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

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Waiting For The "Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot Act Of 2009"

Al Franken is going to be the next Senator from Minnesota, it's just a question of when.

Norm Coleman's term as a U.S. senator ended at noon Washington time on Saturday, and by evening his hopes of winning a second term had been dealt an expected but serious setback as state officials counted previously rejected absentee ballots in St. Paul.

DFLer Al Franken held an unofficial lead of 225 votes over Coleman as this edition of the Star Tribune went to press, according to a newspaper tally of the officials' count of the absentee ballots. Franken had led unofficially by 49 votes going into the day and gained a net 176 votes from the new ballots.

With the recount complete, focus immediately shifted to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which continued to consider a request from the Coleman campaign to alter the process and add more absentee ballots to be reconsidered. But by early evening there was no word from the state's highest court as to when it would rule or hear arguments.

Even if you factor in the 600 or so ballots that Coleman wants counted outside of those that the Canvassing Board approved, he would now need an overwhelming majority of those votes, maybe 65-70%, to take back the lead. And given the Franken success in absentees today, that is a remote possibility. And even if all of the approximately 130 ballots that Coleman claimed were double-counted were taken out of the count, Franken would still have the lead.

Franken's going to win. Coleman might run out the string on challenges, and take up weeks of time, but Franken's going to win.

Bill O'Reilly's head is going to explode.

...Eric Kleefeld reports that Coleman could easily bottle this up for no good reason.

So what does this mean? Minnesota law is unique in that it prohibits the issuing of an official certificate of election until the legal challenges are all resolved. Unless Coleman backs down and concedes defeat, he could bottle up a Franken win for weeks or even months, depending on how appeals go -- even though it appears to be nearly impossible that he could ever succeed.

And since the Senate Republican leadership has promised to block the seating of Al Franken on any provisional basis, that means this seat could stay vacant for a while.

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The Great Obama Debate Soon To Come To An End

One of the better side effects of Obama's inauguration is that we can finally stop the endless theoretical arguments in the blogosphere about how he means to govern. Whether he's a cautious centrist who will fulfill his campaign promises in incremental ways and do little to challenge Beltway assumptions, or he's a secret progressive who has been hiding his true intentions and employing scores of cabinet members from the political center to give himself breathing space to implement sweeping progressive policies, we'll know soon enough and the exhausting parlor game of pondering will be over. One early test will come in the case of Ali al-Marri, where an Obama Administration will have to provide an opinion on where they stand on key Constitutional issues such as the rule of law, executive power and detainee policy in the "war on terror."

Just a month after President-elect Barack Obama takes office, he must tell the Supreme Court where he stands on one of the most aggressive legal claims made by the Bush administration — that the president may order the military to seize legal residents of the United States and hold them indefinitely without charging them with a crime.

The new administration’s brief, which is due Feb. 20, has the potential to hearten or infuriate Mr. Obama’s supporters, many of whom are looking to him for stark disavowals of the Bush administration’s legal positions on the detention and interrogation of so-called enemy combatants held at Navy facilities on the American mainland or at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

During the campaign, Mr. Obama made broad statements criticizing the Bush administration’s assertions of executive power. But now he must address a specific case, that of Ali al-Marri, a Qatari student who was arrested in Peoria, Ill., in December 2001. The Bush administration says Mr. Marri is a sleeper agent for Al Qaeda, and it is holding him without charges at the Navy brig in Charleston, S.C. He is the only person currently held as an enemy combatant on the mainland, but the legal principles established in his case are likely to affect the roughly 250 prisoners at Guantánamo.

It's almost unquestionable that al-Marri cannot have a fair trial in US courts without acquittal, as a substantial portion of the evidence against him is likely to have been acquired through the use of torture. Bush's intel officials consider al-Marri dangerous and unable to deport. And yet the legal claims made by the Bush team, that the executive has the right to indefinitely detain an American citizen (and in established practice, a legal resident of the United States has the same right to due process), without charges, and hold them inside the United States as long as they wish, is abhorrent and must be disavowed. Obama has already disavowed this during the campaign.

A year ago, Mr. Obama answered a detailed questionnaire concerning his views on presidential power from The Boston Globe. “I reject the Bush administration’s claim,” Mr. Obama said, “that the president has plenary authority under the Constitution to detain U.S. citizens without charges as unlawful enemy combatants.”

That sounds vigorous and categorical. But applying this view to Mr. Marri’s case is not that simple. Although he was in the United States legally, he was not an American citizen. In addition, a 2001 Congressional authorization to use military force arguably gave the president the authority that Mr. Obama has said is not conferred by the Constitution alone.

Still, Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor who has generally supported the Bush administration’s approach to fighting terrorism, said Mr. Obama’s hands are tied. He cannot, Mr. McCarthy said, continue to maintain that Mr. Marri’s detention is lawful.

“I don’t think politically for him that’s a viable option,” Mr. McCarthy said. “Legally, it’s perfectly viable.”

Big thanks to Mr. McCarthy for setting the boundaries of what is politically viable for a new President.

Anonymous Liberal has a very good post laying out the options for the Obama Administration:

I do expect that the Obama administration will make some concessions, though. The most likely, it seems to me, is a concession that the basis for originally detaining al-Marri was improper. Remember, al-Marri was already in federal custody and facing trial on criminal charges when the Bush administration transferred him to military custody. There's little question that this move was made for interrogation purposes. The government had been trying to pressure al-Marri into talking, but he was intent on going to trial. So instead they transferred him to military custody and held him incommunicado for 18 months in order to extract information from him (probably by unlawful techniques).

Even if you assume that the President, pursuant to the AUMF, has the authority to military detain al Qaeda "combatants" found legally residing within the U.S., the justification for such detention has to be limited to incapacitation, to preventing the combatant from returning to the "battlefield" and doing more harm. That's the purpose of detention under the laws of war. In this case, al-Marri was already in custody on a criminal matter. He was incapacitated and there was no chance of him "returning to the battlefield." Under those circumstances, transferring him to military custody is not justified, even if you accept all of the government's premises.

This a real test for the Obama administration. If they don't back off at least some of the positions taken by the Bush administration in this case, it will leave a lot of people (myself very much included) very disappointed and angry.

We have a group in power currently that has no problem reconciling the dissonance between prosecuting foreigners for torture while allowing those inside the government who directed and authorized the same to go free. This is what has diminished America's standing in the world and strained relations with allies. If the Obama Administration continues operating under this double standard, insisting that other countries respect human rights and international agreements while declining to do the same, he will find it impossible to convince the world that anything resembling change has come to America, as well as most of us in this country as well. The future of the rule of law, badly crippled through eight years, is at stake.

And within a month, there won't need to be any more debate about it - the first filing in the case is due the Monday after Inauguration Day.

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Bigger, Faster, Stronger, Cleaner: Post-Sprawl, Post-Downturn Economics

Five top Democratic governors have called for a larger stimulus package than is presently being called for in Washington, precisely to fill in the gaps created by a loss of tax revenue in the states.

To help offset state budget cuts, a group of Democratic governors urged the federal government Friday to pass a $1 trillion economic stimulus package, significantly larger than the one under discussion in Congress.

The package would help states compensate for cuts to education spending that could cause long-term economic decline, as well as bolster infrastructure projects and benefits programs for the poor, the governors from New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Ohio and Wisconsin said in a news conference [...]

The governors recommended that the stimulus plan include $350 billion for infrastructure, including transportation, wastewater and broadband projects; $250 billion for anti-poverty programs such as Medicaid, unemployment insurance, food stamps and child care; $250 billion in flexible education spending to maintain funding for programs from pre-kindergarten to higher education; and middle-class tax cuts.

The money, disbursed over two years, would offset cuts needed to balance state budgets and would serve as a "bridge" until 2011, by which time the governors hope the economy will have recovered, said Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick.

Predictably, the Republican Governor's Association called it a "bailout" of the general funds of the various states.

Well, yes. The states, by and large, did not have the ability to get out from under the financial meltdown, and the consequent economic downturn that resulted shouldn't disproportionately affect the least of their citizens. Furthermore, given that the road to recovery is massive fiscal stimulus, having states cutting back on spending at this time, be it infrastructure, education or healthcare, is completely counterproductive and will do nothing but prolong the agony.

In the future, it will take more than backfilling state budget cuts in a downturn, but a more structured system, like a "Federal Infrastructure Finance Corporation," to ensure that state assets aren't sold off to private interests during a downturn. The days of creative borrowing and the crossing of fingers are over. We need new structures to manage economic volatility and avoid fiscal traps, PARTICULARLY in California, where the tax system too closely mirrors the boom and bust cycle.

