The American Prospect
Subscribe to The American Prospect
Archives Columnists Issues in Depth Press Room Advertising About

October 16, 2003
UNIFORM SPEECH.The Pentagon rolled out its defense today of a general who has characterized the war on terrorism as a conflict between Christianity and Satan. I'll get to what Donald Rumsfeld had to say in a minute. First, some background on Army Lt. Gen. William Boykin, from The Associated Press:
Army Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin has made several speeches -- some in uniform -- at evangelical Christian churches in which he cast the war on terrorism in religious terms. Boykin said of a 1993 battle with a Muslim militia leader in Somalia: "I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol."

And from Reuters:

In another speech, Boykin said God selected George W. Bush as president.

"Why is this man in the White House? The majority of Americans did not vote for him. Why is he there? And I tell you this morning that he's in the White House because God put him there for a time such as this."

Describing America's fight with Islamic extremists, Boykin also said, "The enemy is a spiritual enemy. He's called the principality of darkness. The enemy is a guy called Satan."

Now for Rumsfeld's explanation as to why this is all OK by him (from the AP article):
"We're a free people. And that's the wonderful thing about our country," Rumsfeld said. "I think that for anyone to run around and think that that can be managed and controlled is probably wrong. Saddam Hussein could do it pretty well, because he'd go around killing people if they said things he didn't like."
Of course the man has the right to say whatever he wants in his spare time, but when you put on a uniform, the rules change, as well they should. Boykin is not some guy standing on a soapbox at the corner screaming about the battle between God and Satan. He is an Army general who happens to be the country's deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, making public speeches about the war on terrorism, the single most important issue of our time, and embarrassing our country in the process. It's just not possible for Rumsfeld to argue that his actions are protected by the First Amendment.

If the Pentagon will not dismiss Boykin, then he ought to be immediately reassigned to a military post in a remote, barren part of the world, far far away from any pulpits or reporters. There, he'll be free to say whatever he wants.

--Alison Leff

Posted at 08:04 PM
THEN AND NOW. I've been waiting and waiting and waiting to see what, exactly, about Bill Clinton's legacy has Rich Lowry so hot and bothered. (The title of his new book is Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.) Clearly, he was going to claim that Clinton didn't deserve credit for the good economy of the 1990s, even though it would be hard to argue that Clinton did much damage. Today, however, the truth comes out -- Lowry blames Clinton for September 11:
Well, obviously, Osama bin Laden was responsible for 9/11. But the September 11th attacks were clearly Clinton's most consequential legacy. The way he had hamstrung the CIA, handcuffed the FBI, neglected airport security, and, most importantly, left a nest of terrorist training camps in Afghanistan unmolested -- knowing, knowing they were there -- created the ticking time bomb that went off on September 11th. Should Bush have done more during the eight months he was in office? Absolutely. But much of his work would have been -- and has been -- undoing the mistakes of the Clinton administration.
Ah. So back before 9-11 can we presume that National Review was advocating an invasion of Afghanistan and condemning the Clinton administration for not undertaking one? Not exactly. I fired up Nexis and found an unsigned editorial titled, "Counterstrike," from the September 14, 1998 issue:
Congressional leaders were therefore right to support President Clinton's action. The last thing Republicans should do is add to the inhibitions and hesitations of an Administration congenitally averse to the forthright use of American military power. The White House's blatant exploitation of the crisis for its own political purposes--dragging Mr. Clinton back from vacation for a portentous Oval Office address to the nation--should be a source of amusement only. Richard Nixon, too, tried to claim indispensability for his foreign-policy expertise--a much more valid claim in his case, and at the height of the Cold War to boot. It didn't help him.

Launching 75 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the training camp in Afghanistan and the chemical-weapons plant in Sudan was, by Clinton standards, a strong performance. In June 1993, responding to an Iraqi assassination attempt against ex-President George Bush, Mr. Clinton launched 23 cruise missiles at a military-intelligence headquarters in Baghdad--in the middle of the night, so that no one would get hurt! This time, the strike in Afghanistan was aimed at a gathering of terrorist leaders reported to be taking place on that day. Admirably cold-blooded, that.

