understand people gut it out to win on Election Day. But certain tactics make victory pyrrhic – empty – hollow – and it’s not worth winning if you lose what really counts in the process. And you know what, if the Culinary Workers had backed someone besides my choice in this race - Barack Obama - I’d still say it’s right for every candidate to make sure these workers get to vote.

Many have claimed that the Clinton campaign is not behind this effort by the teacher's union, but the fact that Bill Clinton lost his shit on a news reporter who tried to bring this up should throw some cold water on that suggestion.

Mr. Clinton turned the tables on Mr. Matthews, whom the former president asserted had taken "an accusatory tone" by claiming a link to Mrs. Clinton's operation. "Your position is that you think the Culinary Workers votes should count: A--it should be easier for them to vote than anybody else in Nevada that has to work on Saturday. That's your first position. Second, when they do vote their votes should count five times as much as everybody else. That's what the teachers have questioned. So if that's your position, you have it. Get on your television station and say it.... 'All I care about is making sure that some voters have it easier than others and that when they do vote, when it's already easier for them, their vote should count five times as much as others.' That is your position," Mr. Clinton said. "If you want to take that position, get on the television and take it. Don't be accusatory with me. I have enough to deal with." [...]

At one point during the exchange with the TV reporter, (Oakland) Mayor Ron Dellums tried to physically pull Mr. Clinton away, but the former president held his ground.

I have to say that, of all the misunderstandings and misinterpretations and smears by surrogates and everything in this primary, the concerted strategy of disenfranchisement, a tactic at odds with the core values of the Democratic Party in the 21st century, is the most troubling. This is not a media creation or something blown out of proportion or the result of an emotional reading of the impact of race or gender. This is about the right to vote. The Nevada State Democratic Party set these caucuses up in March. The DNC approved them. The state board approved them. I've been privy to similar processes in the California Democratic Party, and they are a transparent, open, small-d democratic process. If the teacher's union or their representatives in the NSDP wanted to object to this they had ample opportunity to do so nine months ago.

We have to make the right to vote sacrosanct. The defining feature of our political lives in this century is the Florida recount, and the voter suppression tactics used prior to Election Day. Republicans successfully manipulated the vote and mau-maued the media into defusing the controversy. There is no glory in any Democrat using the same tactic to win a primary or a general election.

Barack Obama has given us all pause with his comments about President Reagan (The charitable interpretation is that he's simply building on St. Ronnie's hagiography by trying to get some reflected glory for himself; I don't think good progressives should be legitimizing that false portrait). But Obama has been a stalwart on voting rights; in fact, it's one of the rare moments in his Senate career where he boldly led.

Jane Hamsher is correct that this attack on Obama from the Politico is unfair. The FEC cannot implement the provisions of legislation Obama pushed through because Obama (among others) placed a hold on Hans Von Spakovsky, a horrific pick to be a commissioner of the FEC. Obama has been very good on voting rights, and it's ridiculous to hold him accountable for Bush's propensity to pick as regulators people who don't believe in the mission of the agency they are supposed to run.

Abrogating the right to vote in any form or fashion is not a road that Democrats should ever go down. The Obama campaign hasn't been particularly energizing for progressives, but on this he has it absolutely right, and the teachers are trying to punish his supporters in Nevada simply for being his supporters. That is wrong. And the Clinton campaign shouldn't want to get a victory that way.

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South Carolina Nastiness

It's unquestionably true that the same South Carolina dirty tricksters who stopped John McCain's Presidential bid in 2000 are out this year. The latest revelation is that Mike Huckabee's army of robo-callers and push-pollers are spreading that McCain supports experiments on unborn children. Actually, Huckabee's outfit is push-polling all his Republican rivals in the state. There is one charge specific to McCain, however: a mailer from a group called "Vietnam Veterans Against John McCain. It's pretty weak stuff, accusing McCain of collaborating with his captors. Only thing is, the mailer wasn't mailed anywhere.

Recently, the group sent a mailer to approximately 80 newspaper editors in South Carolina accusing McCain of selling out his fellow POWs in Vietnam. On Tuesday, the McCain campaign (which is working hard to appeal to vet voters) made one of McCain's former fellow POWs available to the media to respond to the smear. The story, picked up by the AP and Wall Street Journal among others, got national play -- undoubtedly more play than the group would have been able to get on its own.

I spoke to the founder of Vietnam Veterans against John McCain, Jerry Kiley, yesterday. He told me that the group hasn't "actively sought donations at this point," and that the next step for the group will be mailings "going out to our network," with the intention that the mailing would then be forwarded on to local media there. The group just doesn't have the funds to send mailings directly to voters -- nor, as they declared they would in their statement of purpose, to run radio and TV ads. Things "could change," he told me, "if we received a sizable donation," but he wasn't holding out much hope.

Instead, they're planning "an email campaign." Groups of like-minded vets throughout the country will get the email chain started, he said, "so it will spread very quickly throughout the country."