In the near term, I imagine something like this will pass. Barack Obama today put out a call for "strategic investments" to create jobs and improve the long-term economic outlook simultaneously. The question locally is whether California's plans will actually accomplish that. CalPIRG is criticizing the state's wish list, saying that it relies too much on increasing highway and road capacity and not enough on cleaner energy investments:

The California Public Interest Research Group reports that the state plans to spend 31% of road money on creating new capacity instead of addressing long-deferred maintenance and repair projects. By contrast, the group said, Massachusetts would commit 100% of its road funds to repairs.

"We can't afford to waste precious resources on new highways at the expense of ready-to-go projects to repair and maintain existing roads and bridges and expand public transportation," said spokeswoman Erin Steva.

The group also faulted the California Department of Transportation's list, saying that only 37% of the funds would flow to public transportation. The group called for a higher percentage, citing the record ridership on California's mass transit systems, which have been hit by severe cutbacks in recent years. The proposed percentage is less than what is being planned in Tennessee, Wisconsin and Massachusetts, CALPIRG said.

It is elemental that the stimulus spending cannot prop up an unsustainable growth model based on sprawl. Experts up and down the state understand this, and one of the best examples is in this Merced Sun-Star editorial, which nicely explains the tension between speed and smarts:

The problem for the planners is that the stimulus must be geared toward putting people to work as fast as possible. That, many believe, argues for the traditional sort of public works, such as highways.

In many cases, plans are already in place to replace crumbling roads, highways and bridges. By contrast, plans for urban transit systems and intercity high-speed rail are less firm, meaning it may take more time to actually start turning dirt and generating paychecks [...]

We're confident that a solution exists that puts people to work right away and also lays the groundwork for a new approach to the nation's transportation needs.

It won't be easy, but it has to happen. We can't continue to simply build more transportation infrastructure on a model that's now more than a half-century old.

A new model for transportation is part of the change we need.

Read the whole thing. One good idea calls for phased stimulus spending, giving enough for critical highway and road repairs at the start, with the bulk coming later for transit and rail projects.

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Ground War

Israel has moved ground troops into Gaza. They could not achieve their goals through long-range bombing alone, no matter how precision. In fact, it was completely unclear what they were trying to achieve with the air assault, other than inflaming the entire Arab street. As for the goals of the ground attack:

The Israeli military said in a statement that the objective of the ground campaign was “to destroy the terrorist infrastructure of Hamas,” the militant Islamic group that controls the area, “while taking control of some of the rocket launching sites” that Hamas uses to fire at southern Israel.

I just don't know how that can be accomplished. A ground attack on Gaza is equivalent to a ground attack on New York City in many respects. The area is dense, meaning that civilians will certainly be at risk (and dropping leaflets telling them to get out of harm's way when they are blockaded from moving anywhere is almost comically cruel). In addition, the Hamas "infrastructure," consisting of crudely made rockets, could be literally anywhere in the tightly packed strip. So unless the goal is regime change or mass death, I don't see how they can be successful. And Tzipi Livni has said that Israel is not seeking regime change.

This is a replay of the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, which also ended poorly, with Hezbollah able to claim victory after the ground war failed to achieve murky objectives. The result will not make Israel safer or move us toward peace.

I have to applaud Lois Capps for being an American leader willing to reject internal pressure and make an independent judgment of the situation:

"Obviously, Israel has the absolute right to defend itself from Hamas terrorists and other threats to its security. The ongoing rocket attacks on Israel are unacceptable and must be stopped. However, I fear the current military operation in Gaza represents a vastly disproportionate response that will further destabilize the region.

"Simple humanity demands that we grieve for the dead Palestinian child as much as we mourn the dead Israeli child. The numbers of dead and injured in Gaza, and the televised images of the humanitarian crisis now unfolding are truly shocking. And while this renewed state of war is clearly a tragedy for the Palestinian people, it will also bring a renewed state of fear in Israel because the threat of another wave of suicide bombing in Israeli cities is all too real.

"As a Member of Congress strongly dedicated to Israel's security, I believe an immediate ceasefire is necessary. And since this eruption of violence in Gaza is so clearly detrimental to U.S. national interests, I call upon both President Bush and President-elect Obama to use their influence to push both sides to stop shooting and renew the ceasefire."

We need an immediate cease-fire on all sides. An international force to maintain it, with Palestinians responsible for border crossings, would be a good step.

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Bennet's Campaign Against Dropouts

This New Yorker profile of Michael Bennet and the Denver school system makes for interesting reading. Bennet came in promising major reforms. One high school, Manual, was such a reclamation project that he decided the best practice would be to close it. This sparked outrage in the community, and veiled charges of racism against Bennet from the majority-minority community. It seemed liked the 558 students transferring out of Manual to other schools would simply drop out and resort to a life on the streets. Bennet cared about this, he recognized his mistake in being too hasty with the school's closure, and he set out to reach the kids, one by one, one door at a time.

Driving through his neighborhood one Saturday with all this on his mind, he passed an election sign with a familiar name on it. One of his friends in Democratic politics had started a run for the state senate. From past experience, Bennet could envision how the candidate would spend that summer weekend, and every other one until November: studying maps marked by colored pins showing clusters of voters, then going out to knock on hundreds of doors. He called an aide, a veteran of political campaigns, and asked, Could we capture some children this way?

A strapping boy named Pedro, half-awake, half-naked, stared perplexed through a torn screen door. “Sorry to wake you up,” Bennet said. It was a Saturday morning last fall. “We’re from the schools. Can we come in?” The boy put on a shirt, and Bennet and Jaime Aquino, his chief academic adviser, walked into a living room crammed with beds [...] School had started five weeks earlier, but Pedro had not shown up, according to the printout that Bennet held in his hand. “So you’re a senior,” he began, over the barking. “Can I sit down?” For a moment, the boy studied the man settling in on a sofa between some boxer shorts and an aquarium that reeked of decay. And then, in a Spanish somewhat different from what Bennet recalled from St. Albans, Pedro began to map the distance between Bennet’s ideas and his own economic obligations.

First, Pedro wanted it noted: his younger sister, one of the five hundred and fifty-eight, was continuing high school, and he was proud of her. But because of family finances, he had dropped out to work the night shift at McDonald’s—a job he’d held for a year despite not having a car to get him home at two in the morning. Mentors and college fairs were beside the point. Pedro looked expectant when he finished, as if hoping for a thanks and goodbye, but Bennet and Aquino had begun to confer. After a year, the boy was a proven employee, and there was another McDonald’s within walking distance of a high school that offered evening classes. If he transferred to that restaurant and switched over to the day shift—what were the hours of the day shift, exactly? It would work, then: Pedro could attend school after his shift, and get work-study credit for the job. Bennet’s aides could call the managers of both restaurants, and get things moving along.

For nine weeks, Bennet and two dozen aides and volunteers had been fanning out across neighborhoods like Pedro’s, trying to sell school to skeptical kids. The campaign had been harder to start than a political one, since many of its targets were illegal and didn’t want to be found, and the goal was not just a trip to the polls. Still, with the help of Julissa and seven other students who were hired as peer counsellors and part-time sleuths, the district managed to locate all but ten of the former Manual students. Weekend visits began, and hundreds of reclamation projects got under way. “Oh, I’m in school, it’s going great,” said almost every child to whom Bennet spoke, especially on the days when Univision sent a cameraman to accompany him. Then he got better at asking the questions.

In the first month of school, four hundred and sixty-three former Manual students showed up—a better rate of return than after previous summers, and a number that averted a public-relations debacle. The first weeks meant little, though: math had not yet become confusing and term papers weren’t due. Bennet and his people kept pounding on doors and shaking chain-link gates—better not to surprise the dogs, they’d learned. And the number of children in school held steady.

I know that there's a lot of outcry about the Bennet appointment, and I've made my views on the topic of Senate appointments very well known. But my gut tells me that this guy is going to be a great Senator. The concern expressed in this episode, the belief that every child can achieve and that government has a role to play in expanding their opportunity, the bellief in the connection of the very poor and the very rich in America's progress and continued success, these are the hallmarks of a superior public servant.

Now, applying himself to children who had self-perpetuating birthrights of their own, he was undaunted by the fact that more experienced superintendents had failed at reforms less ambitious than his. “Well, one of these days someone’s going to pull it off,” Bennet said to me last spring. “Besides, I really don’t see how you can hold both propositions to be true: that these urban public schools aren’t fixable and that the America of a decade or two from now is going to be a place where any of us would want to live.”

Obviously, education isn't the sole portfolio of a US Senator. But the more people with practical experience on the ground, the better. I'm very intrigued by this guy.