Bin Laden, the terrorist kingpin, is a new phenomenon, but we should not exaggerate either his novelty or the difficulty of defeating him. (There is a canard that he is an American creation. There is no evidence that he is. He did win his spurs in the Arab world's equivalent of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade--the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan--but U.S. money and arms went to the Afghan freedom fighters through the Pakistani military.) While he is a freelancer, bin Laden is dependent on the support of renegade governments, such as Afghanistan's and Sudan's, against which we have leverage. We can target his physical assets by military or covert means and his financial assets through other controls (as Mr. Clinton has also done). His Islamist revolutionary ideology is increasingly discredited in the Muslim world, even in Iran. Defeating him will take time, but it will be done.

As this fairly clearly shows, the debate at the time was focused on whether or not the Clinton administration had gone too far in combating al-Qaeda, and National Review, to its credit, supported Clinton's position. But what of the Clinton administration's response to the USS Cole bombing, another major trope in the right's retrospective criticism of the administration? A Nexis search reveals that though the attack on the ship has been mentioned many times since 9-11 in Lowry's magazine, it was mentioned exactly three times before then. First, from the Dec. 31, 2000 issue:
According to press reports, the navy is evaluating the results of its internal investigation into last October's devastating attack on the destroyer USS Cole. Preliminary indications are that the ship's captain, Cmdr. Kirk S. Lippold, did not ensure full implementation of the ship's required force-protection plan. One senior officer cites evidence of a "lapse of attentiveness" on the part of the Cole's crew. But the inquiry raises as many questions as it answers: Why, for example, did the Cole enter an area of acknowledged terrorist activity operating under Threat Condition Bravo--the Pentagon's second lowest security status? Who bears responsibility for designing the misguided "strategy of engagement" that obliged the Cole to stop at Aden in the first place? Secretary of Defense William Cohen has appointed two senior retired officers to conduct a more wide-ranging examination; their report is expected by early January. It is critically important that these officers complete their task free of political interference. The administration should not be allowed to make Kirk Lippold a scapegoat.
Then at the end of a May 25, 2001 article by Jeffrey Hart dedicated to reviewing the history of America's involvement in World War II:
A state of readiness is difficult to maintain, especially when the nation is officially at "peace." Who would imagine that an unidentified small motorboat could with impunity sail right up alongside our destroyer USS Cole in the harbor at Yemen?
Then there was a July 26, 2001 NRO interview by Kathryn Lopez of Bill Sammon, a Washington Times White House correspondent and author of At Any Cost: How Al Gore Tried To Steal The Election. Sammon's final remark:
Two Gore lawyers high-fived each other after helping disqualify more than 1,400 military ballots on trumped-up hyper technicalities. One of the ballots had been cast by Navy Lt. John Russell, who had volunteered to rescue the USS Cole in the wake of a deadly terrorist strike. When a sickened Republican asked the high-fiving Gore lawyers how they could possibly celebrate the disenfranchisement of our military, one of them crowed: "A win's a win."
That's it. Look, if the Bush administration is right about one thing, it's this: September 11 changed everybody's perspective. I would argue that before 9-11 Democrats were more focused on terrorism than Republicans (most of whom seemed overly enamored with missile defense and great-power politics) but it's clear -- in retrospect -- that it would have been nice if both the Clinton and Bush administrations had done more to combat al-Qaeda. By and large, liberals have resisted the temptation to play the 9-11 blame game, but obviously the folks at National Review have no intention of extending us the same courtesy. If that's the game they want to play, let me recommend the "Operation Ignore" chapter of Al Franken's new book for a fairly devastating critique of George W. Bush's pre-9-11 counterterrorism strategy.

--Matthew Yglesias

Posted at 06:44 PM
BLOGGING = CB RADIO? That's what The New York Times' Jim Markhoff says in this Online Journalism Review interview. Frankly, I think he's more or less right. When it comes to news, blogging doesn't hold a candle to the reporters working their butts off every day at papers around the country. That doesn't mean blogs are unimportant. But bloggers rarely break any news -- I can think of only a handful that consistently bring fresh reporting to the table, and likewise not that many big stories have been broken by blogs (though blogs have helped keep interest in some previously reported stories, like the Trent Lott controversy, burning long enough to have a second life among the professional-class punditry). The fun of reading blogs is to watch smart, well-informed people chew over, interpret or re-interpret stuff they've read in the paper or elsewhere. But if you got rid of the "old" print media, what would bloggers blog about?

Seriously, I'm asking. Thoughts welcome.