So, this is an unfunded group trying to get some media attention. The McCain campaign went nuclear on it, to "prove" that groups are out to get him in South Carolina. I have to say that this is NOTHING compared to what Rove and the boys did to McCain in South Carolina last time. That was an establishment attack. These are a few guys with a flyer and some time on their hands. The question is, does McCain run the risk of over-publicizing this smear to the extent of it actually rebounding back on him?

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"I Really Want Some Of Those Guys To Stay."

When Arnold Schwarzenegger endorsed Prop. 93, some considered it the result of some deal on health care or some other quid pro quo. I thought it was much simpler than that.

Schwarzenegger has a good working relationship with Fabian Nuñez and Don Perata. He for the most part gets what he wants out of that relationship. Why would he want to change it for his last two years in office? The pessimist's view would be "Why would he want to housebreak someone else when these two are already housebroken?" The optimist's view is "He's moving forward on his agenda, why rock the boat?"

Arnold has now confirmed this, by the way.

Schwarzenegger said he has developed a "trust" with sitting legislative leaders and hopes to continue to work with them. The governor said he felt a loss when former Senate leader John Burton was termed out of the Legislature.

"I just got this groove going with this guy and we got to understanding each other and all of a sudden he's being ripped away," Schwarzenegger said.

The governor said he and current lawmakers would be better able to tackle major issues facing the state, from the budget crisis to the state's need for $500 billion worth of infrastructure improvements.

Besides, he said, "I really want some of those guys to stay."

It's a selfish view from the standpoint of Schwarzenegger (should the governor really be picking the majority leaders in the opposite party?), but perfectly coherent. He wants to continue the working relationship. In the short term, it's up to the voters to decide if that working relationship is good for California. I think the sum total of this site could be "Exhibit A," but your mileage may vary.

(As a side note, interesting how this experience vs. change question continues at the state level, no? Of course, we must wonder about the right kind or the wrong kind of experience.)

UPDATE: George Skelton channels me. And he essentially endorses Arnold's take. As I said, your mileage may vary.

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The Coming FISA Fight

There was talk in the past couple weeks of an extension of the Protect America Act beyond the length of President Bush's term. I considered keeping that terrible law versus enacting a new one with telecom amnesty to be a Hobson's choice. And it looks like we're going to have to fight just to get that choice.

Given what I'm hearing from D.C., it looks like we may have this battle on our hands the middle of next week. I'm told the year-long extension will only come into play if 1) Dodd and his allies can clog up the works again, or 2) if they do pass a bill with retroactive immunity, but are then unable to agree with House negotiators in conference committee.

Reid should just throw the towel in right now and go for the extension. It's beyond me why he'd want to waste time on this, and hopefully he doesn't.

This was Bush's number one priority (which should tell you something), and he's ramping up the fear machine through his spokesman Tony Fratto:

“We’re exactly three weeks away,” he said, “from the date when terrorists can be free to make phone calls without fear of being surveilled by U.S. intelligence agencies”.

Actually, we're many weeks past that point, since the US government had a bunch of their wiretaps cut because they forgot to pay the bill. By the way, the companies that cancelled those wiretaps are the same ones we're supposed to give amnesty for being patriots.

Unfortunately, the President would rather protect the phone companies than protect civil liberties. There's either going to be a bill with amnesty or an extension of a bad bill. Given that awful choice, I'll take the extension, because we have to know why and how our government spied on US citizens. Meanwhile, I have total confidence that Chris Dodd will continue to do everything he can to stop this insane bill from passing. And he'll do it at his own peril.

Democrats said the FISA fight - which could come in the first week or two of the new session - may be an early test of whether Dodd's presidential campaign has caused any significant strains in his relationships with colleagues.

One senior Democratic aide said that while some Democrats could have been irked in the heat of the moment, most understand it is the nature of presidential campaigning for candidates to tackle hot-button issues and to rely heavily on veteran staff for day-to-day work in the Senate.

"I think it's too early to say" whether there are any hard feelings, the Democratic aide said. "But I think you could term it as a key few months for him" in terms of his reintegration into the Caucus. "It will be interesting to watch when he returns," the aide said.

Sen. Dodd needs to know that we have his back. At the moment the best way to do that is to help him retire his debt from his Presidential campaign. And when he sounds the bell to help him in the FISA fight, we need to be there too.

UPDATE: Sen. Feingold is absolutely right. It would not be a "win" to keep the Protect America Act in place. That is a horrible law. Congress should let it expire and make a slight patch to allow surveillance on foreigners communicating with each other overseas, even if the switcher goes through the US. Anything else should go through the FISA court as it has for 30 years.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Get Your Old "Save The Whales" Posters Out

The battle between environmental groups and the US Navy over the use of sonar off the California coast appeared to come to an end last week, when a federal judge forbade sonar use within 12 miles of the shoreline. But for this ruling to hold, you would have to have a President who believes in an independent judiciary and the rule of law. Alas, we have a king.