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Everyone's Fingers In The Punchbowl

The situation with Rod Blagojevich is pulling a scab off of the Senate appointment process, with all the various players and all of the backroom deals. Blagojevich may have wanted to sell the seat to the highest bidder, but competing interests had their own views on the pick, including Harry Reid:

Days before Gov. Blagojevich was charged with trying to sell President-elect Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder, top Senate Democrat Harry Reid made it clear who he didn’t want in the post: Jesse Jackson, Jr., Danny Davis or Emil Jones.

Rather, Reid called Blagojevich to argue he appoint either state Veterans Affairs chief Tammy Duckworth or Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, sources told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Sources say the Senate majority leader pushed against Jackson and Davis — both democratic congressmen from Illinois — and against Jones — the Illinois Senate president who is the political godfather of President-elect Barack Obama — because he did not believe the three men were electable. He feared losing the seat to a Republican in a future election.

Blagojevich spokesman Lucio Guerrero confirmed that Reid (D-Nev.) and U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) — the new chief of the Senate Democratic political operation — each called Blagojevich’s campaign office separately Dec. 3. Sources believe that at least portions of the phone conversations are on tape.

We have an outline of what happens in the event of a Senate vacancy now. Local leaders and electeds call the Governor with their views. Potential candidates call the Governor. The Senate leadership from the particular party and the chief campaign operative calls. If the seat involves the President-elect, someone from their office calls. All of them have their own offers to make, and they clearly go beyond "appreciation."

It's called influence-peddling, and it's the natural outgrowth of an election process where one man or woman casts the deciding vote. The less people there are involved in a decision of this nature, the more potential for corruption. It's just common sense.

Section 2 of the Seventeenth Amendment reads like this:

"When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of such State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, That the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct."

The amendment is written specifically to provide for a special election, but allowing for temporary appointments in the interim if the legislature of the state allows it. The legislatures, then, could DISALLOW such an appointment, and move to undertake the special election with all deliberate speed instead of the next November in the two-year cycle. There are potentially ways for the legislature to limit the power of the appointment process (say, providing a list of names from the state party of the former officeholder, as they do in Wyoming), but there's a pretty strong case to made that such limits are unconstitutional, and before long some Governor with their back up will contest that. So the solution here is to either compel state legislatures to disallow temporary appointments, or to write a NEW Constitutional amendment, taking the appointment process away from the Governors, which is fully keeping with the Constitution, as these are seats for federal office. Chris Bowers notes, the fact that Reid didn't want three black candidates to be selected because of electability suggests that he doesn't think Roland Burris is particularly electable either, putting a new spin on the efforts to block the Capitol door and stop the appointment.

One of the major problems here is the corruption associated with the concept of "electability" itself. Not only is it anti-democratic, but in truly retrograde fashion it reinforces oppressive cultural perceptions--such as African-Americans being unelectable, and Democrats needing to turn to veteran's in order to shore up foreign policy credentials--rather than challenging them. To a large extent, the Constitutional method of appointing Senators, rather than holding special elections, is itself to blame. Additionally, the lack of intra-party democracy and top-down elitism of our political process is also to blame. None of these problems would have occurred if we had simply held an election, and engaged in the radical experiment of letting the people decide.


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A-Counting They Will Go

I think everybody expected far less ballots to be involved, but today the Minnesota will begin to count about 950 of them in the never-ending recount of the Senate race between Norm Coleman and Al Franken. Incredibly, the two sides agreed on the counting standard for those absentee ballots which were wrongly rejected.

The process set up by the state Supreme Court seemed ripe for abuse, because it required both campaigns to sign off on counting any one sealed ballot envelope. The camps ended up approving quite a lot of ballots in what seemed like a chaotic process over this week. The Coleman campaign did manage to throw another wild card in, though: They're going to court to try to force the inclusion of about 650 ballots that the local officials have rejected, and which seem to be stacked their way.

In a very good sign for Al Franken, 255 absentees were sent out from heavily-Democratic Hennepin County (Minneapolis) alone, and the number of vetoes from the two campaigns were nearly tied there. So expect this particular load of votes to break for Franken, with the remaining question being how the ballots from all the other places work out.

I would think that it's very unpredictable, and it's to the credit of the Franken camp, being in the lead, that they stuck with the principle of counting every eligible vote instead of the more politically safe choice of holding onto the lead. Coleman, of course, is cherry-picking ballots, and the Supreme Court will rule on their eligibility today.

As state officials prepare to count 953 disputed absentee ballots Saturday, the court is expected to decide soon whether to instead open the door to a new centralized review of about 2,000 such ballots, as requested by Sen. Norm Coleman -- or at least order the review of hundreds of additional ballots identified by the Coleman and Al Franken campaigns.

If the court refuses the Coleman request, an attorney for the GOP senator said Friday, he would likely lose the recount and immediately move to legally contest the state Canvassing Board's certification of final results.

At that point, the Senate has a choice. Democrats, who are ready to bar the door for Roland Burris, could force the seating of Franken, subject to filibuster, or they could do nothing and let the legal process play out for weeks while Minnesota has only one Senator. Since recent history shows that Senate Democrats only fight when blocking other Democrats is at stake, I'm expecting the latter.

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Friday, January 02, 2009

Our Racial Problem

I know that Barack Obama's election ended all racial strife in America, but somebody forgot to tell the TSA.

Officials ordered nine Muslim passengers, including three young children, off an AirTran flight headed to Orlando from Reagan National Airport yesterday afternoon after two other passengers overheard what they thought was a suspicious remark.

Members of the party, all but one of them U.S.-born citizens who were headed to a religious retreat in Florida, were subsequently cleared for travel by FBI agents who characterized the incident as a misunderstanding, an airport official said. But the passengers said AirTran refused to rebook them, and they had to pay for seats on another carrier secured with help from the FBI.

Kashif Irfan, one of the removed passengers, said the incident began about 1 p.m. after his brother, Atif, and his brother's wife wondered aloud about the safest place to sit on an airplane.

"My brother and his wife were discussing some aspect of airport security," Irfan said. "The only thing my brother said was, 'Wow, the jets are right next to my window.' I think they were remarking about safety."

Serves them right, making small talk to one another on a plane. While being dark-skinned and Muslim-looking at that!

The TSA and AirTran ended up taking everyone off the plane and re-screening them and their luggage, before allowing them to take off - only without that trouble-making family. According to TSA, this is an example of the system working.

Ellen Howe, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration, said the pilot acted appropriately.

"For us, it just highlights that security is everybody's responsibility," Howe said. "Someone heard something that was inappropriate, and then the airline decided to act on it. We certainly support [the pilot's] call to do that."

In a society suffused with the "TIPS" program and Total Information Awareness and calls to "watch what you say" and to be on the lookout for suspicious activity, this is what we get. Those cultural signifiers are not easily washed away, the urge to be "alert" and "ready" and "aware" and "on watch". And ultimately, there are very strict, not-even-subliminal definitions on who we have to watch and who we don't have to watch. And ethnicity is the dividing line.

George Bush may be leaving office, but the culture of paranoia he helped to usher in most certainly has not. And deputizing Americans to be part of a 300-million-strong network of spies has impacts on public policy, too. After all, how far is it to leap from eavesdropping on conversations at the mall to eavesdropping on phone calls? As long as you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about, from a civil liberties standpoint.

One of the biggest changes a President Obama can make, if he cares too, is in the national mood, to reject this presumption of guilt, this culture of fear, this demonization of the other, this automatic transfer of second-class citizenship. There's no kind of profiling that is more justifiable than any other. It's all part of a creeping assault on our collective civil liberties and it has to stop.

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Impeachment Fast Track As Harry Reid Hopes For A Bailout

Looks like Michael Madigan got a breathless phone call from Harry Reid.

The Illinois House could vote as early as next week on whether to impeach Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

The Illinois House has bumped up its schedule and will meet several days next week. They had been set to reconvene on Jan. 12.

A spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan says the chamber may vote on a recommendation from the special committee studying whether Blagojevich should be impeached.

Much like in the US Congress, an impeachment vote in the Illinois House would need only a majority vote. Then there would be a trial in the Senate, with 2/3 needed for conviction.

Reid is desperate for the Illinois House to get Blagojevich impeached already so the Lt. Governor can make an appointment to the seat and the Senate can choose him over Roland Burris. This still seems like an extremely dubious out for Reid and co., as Burris has already been appointed under a legal process, but somehow everyone believes they can just get a do-over.

I don't really understand what the hell the Senate leadership is doing. Granted, they don't want Republicans to use Burris as an example of the Democrats' "culture of corruption" for the next two years, but the "running around like a chicken with their head cut off" strategy seems like a poor counter-maneuver.