--Nick Confessore

Posted at 06:31 PM
THE COMING CRISIS. The Washington Post reports here on a poll by Stars and Stripes (a Pentagon-sponsored newspaper) of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. It contains some pieces of good news, among them that in a lot of areas -- from their health to their living conditions -- U.S. soldiers feel their situation is at least OK. But there are also some pieces of very, very bad news. Forty-nine percent of all soldiers now in Iraq say it is either "not likely" or "very unlikely" that they will stay in the military after their current obligation is complete; the same number rate their unit's morale as "low" or "very low." Thirty-five percent feel that their mission is mostly not clearly defined or not clearly defined at all. Forty percent say that their current mission is either not closely related or not at all related to their training.

These results are discouraging, though not surprising. They are what you get when you assign combat troops to be police officers, in a country where they don't have the resources and manpower to perform the assigned mission, and are viewed with growing hostility by the local population. Peacekeeping is an essential part of the U.S. military mission today, and will be for the foreseable future, but the truth is that people who spend their days training to kill bad guys don't have a lot of enthusiasm for it. There are a couple of long-term solutions to this problem, such as forming a new military service devoted entirely to peacekeeping and nation-building work. But the short-term solution is in some ways more difficult, because it would represent such a reversal, however necessary, of the administration's policy so far: We need help. And the administration should be willing to make a lot of concessions to get it.

The alternative is a gradual cannibalization of the same armed forces for which the White House professes so much affection. Our occupation, at least for the moment, is creating a vicious circle: Because our active and reserve forces are overcommitted, our soldiers are exhausted and overworked. Because they are exhausted and overworked, a growing number of them are planning not to re-enlist. And the more soldiers that decide not to re-enlist, the more exhausted and overworked will be those who remain. We're basically burning through our reserves in the short-term in the hope that the problem will eventually work itself out. Over time, this will present the Pentagon with a major crisis. It's more than just not having enough troops to meet all the commitments we have now or will need to take on later, though that's a big part of it. You also have to consider how the vicious circle saps the strength, morale and efficacy of our armed forces over time. The whole thing is a disaster waiting to happen.

That this would be a problem was obvious well before the Iraq War, at least to those military wonks and officers I spoke to for this article last March. I think it was obvious to the senior brass, as well, who were overruled by over-optimistic civilians at the Pentagon. Keep in mind that the Stars and Stripes survey was taken in August, and that the problems about which soldiers are most concerned have not improved much.

Phil Carter has some more thoughts here.

--Nick Confessore

Posted at 06:22 PM
STUPID WHITE MAN, AND MORE FROM AROUND THE BLOGS. Our friends at Spinsanity have a ton of good stuff up these days. Check out their two-part rundown (here and here) of the many factual errors in Michael Moore's latest tome, Dude, Where's My Country?; this account of another apparent Bill O'Reilly fib; and their fact-checking of recent newspaper columns about Howard Dean (here) and Wes Clark (here). Brian Montopoli has more on Dean and media coverage here. Daniel Davies at Crooked Timber has launched a running tab on "particularly egregious examples of breathless and/or mendacious 'Globalisation' pieces from neo-liberal commentators" here; he will no doubt have little trouble finding them. I'm sure that Mickey Kaus, having smacked the Prospect's Michael Tomasky for making -- egads! -- an election prediction in this article, will go forth and administer a bloggy drubbing to the approximately four trillion other pundits who likewise called the California race wrong. CalPundit rounds up the latest Valerie Plame news so you don't have to -- and asks what big-time GOP lobbyist and Mississippi gubernatorial candidate Haley Barbour is doing hanging with the good people at the Council of Conservative Citizens. R.J. West notes that all kinds of people seem to end up speaking before the council without knowing what the group is really about . . . sure. And Atrios celebrates New Jobless Day here. Hey, you know who you are!

--Nick Confessore

Posted at 05:49 PM

THE MALAYSIAN PRIME MINISTER: CLASSY GUY. At this point, it can hardly count as noteworthy when Mahathir Mohamad, the long-time dictator of Malaysia, opens his mouth and something anti-Semitic comes out. The prime minister has been peddling anti-Semitism for a long time -- most famously when he tried to pin the 1997 Asian economic meltdown on Jews -- and today he's at it again, telling delegates from 57 nations at the Organization of the Islamic Conference summit that "Jews rule the world by proxy."