The Navy announced today that two important steps have been taken under existing law and regulations to allow it to conduct effective, integrated training with sonar off the coast of southern California after a federal court earlier this month imposed untenable restrictions on such training.

In accordance with the provisions of the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA), and at the recommendation of the Secretary of Commerce, the President concluded that continuing these vital exercises without the restrictions imposed by the district court is in the paramount interests of the United States. He signed an exemption from the requirements of the CZMA for the Navy's continued use of mid-frequency active (MFA) sonar in a series of exercises scheduled to take place off the coast of California through January 2009. The Navy already applies twenty-nine mitigation measures approved by federal environmental regulators when using active sonar, and these will remain in place.

In other words, the President thinks killing whales is a small price to pay for not having to tell the Navy move their boats a bit. Anyway, if the whales aren't willing to die for the cause of liberty, then they simply want the terrorists to win.

The Navy takes steps to limit damage to whales, granted. But that is pretty much besides the point. Between denying the waiver for California to regulate its own tailpipe emissions and this latest action, it's clear that this Administration doesn't find the normal structures of the law to apply to them. This next election is in large part about bringing this back into balance, about finding an executive who doesn't treat the Constitution like something on which you wipe your shoes.

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They've Really Come Full Circle

I'm sitting here watching the Tweety Show and in between plugs for his Tonight Show appearance, he's brought on Stephen A. Smith. Who is a sportswriter. Not someone who used to be a sportswriter who writes news columns, but a sportswriter (actually the Philly Inquirer cancelled his column last year). Tweety brought on his guests as Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, Margaret Carlson of Time Magazine, and Stephen A. Smith of ESPN. Without a hint of irony.

Now, there's nothing wrong with someone who isn't a member of the political media holding a political opinion (for example, er, me), or even espousing that opinion on television. However, take a look at Stephen A.'s "comment" about last night's Democratic debate:

SMITH: I was totally bored, Chris, I was totally bored and I was disgusted. I thought Barack Obama took a significant step back. I think the race issue, the fact that he was being turned into the black candidate, per se, I think really affected him, and I think it showed. I thought he was entirely too deferential last night, deferring to Hillary Clinton on a number of occasions. He didn't seem to be himself. And the reason why it was even more conspicuous is that he had been gaining momentum over the last few weeks or so. You know, winning the Iowa caucuses, coming in second in New Hampshire, really making a statement that he was going to make a run for the Presidency. I thought that the momentum was favoring him tremendously, and he took a significant step back. Because I think that he was looking at his own community looking at him, and he started wondering about himself. And we saw some trepidation on his part for the first time.

MATTHEWS: That's interesting. Interesting assessment.

Now, I've seen enough editions of SportsCenter in my lifetime to know that you could have easily replaced Barack Obama's name with Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan or any other young phenom, and the above paragraph would have made the same amount of sense. Over the last few weeks, politics has devolved into the same subject matter as sports talk radio. And so a discussion between three individuals who want to lead the United States for the next four years is "boring" and devolves into freshman-year psychobabble about how one guy deferred to someone else and there weren't any "fireworks" and the momentum stalled and it's enough to make you "disgusted."

I have never seen Stephen A. utter a political thought on television in his entire life, but he fit right in because the analysis has sunk to the level of sports talk, not because he elevated anything on his own. Watch the sports metaphors fly in the segment right before his:

MATTHEWS: Dana, it seems to me that if they return to their corners, as they say in boxing, there's no fight going on. And if they are in their corners, each in their separate corner, why would anything change except Hillary leading out here in California by about 20 points and on to Super Tuesday where she takes it home to the bank?

MILBANK: Yes, conceivably that's how it could happen. I don't see how a debate in which they aren't sparring is going to be exciting to the voters or allow either of them to get any momentum whatsoever. I mean, I'm not sure, maybe they do care about Yucca Mountain out there in Nevada, but I think they do want to see these guys mixing it up. We want to see that kind of fratricidal battles going on on the Republican side.

MATTHEWS: (overtalk, mumbling something incoherent about Dr. Strangelove) What do you call, bodily fluids... What are they talking, Yucca Flats, Yucca Mountain, What are they talking about?

It's impossible to tell the sportswriter from the political reporter here. And yes, what the hell are those candidates talking about? Yucca Mountain? The safe and proper storage of nuclear waste? Who cares? Yell at each other about how the black guy did coke and the woman's a ball-buster! Throw a chair! Mix it up!

Is it any wonder that, in the world of political broadcast media, the one man who smokes everybody else was seen as one of the more thoughtful and intellectual sportscasters at ESPN?

The debate in this country is so dumbed-down that Stephen A. Smith's presence on Hardball actually represents a step up. At least he's used to ascribing emotional significance to performance in the field of play, in using the events as a metaphor, as sportswriters so often do. He doesn't know what the hell he's talking about, but that doesn't really put him out of place, either.