I assume the Senate Dems feel that they have to assert themselves or risk being seen as weak. They are, as Jane points out, afraid that John Cornyn will hang Burris around their necks. But unfortunately, they are asserting themselves in a way that simultaneously appears to be petty, unlawful, panicked and potentially even racist. At the very least they are escalating a distracting political circus at a time of great national crisis, which hardly seems like a smart way to start the new Democratic era. I'm all for fighting the good fight, but it would probably be more useful to do it over something that actually matters.

But hey, maybe it's actually good for them to have a big public, interparty hissy fit right now. With enough practice on each other, they might develop enough courage and skill to outmaneuver the Republicans someday.

They could start by seating Al Franken once the Minnesota Canvassing Board declares him the victor, or at least forcing the 41 members of the Republican caucus to filibuster. That would be a fight with a tangible end goal instead of "avoiding a political embarrassment," a cause which is ill-served by CREATING a political embarrassment at the same time. Besides, Burris is hardly the first or the last man put into the Senate by a process perceived to be crooked. Look at this guy:

(William "Wild Bill" Langer) was removed from office by the North Dakota Supreme Court for allegedly pressuring recipients of governmental aid to donate money to his private newspaper and for allegedly forcing state employees to give funds to the state Republican party. [1]. He was found guilty of fraud in 1934. The North Dakota Supreme Court ordered him removed from office due to his conviction on a felony charge, and on July 17, 1934, the Court declared Lieutenant Governor Ole H. Olson the legitimate governor. Langer gathered with about ten friends, declared North Dakota independent, declared martial law, and barricaded himself in the governor's mansion until the Supreme Court would meet with him. [2] Langer eventually relented, and Olson served the remainder of Langer's term as Governor [...]

Can you believe this story?

He's governor, he's accused of corruption. He's convicted, and removed from office, but he refuses to leave, barricades himself in, declares martial law and independence from the United States! Then he comes out, goes to jail, gets acquitted in a second trial during which he later admitted to bribing the judge!

And then he runs for governor again and wins, and then later for Senate and wins! And when he gets to the Senate, they investigate and he admits the bribery!

And there are still three votes to seat him on the committee! And 52 to seat him on the Senate floor!

Predictably, Langer went on to become Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senate Democrats standing up and fighting for the Constitution is a nice sign. When it only comes at the expense of other Democrats, it's more troubling than comforting.

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The Long Republican March To Irrelevancy

With the new year, the new President and Congress are starting to spring into action. Obama and Pelosi are meeting on Monday to discuss the prime order of business, the stimulus package. Pelosi should have had a detailed proposal from the Obama team by now to implement, but that hasn't yet happened, making the prospects of a finished bill on Obama's desk after the swearing-in remote. That's not good, although the House is pressing ahead with hearings. What's more, there's still the prospect of a Senate filibuster. The WaPo gets their facts wrong, however:

Even if the House votes before Obama's inauguration, passage in the Senate is likely to be more contentious and take longer than in the other chamber. With an ongoing recount in Minnesota's Senate race and the process for replacing Obama in the chamber still uncertain, Democrats can be assured of holding only 57 seats during January, three votes shy of a veto-proof majority.

No. If there are only 98 seats filled in the Senate at the beginning of the 111th Congress, a three-fifths vote would need only 59 Senators to ward off a filibuster (I'm assuming the writer is using "veto" interchangeably with "filibuster"). So they would be two seats shy. If either Roland Burris or Al Franken were seated, that number would rise to 60 (do the math). If both were, Democrats would be within one vote of breaking any filibuster if their members all held together.

Where would these additional votes come from? The LA Times takes a look at that today.

Vice President-elect Joe Biden and Obama's incoming budget director, Peter R. Orszag, have met with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) about economic stimulus legislation. Obama's team has consulted Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), an expert on education, about school issues. Obama's choice for secretary of Transportation -- Ray LaHood of Illinois -- was a moderate GOP leader in the House until he retired this year.

But if recent elections are any guide, being a moderate -- one who supports abortion rights, for example, opposed the war in Iraq or supported labor unions -- is hazardous to a Republican's political health [...]

The election results -- by depleting moderate Republican ranks -- leave the congressional GOP more dominated than ever by its more dauntless conservatives, such as Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who led the charge in the lame-duck session that killed an auto industry bailout.

Moderate Republicans worry that their party's conservative wing is not going to change its ways in response to the GOP's election drubbing.

"I would hope that the more conservative members of our caucus would take a look at these election results," Collins said. "It's difficult to make the argument that our candidates lost because they were not conservative enough."

Collins is assuming that logic and reason has any bearing on this process. And she's being awful glib. Inside the caucus, it pays to be more conservative, not less. And Collins, who on tough votes typically goes along with the most extreme elements of the party, knows this.

This is bad news for the hopes of progress in the country. But it may also be bad news for the GOP. Sooner or later, their obstruction will catch up with them, and you can argue that it already has. If their ranks dwindle any more, they will have no power whatsoever. As Paul Krugman sums up brilliantly today, their strategy of racial division and polarization has less resonance today.

But America in 1993 was a very different country — not just a country that had yet to see what happens when conservatives control all three branches of government, but also a country in which Democratic control of Congress depended on the votes of Southern conservatives. Today, Republicans have taken away almost all those Southern votes — and lost the rest of the country. It was a grand ride for a while, but in the end the Southern strategy led the G.O.P. into a cul-de-sac.

Mr. Obama therefore has room to be bold. If Republicans try a 1993-style strategy of attacking him for promoting big government, they’ll learn two things: not only has the financial crisis discredited their economic theories, the racial subtext of anti-government rhetoric doesn’t play the way it used to.

Will the Republicans eventually stage a comeback? Yes, of course. But barring some huge missteps by Mr. Obama, that will not happen until they stop whining and look at what really went wrong. And when they do, they will discover that they need to get in touch with the real “real America,” a country that is more diverse, more tolerant, and more demanding of effective government than is dreamt of in their political philosophy.

Obviously, I don't believe that conservatives care about this, nor are they ready to be vanquished. Hopefully, they don't totally destroy the country before they are marginalized into irrelevance.

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California Budget Cuts I Can Believe In

Lost amidst the union-busting and efforts to destroy public schools in Arnold's budget proposal is maybe the first serious, legitimate attempt to sensibly manage the prison crisis in decades, with a reform plan that would save the state $1 billion by boarding up the revolving door between jail and parole for nonviolent offenders.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's latest budget proposal would reduce by tens of thousands the number of criminals behind bars and under community supervision.

Parole would be eliminated for all nonserious, nonviolent and non-sex offenders. The proposal would cut the parole population by about 65,000 by June 30, 2010, or more than half of the Christmas Eve count of 123,144.

At the same time, the corrections plan calls for increasing good-time credits for inmates who obey the rules and complete rehabilitation programs. Combined with the new parole policies that would result in fewer violators forced back into custody, the proposal would reduce the prison population by 15,000 by June 30, 2010. It stood at 171,542 on Dec. 24.

It is insane and wrong, particularly during this budget meltdown but really in general, that 2/3 of all prisoners entering the system in 2007 were parole violators. These are minor, possibly technical offenses with little bearing on public safety that clog up the jails, creating constitutional crises. California is the worst state in the union when it comes to parole policy, and these changes would simply bring the state in line with the rest of the country, all of which are able to manage without a perpetual crime wave.

Now, it may anger tough on crime advocates, as well as those who have a self-interested stake like the prison guards, but I have to say that they are the right people to anger.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, still at odds with Schwarzenegger over a new contract, blasted the plan.

"What it means is residual costs to all citizens of California and higher insurance rates and more crime," said CCPOA spokesman Lance Corcoran, whose union represents about 30,000 correctional officers and parole agents. "These are individuals who do not take advantage of opportunities for change, and they are not going to change," he said of the offenders who stand to benefit from the proposals.

More scaremongering isn't going to work. There is no reason for tough on crime policies to continue to rule the day. Those days are over.

The proposals on rehabilitation and time credits for prisoners, which would accrue in county lockups and get advanced if detainees take drug, vocational and educational programs, are already in the work-around budget passed by the Legislature. Arnold could go ahead and sign that, and put us on a more responsible criminal justice path immediately.

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The Continuing Sadness In Gaza

Just so you're up to date, Israel has dropped a one-ton bomb on a top Hamas leader, killing him and 18 others. Today airstrikes are destroying homes and mosques, and they are massing lots of infantry and artillery at the border in preparation for a ground assault. Meanwhile, it's pretty clear that civilians are being killed and many more are threatened through either bombardment or the lack of resources.