That phrase will grab headlines briefly, and every sane person -- left, right, center -- will condemn it as bigotry, which it is. The problem is that the rest of the speech -- in which Mahathir condemned suicide bombings and called on the Muslim world to stop blaming outsiders for its problems -- will be understood by many in the West as moderate, or even courageous. But the truth is that these parts of the speech were perhaps even more chilling than the out-and-out anti-Semitic sections, because they sounded suspiciously like a blueprint for targeting Jews by other, more subtle means. "We cannot fight them through brawn alone. We must use our brains also," Mahathir said of Jews. He also encouraged Palestinians to negotiate, noting that the Prophet Muhammad did -- and "in the end, he triumphed." Plus, he implored Muslims to devote themselves to technology, which sounded like a call for education reform in the Muslim world, and qualified as that . . . well, sort of -- if you count an exhortation to would-be Muslim scientists that "we need guns and rockets, bombs and warplanes, tanks and warships for our defense" as a call to reform.

Why is this so disturbing? Because most people understand the statement "Jews rule the world by proxy" as anti-Semitism, but many will miss the fact that Mahathir denounced suicide bombings, while pointedly not denouncing -- and indeed, amplifying -- hatred of Jews. To give an example: Here's how one reporter, covering the speech for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, described it:

Yes, it's nothing new for him to attack Jews and Europeans and pinpoint them for the blame for many of the ails of the Muslim world. But at the same time, his rhetoric was going the other way, and to a large extent he was saying that the Muslim world are the architects of their own problems.

And much of what he said in the rest of the speech was a rallying call, trying to get Muslims to stop blaming other people and to start confronting their own economic and social problems in order to develop and get themselves out of the poverty trap.

I suspect this reporter's analysis will be shared by news outlets in much of the western world. What they'll ignore was that Mahathir was only calling on those who hate Jews to reform their tactics, not their goals. To borrow a phrase that Palestinian partisans are fond of using, Mahathir wasn't addressing the "root causes" of the Muslim world's conflict with Israel.

And what are those root causes? Obviously, they're many and they're complex and no one can quite agree on what they are and if we could things would be a lot easier. But no one -- especially those of us who supported Oslo and still hope for peace -- should deny that one of the very central, ongoing root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is the enduring, and, I would argue, in many ways justified, Israeli fear that even if the Palestinians someday go back to the bargaining table, they will be negotiating not for a two-state solution but rather for the destruction of Israel by other means. When career anti-Semites like Mahathir give speeches in which they basically come out and say that Muslims need to go on fighting Jews, only through the more brainy, less gruesome tactics of non-violence and negotiation, they lend a lot of credence to the long-held Israeli suspicion that Muslim countries are not seeking peace in good faith. What other conclusion can Israelis possibly draw from a speech that implores Muslims to give up suicide bombings but notes that "1.3 billion Muslims cannot be defeated by a few million Jews," calls on Muslims to achieve a "final victory" in the struggle against Jews, is delivered by the dictator of a country that could have no possible legitimate beef with Israel, is awarded a standing ovation by representatives from 57 Muslim nations, and is praised by the foreign minister of Egypt, which is ostensibly at peace with Israel?

All this comes on the heels of an announcement that a team of liberal Israelis, led by one-time Prospect contributor Yossi Beilin, has negotiated an unofficial framework for peace with a team of Palestinians. You could say the plan is a step forward -- I want it to be a step forward -- but it won't be much of a step unless the majority of Israelis look favorably on it. So the operative question is this: Will Israelis rush to back a peace plan at a time when a pretty nutty anti-Semite can still get a standing ovation from a conference of Islamic nations for calling on them to continue their struggle against Jews? Those who truly want peace should ask themselves why Israelis feel so insecure in the world that they keep eschewing the Beilins of their political system in favor of tough guys like Sharon. I suggest they consider Mahathir's speech, and the reaction it received, as Exhibit A.

--Richard Just

Posted at 05:07 PM
A SPECIAL TIME. I seem to recall having heard somewhere that the difference between Republican calls for independent counsels to investigate Bill Clinton and Democratic calls for a special prosecutor to look into the Valerie Plame situation was that the GOP position was supported by career prosecutors who felt that Janet Reno couldn't get the job done right. Well, there goes that difference, as The New York Times quotes "top FBI officials" and criminal prosecutors from the DOJ criticizing John Ashcroft's handling of the situation and calling for either a recusal or a special counsel.