The reason those comments over race got more attention than, say, the candidates' competing economic stimulus packages is that the traditional media doesn't really want to understand them. They'll hide behind the argument that nuts and bolts issues don't post big ratings, but really, they don't have the expertise to engage them. More often it's rollodex analysis, where men and women from think tanks, almost all of them either center-right or certified wingnut, and all with very defined and specific agendas, are brought in to opine without resistance, when these shows pay any lip service to the issues at all. This is nothing new. I was reminded of this moment today.

KING: Okay. Were you impressed with this “fuzzy [math],” top 1 percent, 1.3 trillion, 1.9 trillion bit?

KOPPEL: You know, honestly, it turns my brains to mush. I can’t pretend for a minute that I’m really able to follow the argument of the debates. Parts of it, yes. Parts of it, I haven’t a clue what they’re talking about.

And Ted Koppel is arguably one of the most serious journalists on television.

Identity and personality is how we've been picking Presidents for a long time. Sometimes it works, sometimes you get George Bush. But I can't help but think that the malaise we all feel is part and parcel of a press corps that refuses to take serious matters seriously. They can't conceive of the real-world consequences behind numbers and facts and reality, preferring to discuss elections with the depth and penetrating insight of a Sweet Valley High novel or the local high school basketball game (an epic battle where two sides will mix it up!). So many of us are starving for a process that recognizes how much this all matters, how it's not a game played for the benefit of court jesters in ill-fitting suits, how the goal is not conflict, like a televised drama, but progress, which is too difficult for them to contemplate.

The media is getting the election they deserve. The problem is that we aren't.

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The Big Non-Furor In Congress

This is kind of interesting. The House gave in to Bush's demands and passed a defense authorization bill which fixes the one stated reason for veto in the first place, the opportunity for Americans to sue foreign governments for reparations in state-sponsored abuse. As far as I can tell they didn't change anything else in the bill, other than making the soldier's pay raise retroactive to January 1.

So, does this mean that the part of the bill banning funding for permanent military bases in Iraq is intact? And if so, how can a permanent status of forces agreement be funded?

In addition, let me say that it's an old story to call the Democrats weak and soft and unwilling to stand up to an unpopular President, but this is ridiculous. The President didn't even veto the bill properly. But instead of taking the opportunity to discuss a commander-in-chief vetoing a pay raise for men and women in battle, they just cede to his wishes as quickly as possible. Not only that, they're going to not raise a finger about billions in arms sales to the Saudis, including precision-guided bombs, as an opportunity to rake back in cash for the defense industry. You really have to believe that the Democrats aren't afraid of scary Bush, but think they're going to win by a mile this year, and just don't want to make waves. That, and that this leadership by and large shares the same goals of global hegemony as the Republicans.

UPDATE: In addition this absolves a torturer like Saddam Hussein for his crimes, which might be a nice thing to bring up if you ever get into an argument about "removing that brutal dictator".

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And We'll Be Having This Argument In 2018

Does this sound like someone interested in reconciliation to you?

[Al-Arab al-Yawm] You talk about terrorism while you are under occupation. What does this mean?

[Al-Abdallah] There are two types of occupation now in Iraq, the American and the Iranian; both are using groups from outside Iraq under the names of Al-Qa'idah or terrorism. Sometimes, these sides are managed by both parties and conduct activities inside Iraq. For this reason, the Iraqis are confronting them, because the features of the third party are not known. It tries to kill Iraqis, nothing more. It is not actually resisting the Americans or the Iranians, but targeting the Iraqis only [...]

[Al-Arab al-Yawm] Is Iraq heading towards division?

[Al-Abdallah] We are against division, and we have great hopes that division will not be the ultimate fate of Iraq. But, so long as there is a sectarian government in Iraq, it is highly likely that it will seek to divide the country. However, we have pledged to our God and people that we will oppose this scheme.

This guy's the head of Al-Anbar reconstruction and close to the Awakening Council. We may be paying him off not to kill us, but he doesn't exactly seem ready to head into a unity government. But this doesn't stop useful idiots like Bill Kristol from continuing to push the same myth of progress in Iraq he's been pushing for the last five years, despite the fact that his own paper contradicted him on this propaganda.

Kristol relies on an uninformed public, particularly about international relations, to spread his nonsense. Those who wish to scratch the surface find the real anger between the Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq. They find the ongoing extermination of intellectuals, which is crippling to a civil society that needs to rebuild. They find people still dying. They find that Iraqi government spending on reconstruction has slowed to a crawl, and that the saintly Gen. Petraeus and the Administration falsified records to Congress highlighting the opposite. They find a real mess in Kirkuk, which threatens to open another front in the civil war:

The president of Iraq's Kurdish region warned Monday that Kurdish leaders would resist efforts to scrap plans for a referendum on the fate of the multiethnic city of Kirkuk. His tough comments came a day after nearly a dozen political parties in Baghdad challenged Kurdish designs by calling for the central government to impose a solution.