There was no sign of a ceasefire on the seventh day of the conflict, in which at least 425 Palestinians have been killed and 2,000 wounded. Four Israeli civilians have been killed by Palestinian rockets fired from Gaza, which strike southern cities at random.

A United Nations agency said the civilian death toll in Gaza was over 25 percent of the total killed in the violence. A leading Palestinian human rights group put it at 40 percent.

Israel and Hamas are violating the laws of war by deliberately attacking civilians, which is why any cease-fire must apply to both sides. These are war crimes by definition.

Rocket attacks on Israeli towns by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups that do not discriminate between civilians and military targets violate the laws of war, while a rising number of the hundreds of Israeli bombings in Gaza since December 27, 2008, appear to be unlawful attacks causing civilian casualties. Additionally, Israel's severe limitations on the movement of non-military goods and people into and out of Gaza, including fuel and medical supplies, constitutes collective punishment, also in violation of the laws of war.

"Firing rockets into civilian areas with the intent to harm and terrorize Israelis has no justification whatsoever, regardless of Israel's actions in Gaza," said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division. "At the same time, Israel should not target individuals and institutions in Gaza solely because they are part of the Hamas-run political authority, including ordinary police. Only attacks on military targets are permissible, and only in a manner that minimizes civilian casualties."

It should be easy enough for any American politician concerned with the rule of law to say this, but it is not, as lawmakers of both parties remain in lockstep behind uncritical support of Israel. The public is divided on the subject and recognizes the contours of the debate. In official Washington, that is verboten.

Meanwhile, the strikes are meeting their expected objective - to bolster a Kadima/Labor victory in the next Israeli elections. The center-left parties have already gained relative to the Likud on the right. The question at this point is whether or not there's any difference.

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BREAKING: Conservatives Don't Care For Liberals!

Is the Washington Post serious with this? Do they think it qualifies as news?

To some staunch conservatives watching President Bush relinquish the reins of power to President-elect Barack Obama, a few too many ardent liberals are now crashing the gates.

Some well-known Democratic activists are advising Obama on how to steer federal agencies, including a few whom conservative Republicans fought hard to keep out of power in the Clinton administration. They include Roberta Achtenberg, a gay activist whose confirmation as an assistant housing secretary was famously held up by then-Sen. Jesse Helms (N.C.), and Bill Lann Lee, who was hotly opposed by foes of affirmative action and temporarily blocked from the government's top civil rights job.

Conservatives fear that some of these Obama transition advisers are too far left on the political spectrum and are a sign of radical policies to come.

I think I figured out that conservatives would consider liberals too liberal sometime in the 2nd grade. I guess that's the reading level of the WaPo these days.

The entire article is one long, meaningless example of working the refs. As for those conservative gripers, what's the phrase I'm looking for?... oh yeah, ELECTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES.

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Senator Bennet

Some states have significantly less drama around their Senate appointments than, say, Illinois. Take Colorado, where Governor Bill Ritter has engaged in a low-key search to replace incoming Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. The Rocky Mountain News is reporting that Michael Bennet will get the job.

Denver Public Schools superintendent Michael Bennet is expected to be named Saturday as the future U.S. Senate replacement for Interior Secretary nominee Ken Salazar, according to two Democratic sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Bennet was a reformer superintendent in the Joel Klein mold, who instituted a pay-for-performance plan on the city's schools and got the teachers to agree to it. The plan raised starting salaries for teachers and provided bonuses for student achievement. This does move the balance of power in the internal debate between reformers and teacher advocates in the Democratic Party. At one point he was considered a leading candidate for President-elect Obama's education secretary. He was also Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper's chief of staff at one point.

Bennet was very close to being an Obama cabinet member, so one presumes his voting record would line up pretty well with the President-elect. Of course, Ken Salazar IS an Obama cabinet member, so it's unclear whether or not this is an improvement. One worry is that he's fairly unknown outside of Denver and may have trouble in a statewide race in 2010. Two years of incumbency should help that, however.

And of course, this is the complete wrong way to handle a Senate vacancy, which should clearly be done by special election, allowing the people to determine their own representation.

...I'm assuming that the Senate sergeant-at-arms will bar the door and refuse Bennet entry into the Senate chamber, as per current practice.

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Arnold's Privatization Mania (Partially) Explained

We know that Arnold holds a grudge against unions, which he believes caused him that stinging defeat in 2005, and much of his goals on the budget lately have taken their aim at those unions. In particular, Arnold is seeking to privatize major infrastructure projects, ostensibly for the sake of "efficiency" but as a practical matter to get the jobs out of union hands. I thought that much of this was just a sop to Arnold's friends on the Chamber of Commerce and just more of the conservative mantras of animosity toward unions and privatization equaling a universal good. But there's also a quid pro quo angle involved here in the form of David Crane, a top economic advisor to the Governor, who would stand to benefit financially from any public-private projects put forward by his current boss.

As Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger demands that lawmakers allow private interests into California's huge market for public works projects, a company with close personal and financial ties to the governor's economic advisor is positioned to benefit.

The advisor, David Crane, has spent years promoting private-sector involvement in public construction projects -- one of a few issues holding up a deal between Schwarzenegger and legislative Democrats to ease the state's worsening fiscal crisis.

Babcock & Brown, the financial services firm where Crane worked for a quarter of a century, hired a Sacramento lobbyist last year to influence the governor's office on so-called public-private partnerships, records show. Since joining the governor's team in 2004, Crane has received hundreds of thousands of dollars of income from deals he made while at Babcock, a firm founded in San Francisco and based in Australia, according to financial disclosure reports.

Those deals included projects in areas such as telecommunications, in which he served as a financial advisor; personal investments in real estate from Babcock's public-private partnership projects in England; and partnerships he formed with other Babcock executives to invest in oil wells and an Italian restaurant chain.

Crane is claiming that he cannot possibly benefit financially from any future deals, but one wonders whether, even if Crane is telling the truth, it really matters. The network of friends and former business associates to which Crane's advice could directly or indirectly steer business is vast. This is how government-by-profit-taking typically works, rewarding friends and punishing enemies. Whether or not Crane gets his profit now, as an economic adviser, or later, when he returns to Babcock & Brown or some other destination, is in many ways besides the point, just a clever way to avoid violating the letter of the law.

Jessica Levinson, the director of political reform at the nonprofit Center for Governmental Reform in Los Angeles, said Crane appears to be operating within the letter, though perhaps not the spirit, of the law.

"It starts to have the appearance of doing political favors for old friends, and that is not something that I think is illegal, but it still may not be fully ethical," Levinson said. "I think it all comes down to, is he making this decision for public good or is he making it to help his old business friends?"

By the way, Crane is a Democrat, or at least that's what it says on his voter registration card. The issues are the same. He's a free market fundamentalist who probably thinks he's advocating on behalf of a good solution for California. After a while, the theft becomes so commonplace that the thieves don't even see it as stealing anymore.

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All Over But The Spinning

Al Franken is going to be the next Senator from Minnesota. Norm Coleman is going to spend weeks trying to convince everyone that the election is illegitimate, when it's actually just close. Given our "first-past-the-post" electoral system and the relatively shoddy way in which elections are conducted, you can fairly successfully spin any close election into a betrayal, at least to your ideological counterparts. One solution is proportional representation; another is a philosophy of counting every vote. Coleman manifestly does not want to do that, preferring to cherry-pick what to count and what not to count, ensuring that the deliberations go on weeks into the new Congress. That too is a tactic, as there are important votes to be taken early in the year which it would be great to have another Democrat taking part in.

Coleman must know he cannot win, but when you make such a good living off of being a Senator, it must be a money spigot you really don't want to shut off.

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Afghanistan in 2009

The new year kicked off in Afghanistan with 20 policemen dead in a Taliban attack. They were targeting a renegade mullah who became a government chief in a city in Helmand Province. The battles we're seeing in the country are not unlike local turf wars. And the Taliban has been winning the lion's share, establishing what amounts to a de facto government everywhere but in the capital, Kabul.

Two months ago, Mohammad Anwar recalls, the Taliban paraded accused thieves through his village, tarred their faces with oil and threw them in jail.

The public punishment was a clear sign to villagers that the Taliban are now in charge. And the province they took over lies just 30 miles from the Afghan capital of Kabul, right on the main highway.

The Taliban has long operated its own shadow government in the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan, but its power is now spreading north to the doorstep of Kabul, according to Associated Press interviews with a dozen government officials, analysts, Taliban commanders and Afghan villagers. More than seven years after the U.S.-led invasion, the Islamic militia is attempting — at least in name — to reconstitute the government by which it ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s.