Iraqi Kurdistan leader Massoud Barzani fired back at his Arab opponents who argued that Kirkuk -- a home to Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens -- is no longer subject to an article in the Iraqi Constitution calling for a general referendum on disputed territories to be held by the end of 2007.

"There is no turning back," Barzani said in Irbil. "The referendum must be conducted in the next six months."

The oil-rich city of Kirkuk is too important to the Kurds to be papered over with some kind of fig leaf. There's going to be a deep fight for Kirkuk and it has a strong chance of being violent.

As a blogger on the Internets, I really can only take this so far. Until the Democratic Presidential candidates and the Congress end their silence on Iraq, the country will only get the wrong side of the story. Apparently, yesterday Hillary Clinton had Barack Obama sign on to her bill to stop a permanent status of forces agreement from being signed between Bush and the Iraqis. That's a defensive move at best, and a half-hearted one at that (I'll bet they'd love to have Iraq forced off the table for them).

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Either With Us Or With The Terrorists

Mark Siljander is perhaps not with us.

A former congressman and delegate to the United Nations was indicted Wednesday as part of a terrorist fundraising ring that allegedly sent more than $130,000 to an al-Qaida and Taliban supporter who has threatened U.S. and international troops in Afghanistan.

The former Republican congressman from Michigan, Mark Deli Siljander, was charged with money laundering, conspiracy and obstructing justice for allegedly lying about lobbying senators on behalf of an Islamic charity that authorities said was secretly sending funds to terrorists.

A 42-count indictment, unsealed in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Mo., accuses the Islamic American Relief Agency of paying Siljander $50,000 for the lobbying — money that turned out to be stolen from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

A St. Ronnie Reagan appointee to the UN, by the way.

Now, a lot of these Islamic charity lawsuits have amounted to nothing, so we should be a little careful on this. But the connection between Islamic terrorists and random Republican lawmakers is not a new one.

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You Can't Say They Don't Care About The Environment

Reduce, reuse, recycle.

Yesterday’s midnight filing by the White House in CREW v. Executive Office of the President, a lawsuit challenging the failure of the White House to preserve and restore millions of missing emails, raises some very troubling questions that the White House clearly does not want to answer [...]

Even more troubling, the White House has now admitted that until October 2003, the White House recycled its back-up tapes, which contained the only copies of emails deleted prior to that date. What the White House has not explained is why it changed its policy of preserving all back-up tapes -- instituted in March of 2000 when the Clinton administration discovered that its system did not fully preserve all email from the Office of the Vice President -- at the same time it decided to dismantle the existing electronic record-keeping system, with no replacement at hand.

The deletion of millions of email beginning in March 2003 coupled with the White House’s destruction of back-up copies of those deleted email mean that there are no back-up copies of emails deleted during the period March 2003 through October 2003. The significance of this time-period cannot be overstated: the U.S. went to war with Iraq, top White House officials leaked the covert identity of Valerie Plame Wilson and the Justice Department opened a criminal investigation into their actions.

Look, if you want to criticize the White House for actually showing bold leadership in controlling our runaway back-up computer tape consumption in this country, fine. But don't turn around and claim that you want to stop global warming then. You know how much carbon is released into the air through the production of back-up computer tapes? Maybe you want to see Florida sink into the Atlantic Ocean, and if so, go ahead and keep using those computer tapes!

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McCain Might Want To Reconsider Running For The Republican Nomination

I knew that the establishment right was going apeshit over Mike Huckabee, but I didn't realize that extended to John McCain as well:

Meanwhile, the Republican prospects in the fall just got even dimmer. I say this not only because a weak general election candidate won a primary, but because Mitt Romney’s win pretty much guarantees a bitter fight for the nomination. If you doubt that, here is what Rush Limbaugh said about McCain and Huckabee on his program today: “I’m here to tell you, if either of these two guys get the nomination, it’s going to destroy the Republican Party, it’s going to change it forever, be the end of it.” This week, Rush and his radio mimics have been on the rampage on the party’s modernizers, from Newt Gingrich on over.

This thing will only get uglier.

McCain hasn't won a race this year among Republicans, and in 2000 he never won a closed primary. Most of the races from here on out are closed, so he's going to have some trouble. And we know that McCain has a lot of enemies in DC, though probably not as much as you would expect (he's not all that maverick). Furthermore, McCain's problem with Republicans has just as much to do with wildly changing stances on the issues as Mitt Romney's (though Romney is clearly seen as a more RELIABLE conservative, no matter what the media thinks).

Compare this to, say, John McCain. He's flighty as hell. For years, he's an orthodox conservative. Then he's an orthodox conservative who also supports this one ill-conceived campaign finance restriction. Then he's running for president. Now suddenly Pat Roberston and Jerry Falwell are forces of evil. Then Bush beats him with some sleazy campaign stunts. Now he wants to regulate carbon emissions! And import drugs from Canada! Bush sucks, he's evil and corrupt and incompetent and wrecking the country and oh he's up for re-election well of course I'll strongly support him etc., etc,. etc. Then the establishment warms up to him so he warms up to the establishment. So now he supports the Bush tax cuts and the Bush plan for Iraq and the Bush immigration plan. Oh wait voters don't like the Bush immigration plan? Well then I've learned my lesson and I was never for amnesty and by the way I'm now against carbon curbs. But you know what's great? The surge. And Joe Lieberman in his crazy uncle phase. And David Petraeus. Petraeus is so great that I think civilian control of the military is obsolete and I won't say whether or not I think tax cuts increase revenue but let's cut spending a lot, eh?

In other words, on eighty percent of issues McCain seems to me to be making it up as he goes along. At his best, he's cravenly flip-flopping according to the political headwinds. But other times, he just seems to be acting on whim or out of pique. Or he's coming to middle-ground positions that don't make sense, like "global warming is real and we should stop it, but only through measures that wouldn't actually stop it!" The rest of the time, he's just really, really, really committed to the military and to militarism. Worst of all, like all the other candidates for president, his personal level of experience with foreign policy issues is minimal, but unlike the other candidates he doesn't seem to realize this believing instead that his enthusiasm about the military and for soldiers and soldiering constitutes a close substitute for having real ideas about international relations.

Strangely, McCain has not made the electability argument, which is easily his strongest, and really his only path to victory. Instead, he's trying to out-bamboozle his rivals on Iraq, claiming that the bogus de-Baathification law is somehow an example of "progress." Considering that all of the Republicans have drunk the Kool-Aid on Iraq, I don't see how that sets him apart.

UPDATE: TPM EC has more on those ominous exit polls.

UPDATE II: In addition, Romney is clearly in the lead, with two firsts and two seconds, as well as a convincing win in the largest state. That's all subject to change, of course, and I suspect he'll ignore South Carolina to an extent to focus on the bigger delegate prize in Nevada (because of RNC delegate-stripping; SC is a bigger state) so he can notch another victory.

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Talking From Ignorance

Greenwald gave a delicious takedown yesterday of these lunatics on the right that think that writing on the Internet gives them their own law degree, and that the can define "judicial activism" as "judges that rule in ways I don't like." I think it's a good cautionary tale that we should all live by; we need to assess the facts instead of assuming we have perfect knowledge of every situation that arises. I try to always consult the most expert sites when certain things come up (Greenwald on judicial issues, Juan Cole and Marc Lynch on the Middle East, etc).

Of course, this didn't stop Treason-In-Defense-Of-Slavery Yankee from stamping his feet and demanding that he knows all sorts of lawyerin' and judiciarin'. It's pretty amusing.

If a little less ignorance is the result of this battle, that'd be a good thing.

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Schwarzenegger's Gambit

Some pundits are coming out and calling Arnold Schwarzenegger's endorsement of Prop. 93, a relaxation of term limits for current legislators, a flip-flop. Others consider it the result of a quid-pro-quo arrangement in return for health care legislation.

Isn't it much easier than that? Schwarzenegger has a good working relationship with Fabian Nuñez and Don Perata. He for the most part gets what he wants out of that relationship. Why would he want to change it for his last two years in office? The pessimist's view would be "Why would he want to housebreak someone else when these two are already housebroken?" The optimist's view is "He's moving forward on his agenda, why rock the boat?"

Of course, voters have to consider the efficacy of this arrangement. Under this Governor-Legislature leadership we have a $14 billion dollar deficit, the worst prisons in America, historically low education funding, millions in the ranks of the uninsured, big job loss, and a housing market in shambles. It may be a working relationship that the Governor likes, but is it really one that the voters should like?

(I recognize that this is part of a short-term view of the situation. In the long term, I really don't think this initiative will do what it says. The idea that California lawmakers, who have all sorts of other options to govern - big-city and county Supervisor posts, the US Congress, Assembly-members who want to graduate to the State Senate - would bolt themselves to their chairs for 12 years is a stretch. I don't particularly think there should be term limits at all; this 12-year limit, where you have to decide whether to join the Senate or Assembly at the very beginning of your career, is kind of detrimental, in my view.

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The Brilliant Strategy Of Getting Nobody To Vote For Him

You can see the poll on the left. There's this idea in the media that Rudy Giuliani is somehow outfoxing his opponents, by consistently losing badly until Florida, when he'll suddenly become a hero and king again. Yesterday we had several pundits claim that the Michigan results were "great news for Rudy Giuliani."

OK, Rudy received 3% of the vote. In four primaries so far, he's finished 6th, out of the money (hard to give a place number in that wacky Wyoming primary), 4th, and 6th. And he's headed for another sixth-place finish in South Carolina. He's lost to Ron Paul at least twice. He's lost to Fred Thompson, who doesn't even know he's still running for President, THREE TIMES. Yesterday he almost lost to "Uncommitted". In Michigan he scored only 3,000 more votes than Dennis Kucinich.