Over the past year in Wardak province alone, Taliban fighters have taken over district centers, set up checkpoints on rural highways and captured Afghan soldiers. The Taliban in Wardak has its own governor and military chief, its own pseudo-court system and its own religious leaders who act as judges. Bands of armed militants in beat-up trucks cruise the countryside, dispensing their own justice against accused spies and thieves.

Adding forces into this conflict for the purposes of "maintaining security" won't accomplish wresting control of the outlying areas from those who currently hold it. There will have to be offensive operations to drive the Taliban back. Meanwhile, outside the country, Taliban-affiliated groups have been destroying supply lines for US equipment and provisions from Pakistan. Now, the Pakistani military is launcing a major offensive to secure that route, but the US is preparing alternate supply routes through Central Asia. Of course, we'd be working with human rights abusers like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, but that's never stopped us before.

It seems to me that, if we are struggling with finding a proper way into the country, and the adversary basically controls everything from Kabul to the border, and foreign fighters aren't really seen positively by the citizenry, well, the prospects for success are, shall we say, diminished.

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Thursday, January 01, 2009

Stall Tactic

The Senate has a plan to slow-walk the Roland Burris appointment until Rod Blagojevich is impeached. This plan will guarantee dozens of stories about race, the Democrats' slap in the face to African-Americans, the deep cruelty and perversion of the Constitution by the Democrats, and just an overall bad spate of stories in the news as Burris makes the case for his rightful seating.

Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White has said he will not certify the controversial appointment by disgraced Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

But even if the Illinois justices force him to make the appointment official, Senate Democrats in Washington will still resist.

Senate officials tell Politico that if presented with the appointment, they are likely to give the Rules Committee 90 days to determine the propriety of the appointment by looking into such issues as whether Blagojevich received anything in return for it.

“A motion to refer credentials to the committee has the effect of delaying seating,” a Senate Democratic aide said. “The motion is debatable and amendable.”

Another official explained: “That buys us 90 days.”

That should be enough so the senators won’t have to act to prevent Burris from joining the chamber. Blagojevich’s defiance inflamed Illinois legislators, speeding up the impeachment process.

“He will not be governor by Valentine’s Day,” the official said.

What a truly awful idea. It's a recipe to make it an even bigger, more consequential story, symbolic of a general Democratic malfeasance, all pushed by the conservative noise machine, of course. Not to mention the "rupture" in the Democratic Party that will be endlessly flogged. Four more black House members have called for Burris to be seated. Then there's this circus:

Should Roland Burris show up Tuesday for duty in the Senate, armed police officers stand ready to bar him from the floor.

This cinematic showdown is among an elaborate set of contingencies that Democratic leaders are planning if, as expected, the Illinoisan shows up with newly elected senators pressing his claim that he is the legitimate replacement for President-elect Barack Obama after the disputed appointment of Burris by Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich.

A black man being blocked entry to the Capitol. That's going to look AWESOME on TV. As Jane notes, these are the same Capitol police that weren't employed to arrest members of the Bush Administration for failing to honor legal Congressional subpoenas.

Meanwhile, over in New York, David Paterson is considering appointing a "caretaker" Senator for two years, who would allow the seat to go up for grabs in 2010. That's a great idea except for the "caretaker" part. Why not do away with the appointment process altogether if something can happen like it has in Illinois, or the pressures to allow the people to choose there own representatives forces a caretaker like in New York? Why the hell are we still empowering individual governors to make these decisions?

Constitutional. Amendment.

UPDATE: Robert Farley makes a good point, that Cabinet appointments would be less likely to choose Senators if special elections were mandated, but it's not a good enough point to keep a functional aristocracy in place. Some things make sense regardless of the political consequences.

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Iraq in 2009

Perhaps the biggest milestone of the new year that will be immediately felt is that the Iraq-US status of forces agreement becomes operative, meaning that Iraq has formal control of the Green Zone in Baghdad, and American troops must petition the Iraqi government before taking action against insurgent activity.

Many of the changes inaugurated on New Year's Day won't bring immediately visible results. The Green Zone, the country's government and military command center, remains ringed by concrete blast walls and off limits to most Iraqis. U.S. troops still man its checkpoints, although now as trainers rather than leaders.

But the Americans have moved out of the Republican Palace, the sprawling former headquarters of Saddam's regime that they took over shortly after the 2003 invasion. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki formerly took control of the building Thursday and exulted over the security pact under which U.S. troops are to leave the country by 2012.

"A year ago, the mere thought of forces withdrawing from Iraq was considered a dream," al-Maliki told reporters afterward. "The dream that no one had the right to think about became true."

He called for making Jan. 1 a national holiday called "Sovereignty Day." Iraq already officially observes New Year's Day as a holiday.

The road to what passes for stability in Iraq is lines with the blood of ethnic cleansing, and when there was nobody left to cleanse violence plummeted. The resultant uneasy peace is fortified by blast walls separating Shiite from Sunni. This is what we're supposed to consider in a celebration of democracy and order.

The geography of Baghdad is walls, built one barrier at a time, along streets and around neighborhoods, through intersections and over bridges. For some, the gray of freshly poured concrete long ago gave way to the city's more dominant ochers. Many are painted. Others are decorated with plastic flowers, gathering dust. A few bear murals.

But they remain walls, dividing a city from itself, in an attempt to stanch violence.

"Welcome to the city of Sadiya," the wall here reads, with no sense of irony.

"The walls are the most hated thing. I swear to God, they're despised," said Hussein Abbas Hassan, plastering posters for a candidate with his two sons, Yasser and Samir. "I wish God would descend from heaven and tear them down."

Juan Cole has his annual top ten myths about Iraq in 2008. Millions of Iraqis have been displaced and very few have come back. Maybe a million are food insecure and 6 million subsist on UN rations. This is on top of the maybe a million dead. We are being forced out of the country by a defiant Iraqi populace who demanded a withdrawal date in the SOFA agreement and did the best job of any entity in bending George Bush to their will. But I don't want to hear anybody talking about victory. Iraq is a garden of nightmares, and that the preliminary stages are coming to an end does not blot those out of the memory.

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A Liberal Is A Conservative Who Needs A Bailout

One of the 50 "mini-Hoovers" in the states finally got religion when he couldn't fix the problem of poor people not having enough to eat with another round of tax cuts. The episode is instructive.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Just hours before the unemployment benefits fund was to run out in South Carolina, the state with the nation’s third-highest jobless rate, Gov. Mark Sanford relented Wednesday and agreed to apply for a $146 million federal loan to shore it up, after weeks of refusing to do so.

The governor’s position had drawn rebukes even from fellow Republicans in the Legislature, one of whom denounced Mr. Sanford as “heartless,” and from newspaper editorial pages. On Wednesday, The State, the daily newspaper here in Columbia, accused the governor of playing “chicken with the lives of the 77,000” who are unemployed in South Carolina.

For weeks, Mr. Sanford, newly elected as head of the Republican Governors Association and known for being a fierce free-market foe of government spending, stuck to his stand, questioning the probity of the South Carolina Employment Security Commission and demanding a new audit of the agency.

It just couldn't be that the state had so many jobless that the fund was broke. There had to be some big gubmint mismanagement, or they were lying about their bookkeeping. He kept asking for a strict audit of the unemployment office to "cut the fat," although they have received a clean bill of health every year. But some freeloader at the agency had to be ruining it for everyone. The fact that the economy is in the shitter and South Carolina in particular has had their industrial base shipped overseas for the last 30 years had nothing to do with it.

I think Sanford's problem with the unemployment agency is that poor people get money for not working. Their running out of cash wasn't a bug, but a feature. But the inevitable outcome of conservative "ideas" in a crisis is people collapsing of starvation in the streets, and for some reason the public won't tolerate that. These lily-livered cowards must have never heard of something called "work ethic." And those rat-bastard bleeding heart reporters just ruin it for everybody.

Mildly rebuking the news media here, he said that “you can find any number of people, particularly around the holiday season, who have the most unfortunate circumstances, they’ve lost their job, and those are compelling personal stories.”

How dare they have an ounce of concern for their fellow man. Can't they let Governor Scrooge a moment's peace?

It goes without saying that Sanford is considered a leading candidate for the Republicans in 2012. But after this weak-kneed capitulation, he's obviously hurt his chances as a paragon of freedom and liberty. It really mucks up his campaign slogan "Sanford: No To Lucky Duckies!"

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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year!

I'm closing up shop for the day. Have a great New Year's and be safe out there. I'm pretty sure 2009 cannot be worse than 2008, though I may eat those words. Best wishes for you all in the new year, and thanks for reading.

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Full-Court Press

Faced with expected Republican obstructionism, Barack Obama is going to use his greatest asset right now, a honeymoon period with soaring approval ratings, as he campaigns for the stimulus.

President-elect Barack Obama is preparing to lead a full-scale marketing blitz to pass the massive new stimulus package that he says is needed to revive the slumping economy and put the nation on the course he laid out during his campaign.

Obama will move to Washington this weekend, checking into a hotel with his family. In the remaining weeks of the transition, and after he is sworn in, he will use the bully pulpit to make the case for passage of a stimulus package of up to $775 billion, an aide said.

Obama, now in Hawaii on vacation, may travel outside Washington after Inauguration Day on Jan. 20, while others in the new administration scatter across the country to explain in minute detail the scope and purpose of the stimulus plan, said David Axelrod, a senior advisor to the president-elect.

"We'll fan out, and this will be a public process," Axelrod said in an interview. "We'll make clear to people why we need to do what we're doing, why it's the size it is, what the individual component parts are, and why they are an important part of the equation in terms of short-term recovery."

Obama, he said, "wants the American people involved in this discussion."

Obama's approval ratings, as I said, are very high, and the more districts he visits and the more Senators he targets, the better a chance the stimulus package has of succeeding. Hopefully he will use this time not only to demand that the bill is passed, but to make the argument - to use his rhetorical skills to advocate for fiscal stimulus and discredit the wrongheaded conservative ideas of the past. 81% of the public believes he can "get things done" as President - the stimulus package is a crucial step to see how much his political capital is worth.

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Political Appointee Whines About Politicization

I was happy enough to discover that the Obama transitionwill dismiss 90 political appointees at the Pentagon after Inauguration Day. But as Billmon notes (ahh, it's so could to write that), the icing on this cake is that it brings back to the spotlight the pathetic Pentagon career of Jim O'Beirne.

Those calls and emails were followed up by an email from Jim O'Beirne, the special assistant to the secretary of defense for White House liaisons, who expressed exasperation that Gration informed the employees directly instead of letting O'Beirne's office know first.

"With regard to the process, I am unable to provide an explanation," O'Beirne wrote on Tuesday in the email, which was obtained by The Hill. "I played no part in it, and I will not speculate why matters were handled as they were."
A spokesman for the Pentagon said Gates was "absolutely satisfied" with the way the transition was handled.

O'Beirne is uniquely responsible for one of the biggest clusterfucks of the entire Bush era - the irresponsible and nakedly ideological hirings at the Coalition Provisional Authority shortly after the invasion. He was the guy that asked applicants their views on Roe v. Wade to make sure they were able to build the traffic system in Baghdad. As Billmon says,

In other words, Jim O’Beirne did as much as anyone in the US government -- and more than most -- to turn the first few years of the Iraq occupation into a complete clusterfuck, thereby contributing to the deaths of thousands of US troops and tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Iraqi civilians. All for the greater political glory of George W. Bush and the Republican Party. And now he’s throwing a hissy fit because "the opposition" is getting an early start on shoveling the cow crap out of the stable?

"O'Beirne made it clear in the email that in some cases of dismissal, he thinks the employee's politics played a role in their being let go."

What can you say? Your modern conservative movement: Clueless, humorless, self-absorbed assholes, right to the bitter end.

The only regret here is that all 250 political appointees aren't being led to the door right away, though obviously with two wars we can't leave the entire cupboard bare immediately. Hopefully there will be an expedited hiring process, with the first casualty, one would hope, to be Jim O'Beirne.

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Arnold, Vacationing in Idaho, "Wants To Act Immediately"

The Schwarzenegger Administration unveiled a new budget plan today, calling for more tax hikes and increased borrowing. One notable omission from the plan was Arnold Schwarzenegger himself.

"We are facing a major crisis, probably the most challenging budget situation the state has ever faced," said Mike Genest, Schwarzenegger's finance director. "The governor believes in acting immediately."

Schwarzenegger is out of state and vacationing at the family residence in Sun Valley, Idaho.

That's some amusing juxtaposition from the Sacramento Bee.

On to the proposal, which is little more than just a warmed-over recapitulation of earlier proposals the Governor has made, with some new elements from right out of fantasyland.

That plan called for a temporary increase in the state sales tax, expanding the sales tax to cover some services, a nickel-a-drink alcohol tax, a new tax on oil production and a $12 hike on vehicle registration fees. It also called for $15.4 billion in spending cuts, including requiring state employees to take two-days-a-month unpaid furloughs through June 30, 2010 and give up two paid holidays each year.

The new elements include reducing the dependent care exemption on state income tax returns from the current $309 per dependent to $103; carrying over some of the deficit into the 2010-11 fiscal year; borrowing funds from voter-created programs that service the mentally ill and pre-kindergarten children's health services; changing the operating rules for the state lottery in an effort to make it more profitable, and borrowing $4.7 billion from the private sector.

If there's one thing the private sector is desperate to do right now, that's take it's carefully guarded cash and give it to the state with the worst bond rating in the country. They're really dying to get that done.

The real patterns we see here are familiar to all of Arnold's budget - a deep lack of concern for the most marginalized elements of society, and a hearty desire to break unions. Schwarzenegger's lowest point as a politician as maybe as a person was getting blown out in the 2005 special election. He still believes the ideas he put forward in that election were sound, and blames unions for his defeat. Thus you see Arnold going after union members' livelihoods, insisting on state employee furloughs and generally trying to roll back labor protections that this state has held for decades.

In addition, there's a recognition that this budget hole is impossible to fill without a magic angel. The proposal names that angel "private borrowing," but that's just not going to happen. The angel is going to have to be federal relief from a stimulus package. California reducing its public spending by $10-15 billion at a time when no other entity can pump money into the economy is counter-productive and deeply dangerous to any recovery. The feds are going to have to make up the gap.

Finally, a new proposal looking at the entire $40 billion dollar deficit suggests that the Governor isn't interested in going forward with the $18 billion dollar work-around budget which he has been negotiating with Democratic leaders. That would be a mistake, because of the exponential effect of continuing to do nothing in the immediate term. Then again, if he were interested in action, the Last Action Hero wouldn't be in Idaho right about now.

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The Dead-End Kids

Eve Fairbanks has an important piece about the deepening conservatism in the Congressional Republican caucus. They have been emboldened by their little model Congress stunt on offshore drilling in August, which led to a predictable capitulation from Democrats and the prospect of oil rigs on the California coast within a couple years. Despite the will of the voters at the polls, Republicans learned the lesson of 2008 is that if they stamp their feet and scream loud enough, there is no limit to what they can achieve.

The episode was the happiest moment of the House Republicans' two years in the minority. But, for House conservatives, the energy insurgency provided far more than mere satisfaction: It became a blueprint for the future. Forget the self-flagellating remedies proposed by white-flag Republicans like David Frum or the Sam's Club crowd. The House right-wingers concluded from the drilling victory that conservatism needn't compromise ideologically in order to win--just the opposite. It's a lesson they're eager to apply to Barack Obama's economic schemes, like health care reform and the huge infrastructure stimulus package. Rather than accepting the implications of John McCain's recession-driven loss--that Americans, perhaps, might be growing weary of Republican economics--the conservatives intend to trigger a popular revolt, like the one they provoked over drilling, against Democrat-led socialism itself.

Conservatives may have dwindling ranks, increasing illegitimacy and the headwind of a very well-liked incoming President eager to implement a popular agenda to deal with. But that is simply not what they gained from the election season. Their take was that McCain was insufficiently conservative (!) and that, besieged on all sides, they must stand up for the people and put the brakes on this whole "change" fad. They have nothing left but ideology, and the Drudge/Fox/talk radio megaphone that it still able to mainline that ideology into the public opinion stream. The years of groupthink have proved to BOTH sides in Washington that only conservative populists are the holders of the popular will, regardless of, you know, election returns.

By the time Pence and his pro-drilling confederates stormed the House floor on August 1, Republicans were primed to accept the ensuing battle's lessons: One, dramatic gestures pay; two, conservatives don't have to compromise to capture the people's imagination. "When [Pelosi] and other Democratic leaders felt the force of America against them ... Americans let their voices be heard, and they were enraged, and it affected the way the [energy] bill was put before the House," explains Representative Louie Gohmert, a bald, cheerful judge from Texas who got swept up in the August excitement.