Floridians are not a different species of American than other people. Giuliani spent the second-most money in New Hampshire and had a fairly robust under-the-radar campaign in Iowa and he got nowhere. The more he campaigns, the less he seems to be liked. His initial strategy was based on leading the national numbers and that is no longer the case. His Florida numbers are pretty much the same as everyone else's despite the fact that he's been alone there for two weeks, dumping money into the state. After South Carolina and Nevada Rudy will have company for ten days until the primary.

It's worth asking whether Rudy meets the criteria for future debates, not asking whether his super-secret strategy is working.

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Touchy, Touchy

The words of a President watching the world pass him by.

MORAN: Do you feel misunderstood in this region?

BUSH: I am. I mean, my image, 'Bush wants to fight Muslims.' And I'm concerned about it. Not because of me, personally, but because I want most people to understand the great compassion and generosity of Americans. But you know, I'm sure people view me as a warmonger, and I view myself as a peacemaker.

I'm going to go ahead and agree with "the region."

Q: But is George W. Bush still relevant? A new ABC News poll shows that less than 1/3 of Americans view him favorably. He hasn’t had majority support in three years. He laughed off my question about that.

BUSH: So what am I supposed to do? Go in the fetal position because of your polls?

This is a deeply narcissistic man; so is everyone in politics, I gather. But unique to him is an inability to cope with any contrary information. "Your poll" becomes a data point instead of the considered opinion of the American people for three years. His policies are detested but he still thinks himself the good emperor.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Michigan/Debate Roundup

I'm away from the teevee, but what I'm gathering from initial reports is that Romney took Michigan by promising every laid-off autoworker in the state a free pony and their own AMC Pacer, and the folks at NBC News are a bunch of Page Six gossip columnists who are openly contemptuous of discussing issues and would rather try to cause rifts in the Democratic Party for their own ratings glory. The candidates aren't biting, and it sounds like the debate got into some real substantive territory, especially when Statler and Waldorf stopped asking the questions and the candidates picked it up.

Overall, a good night for Democrats.

(also 38% of Democrats in Michigan voted uncommitted today, which means that Clinton's delegate lead if the DNC decides to seat Michigan's delegates won't be as big a factor. And even if you're a Clinton fan, it'd be pretty weak to have her win the nomination based on an intra-party delegate fight in Michigan.

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Democrats for Mitt may have pulled this one out of the fire. Leaked exit polls show a 6-point lead for Romney in Michigan, and the crosstabs of the exit polls released on MSNBC seemed to confirm that (the Republican turnout was very high and the overall turnout very low, and evangelicals made up less of the total electorate than in Iowa). McCain's people are already trying to lower expectations in the state.

If Romney does win, the race is thrown into even more turmoil. South Carolina would be a three-way toss-up, with Fred Thompson taking a piece of everyone else's total. Romney probably has a leg up in Nevada because he's the only one with organization out there, but it's the same day as South Carolina so it won't get as much interest from the media. Florida comes next, and it's Giuliani's last stand, but the latest polls show as much as a four-way tie. And nobody has the resources at this point to compete in all the February 5 states, which means they'll all just be crossing their fingers.

Here's to the clusterfuck!

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DiFi "I Don't Believe The Governor's Budget Helps"

I went out to see Sen. Feinstein speak to the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce this afternoon. The speech was billed as an address on the environment, and that was surely part of the speech (which I'll summarize below). But of more pressing concern to the Chamber was the growing unease with the economy in California and across the nation. Sales taxes and auto sales have flattened out here in Santa Monica, and that represents 22% of all municipal revenue. As this was the focus of a short panel before Sen. Feinstein's remarks, she felt compelled to address it. On the economy, she said that the coming year will be very difficult. She called for the need to address the mortgage crisis and a need to extend unemployment benefits as part of an economic stimulus package. But interestingly, she added this (paraphrasing from notes):

I hate to say it, but I don't believe the Governor's budget helps. The cuts are very deep, and you cannot fund debt through accounting tricks and through floating bonds. That's the most expensive kind of budget funding there is.

I'd love to know why she "hates to say" that she has a substantive policy difference with a Republican governor who is trying to run the state into a ditch for generations to come. It really shouldn't be that hard to say. The lack of forcefully connecting the Governor to the fiscal mess we're in accounts for the fact that he continues to maintain high approval ratings despite the state's wrong-track number approaching 60%.

The Senator dared not mention the "t" word, and stayed away from what an ultimate solution should look like. But there was applause when she decried the Governor's approach. Clearly, people are more than willing to hear this argument; it just needs to be coupled with a realistic look at a solution that ends the perpetual motion machine of budget crises in the state, and structurally fixes the revenue model.

On the environment, Sen. Feinstein touted the green credentials of Santa Monica ("as good a green city as we have in California") and legislation she introduced to expand the red subway line to the Pacific Ocean, which is 20-plus years in the making. But while offering a very stark, almost "Inconvenient Truth"-like assessment of the scientific proof of global warming and its potentially catastrophic effects (she cited the escalating ice loss in Antarctica and essentially concluded that coastal cities would be wiped out without meaningful action), Feinstein continued to champion flawed, incremental approaches that don't meet the targets we need. She touted the recent passage of the federal energy bill (which she authored), and weirdly said that "the House couldn't get their bill through," when in truth the House bill would have been much more impactful, but the Senate couldn't show the leadership and had to drop two key elements of the legislation, which would have set a renewable energy standard and removed the massive tax breaks for Big Oil (also, the bill includes massive expansion of biofuels, which many are starting to see as counterproductive). She cited hard statistics, that we need to reduce emissions by 65-75% below 1990 levels, then endorsed the Lieberman-Warner global warming bill, which only gets us 60% below 2005 levels. Lieberman-Warner, of course, is a half-measure that would set up a cap-and-trade system without auctioning off the credits, essentially giving away the right to pollute to the nation's biggest industries. But Feinstein said that while "it isn't perfect," the bill is "the best bet today for passing comprehensive global warming legislation." This is a push and pull that has been bubbling in the environmental community for some time. Reasonable people can disagree. But unsurprisingly, Feinstein went for the half-measure (and Barbara Boxer isn't covered in glory here; she reported the same bill out of the Environmental Committee).

On a final note, Sen. Feinstein said that "I hope the next President will give California the waiver (to implement its tailpipe emissions law) it needs." She very specifically explained how the EPA action was political and not environmental, and she announced that she has asked the Inspector General of the agency to open a full investigation.

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Stimulating America

After picking up the second half of the 110th Congress by doing George Bush's bidding on the defense authorization bill (again, watch to see if the permanent base ban is still included in it), thoughts will turn to an economic stimulus package to try and forestall a recession. With the return of inflation (wholesale prices rose faster than at any time in the last 26 years) and the mess in the mortgage market not likely to subside, this stimulus has little chance of putting a dent in the structurally unsound economic outlook. But Nancy Pelosi is giving it a shot. The problem is that it's going to be held hostage by the Republicans as an prerequisite for yet another enormous tax cut.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi met on Monday with the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, to discuss potential action by Congress, the White House and the central bank to jump-start the economy and try to shorten the slowdown that many economists say has already begun to take hold.

But even as Ms. Pelosi renewed a call by Democratic leaders for cooperation with President Bush and Republicans in Congress, lawmakers in both parties said that efforts to develop a short-term stimulus plan could easily fall prey to partisan disputes like whether to extend Mr. Bush’s tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, which expire after 2010.

The Democrats are insisting that Republicans not inject their desire to extend the tax cuts into negotiations of a short-term rescue package intended to dampen the impact of a recession. But in interviews, several Republican lawmakers said they could not imagine a debate not involving long-term tax policy.

“The planning for 2010 in a business sense is happening now,” said Representative Dave Camp, Republican of Michigan. “So it isn’t too soon to talk about making permanent the Bush tax cuts.”

Of course, the tax cuts were seen as what needed to be done in a time of budget surpluses and prosperity. Now they need to be enacted in a downturn. Interesting.

While the Presidentials offer competing position papers (without introducing their own legislation) and people like John McCain say “The issue of economics is not something I’ve understood as well as I should... “I’ve got Greenspan’s book”, the truth is that something needs to be done to help those who are going to be rolled in these bad economic times. But if that comes at the cost of permanent tax cuts and a constraining of an incoming Democratic President's agenda, then frankly it'd be better to do nothing. Because putting ourselves in a revenue box would have the greater long-term consequences.

(P.S. Krugman seems to think that among the Democrats, Obama's stimulus plan is the least progressive, and that's revelatory, but Brad DeLong considers it far more workable and less likely to be larded up with lobbyist goodies)

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The Whole Head Of The Fascist Party Thing Just Slipped My Mind

It seems like the only counter-argument Jonah Goldberg and his defenders are able to make at the skewering of Liberal Fascism: At Least 3 Mix-ins For My Cold Stone Pistachio Ice Cream is that people haven't even read the book. This is amusing in the light that Goldberg clearly hasn't read any of the primary source material in making his argument. Saying that you "made a flub" by not knowing why Mussolini was called a fascist, when he created the Fascist party, kind of undercuts any possible argument you could hope to make about fascism. Furthermore, looking past inconvenient quotes from Mussolini like this:

Granted that the 19th century was the century of socialism, liberalism, democracy, this does not mean that the 20th century must also be the century of socialism, liberalism, democracy. Political doctrines pass; nations remain. We are free to believe that this is the century of authority, a century tending to the “right”, a Fascist century.

And the fact that he murdered socialists and liberals in Italy tends to undercut, you know, this idea that he was a big ole socialist.

Somebody should probably invest in a library card and maybe a backpack for something other than midday snacks before he decides that OTHER people need to read his deeply serious argument that's never been made with such care.

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