Soon, as Lehman Brothers melted down and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson rushed around the Hill begging representatives to do something, a new menace ripe for attack emerged: government intervention in the free market. Psychologically rejuvenated by the energy fight, conservatives turned their newfound taste for melodrama against government bailouts. Hensarling derided the September $700 billion plan to rescue the financial industry as a "slippery slope to socialism," and Thaddeus McCotter, a conservative from the Detroit suburbs, exclaimed that "it was no mistake that, during the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the slogan was 'Peace, land, and bread.' Today, you are being asked to choose between bread and freedom. I suggest that the people on Main Street have said they prefer their freedom!"

All 17 House Republican freshmen rejected Boehner's tearful pro-bailout appeals and signed up with Hensarling's mutiny against the first bailout vote. And the enthusiastic response from constituents confirmed the conservatives' view that, while America (perplexingly) might not be planning to vote for them, it stood with them. As Culberson posted proudly on Twitter: "Texans core belief =leave me alone: gov't stay away from my home, my family, my church, my school, my bank account & my guns." Even Boehner became a believer. After the GOP's loss on Election Day, its second in a row, he promoted Pence, his old rival, to the leadership team and mailed a letter to House Republicans praising the conservatives and vowing to use the energy episode as his battle plan.

The bailout bill was ideologically muddled by the fact that it was designed to funnel money to giant investment banks at least partially responsible for the financial meltdown, and as such is not the best example. But what's significant is the language used, the simplistic shibboleths of "freedom" and "socialism". These didn't work during the Presidential campaign, but when they are channeled into populist proposals that Democrats haven't successfully pushed back on, the result could be dangerous.

Gohmert, the conservative Texas judge, had the brainstorm for his own contribution to the coming wave as he emerged from anesthesia a few days before Thanksgiving. He'd just undergone surgery to repair his anterior cruciate ligament, torn in the annual House softball game, and, as he lay recovering, he was possessed with the germ of an idea. He dropped an e-mail to Newt Gingrich. "He wrote, 'Do you realize that the amount of money they want [in the remaining, as-yet-unused $350 billion of the Wall Street bailout fund] is so great that you could actually give every American a tax holiday for two months?'" Gingrich remembers: "I looked at it and I thought, wow, what a great way to quantify it." Newt shot back a message predicting that a two-month holiday on both income and Social Security taxes--proposed by Gohmert as a conservatively populist, don't-let-Big-Brother-take-your-money alternative to the bailouts--would be "brilliant." "I don't get a lot of e-mails from anybody, especially somebody as smart as Newt, saying 'This is brilliant,'" Gohmert modestly admits.

I don't think anyone has invalidated that "let the people have their own money" approach. Obama's transition team is talking about reducing withholding taxes to give tax cuts to working Americans (which is a behavioral economics scheme based on the idea that people will spend an extra $20-$50 they get every two weeks instead of a lump sum of $500 or $1,000, which would just go to paying down debt). Traditional media still foregrounds ideas like "sales tax holidays" forwarded by lobbying groups like the National Retail Federation. And conservative economists can still credibly view the stimulus choice as one between tax cuts and public spending, and call on 40 years of demonization of government to trot out tax cuts yet again as the solution. After all, Obama's proposed it, so it's just a matter of more of them and less of that nasty big-spending liberalism.

The goal will be to end or moderate the recession. According to the textbooks, government spending raises the demand for goods and services. Tax cuts also spur demand by putting more income in the hands of consumers or more after-tax profits in the hands of businesses.

Is a fiscal stimulus good policy? The answer is no if the stimulus consists of increased spending. The stimulus may be good policy, though, if it consists of lower taxes.

See? They're just the same, only lower taxes lets YOU keep YOUR money, and big gubmint spending steals your money for pork. Pork!

There really is nothing left for conservatives to argue beyond "that way lies socialism." As Fairbanks explains, this is the same strategy they used in the 1930s to try and slow down the New Deal. They argued to themselves that Roosevelt was just a charismatic leader and his policies were abhorrent to the majority of the public. They tried to corner the 1930s version of Blue Dog Democrats to get them to flip their votes. They believed the country was center-right and that by holding to their convictions, they could not fail. What else could they do, other than disband? The strategy wasn't very successful then. Nowadays, there is the constant hum of the noise machine and a right-wing movement well-practiced in the art of obstruction. Not to mention a Democratic majority that fetishizes bipartisanship and timid in the face of these cries from the other side.

(I'm wondering about the connection between dead-ender conservative populists and the "Lost-Cause" mythmakers of the South. Michael Lind calls for a "Third Reconstruction" of the South to save the US economy, while Ed Kilgore has a contrarian view, while acknowledging that "first-wave" economic strategies of low wages, deregulation and the absence of unions have taken hold in the South in the Bush era.)

A lot of commenters and writers in the blogosphere thinks that we should just dismiss the conservative populists and let them play their little games, that the elections have rendered them irrelevant. I don't subscribe to this point of view. We still have a media inclined to promote conflict, and a steady stream of right-wing operatives ready to get their position into the discourse. Further, the imbalance between extreme partisan warfare on one side and the desire to play nice on the other persists. Past history of Congressional capitulation is not promising here. Not to mention that so many of the initiatives the incoming Administration wants to implement need to happen fast to maximize their effectiveness, giving the dead-end kids a piece of leverage that they are sure to use.

Cranks like this are present in virtually every new Administration, but in our current media/political age I think they are uniquely equipped to succeed. And I don't see a real strategy to counteract them yet.

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Can Burris Be Seated?

Senate Democrats seem prepared to try and block the appointment of Roland Burris to the US Senate, and at first glance, given the Senate's control over the seating of its own members as granted by the Constitution, I thought they had that ability. However, a closer reading of precedent suggests that they may be stuck with ol' Roland.

Democrats said they were confident of their standing under Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution, which says “each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own members.” On rare occasion, the Senate has denied seats to candidates whose election outcome was in doubt or who were caught up in corruption.

Yet constitutional experts question the extent of that authority, particularly in light of a 1969 Supreme Court decision in the case of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of New York. The court found that the House could not bar Mr. Powell, who had been accused of financial impropriety, if he met the constitutionally determined qualifications for age, citizenship and residency.

“I think the best reading of the text of the Constitution and the Powell case together is that the Senate has to seat Burris,” said Abner S. Greene, the Leonard F. Manning professor of law at Fordham University School of Law.

Jack Balkin thinks the Senate can essentially say that the process of the executive appointing Burris was improper, and that could be the basis of their refusal. Considering that the Secretary of State of Illinois is refusing to certify the appointment (and it's unclear whether or not he even has a say in the matter), there's at least some basis for that. I think this fight comes down to more of a delaying tactic than anything, waiting out Blagojevich until he's indicted or impeached and hoping that Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn can make the appointment. However, Patrick Fitzgerald just asked for an extension in the indictment process:

In a motion filed today in U.S. District Court, Fitzgerald said that the length, scope, and complexity of the investigation, combined with the intrusion of the holiday season, has prevented him from meeting the January 7 deadline. The probe, writes the prosecutor, began in 2003 and "involves multiple potential defendants" and thousands of intercepted phone calls.

The move means that we likely won't learn much more from Fitzgerald about Blagojevich's alleged crimes until at least March. So speculation is likely to continue.

And the Illinois legislature won't be speeding up their process of impeachment, meaning that wouldn't kick in until mid-February. And then there's the question of what happens if Quinn tries to appoint and the Burris case is still tied up in court.

Again, if nobody can lead an effort to change the Constitution, mandating special elections for every vacancy, after THIS, then there is no such thing as a Constitutional amendment anymore. Rather, I think this parallel in the Times story is the one Senate Dems are meekly hoping for:

One rough parallel to the current situation arose in 1947 in a Senate dispute over whether the white supremacist Theodore G. Bilbo of Mississippi should be seated after accusations of voter suppression and campaign corruption. In that case, the Senate found itself deadlocked, and Mr. Bilbo died before the disagreement could be resolved.

...As to Blagojevich's motivations, I agree with Dan Conley that this is a criminal defense trial masquerading as a Senate appointment. He is proving that he can appoint a Senator without auctioning off the seat, undermining that element of the complaint (which isn't the main one, by the way); and by appointing an African-American, and by getting the respected Bobby Rush to warn Senate leaders not to "lynch" him, he brings racial politics into the equation, which may be an aid when the jury is seated, perhaps in heavily black Chicago.

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Morning Stunningly Superficial

It'd be a good rename for Morning Joe.

Scarborough: "You cannot blame what's going on in Israel on the Bush administration."

Brzezinski: "You know, you have such a stunningly superficial knowledge of what went on that it's almost embarrassing to listen to you."

Hysterical. And it gets better when JoeScar, his ego wounded, tries to use sarcasm, which really doesn't work on him. I think Zbig was about 10 seconds from asking Joey "What dead intern?" at the end there.

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