It's important to remember that a special counsel and an independent counsel aren't the same thing. I think the latter would be a bad idea (for reasons that people should be able to recall from the late 1990s) whereas the former may well be necessary. Still, it's worth noting yet again that the ostensible position of the White House is that it does not defend the conduct in question and wants to see the perpetrators found and appropriately disciplined. Any time Bush officials want to start acting like that's what they really think, this whole issue could become moot.

--Matthew Yglesias

Posted at 12:19 PM
MORE ON THAT "BOUNCE." I noted yesterday that contrary to what The Washington Post's headline writers want you to believe, Bush's poll numbers are going down. Public opinion expert Ruy Teixeira has taken an even closer look at a number of recent polls and come to the same conclusion:
The Gallup data also show just 22 percent rating the economy as good or excellent, one of the worst rating of his presidency, and only 42 percent saying the situation in Iraq is going well, the lowest level of the year. Finally, sentiment has become more negative about whether Congress should authorize the additional $87 billion for Iraq and the war on terror, moving from 51 percent against/46 percent for to 57 percent against/41 percent for.

In the Newsweek poll, Bush's approval ratings on foreign policy are 45 percent, on Iraq, 44 percent, on taxes, 43 percent, on the environment, 43 percent, on the economy, 38 percent and on health care, 34 percent. And on whether Bush should be re-elected or not, 44 percent say they would vote to re-elect him, but 50 percent would not–worse than where Bush was two weeks ago before the beginning of this so-called bounce.

The Newsweek poll also finds that, at this point, more Americans (37 percent) think the US action against Iraq will increase the risk that large numbers of Americans will be killed or injured in future terror attacks, than believe (25 percent) that risk will decrease (30 percent say the Iraq action will make no difference). Moreover, by 49 percent to 39 percent, the public now thinks the administration misinterpreted or misanalyzed intelligence reports about Iraq's WMDs and, for the first time, as many Americans now believe the administration purposely misled the public about Iraq's WMDs to build support for war as believe they did not.

The Post poll finds Bush doing worse than a month ago in terms of support for his re-election. More (47 percent) say they would vote for the Democratic nominee than say they would vote for Bush (46 percent). The number who say the war in Iraq was worth fighting also fell 7 points to 54 percent in the same time period and the number who say the number of military casualties in Iraq is unacceptable rose 4 points to 59 percent, the highest level since the war began.

That said, a few words of caution are appropriate. Bush is doing worse in the polls than his father was at this point, and better than Bill Clinton was. Clinton, of course, won, and the first Bush lost, so there's no reason to think these latest polls tell us anything incredibly important about who's going to win next November. Still, that's no reason for the Post to get its headlines wrong.

--Matthew Yglesias

Posted at 12:14 PM
TRY AGAIN. The conservative intellectuals whose work fills magazines and op-ed pages find themselves in a sticky situation when the topic turns to homosexuality. On the one hand, these guys aren't bigots or religious fanatics, but on the other hand, their base demands that they stand up for conservative opposition to gay rights. As a result, you get to see some interesting intellectual contortions. Case in point: David Frum in The Wall Street Journal tries to make the case that permitting same-sex marriages will reduce the "seriousness" of the institution. Except that if you read the article, you'll see that he ends up inadvertently making a good case for gay marriage.

He notes that many jurisdictions have, in an attempt to respond to demands for gay equality without permitting gay marriage, created various sorts of ersatz arrangements like Vermont's civil unions. According to Frum, it's these in-between situations that undermine marriage because they eliminate the bright line between married and not married and replace it with a continuum. Frum may be right about this, but if he is right, that's an argument in favor of permitting gay marriage because that would eliminate the need for the continuum. Preventing same-sex weddings, after all, isn't going to stop gays and lesbians from entering into committed relationships, and it's the Frums of the world who are forcing such couples to stay stuck between singlehood and matrimony.

--Matthew Yglesias

Posted at 12:11 PM
THE ECUMENICISM OF CLINTON-HATING. It's always been true that some of the most energetic dislike of Bill Clinton has existed on the left. And it's interesting, albeit not that surprising, to see some of that antipathy passing on to Wesley Clark. One good example is this piece by James Ridgeway that I came across in The Village Voice:

Clark embodies just about everything the right wing hates, and he will no doubt become another ingredient in the president's re-election strategy to fire up the conservative base. Clark is despised by various elements in the military as a grandstander. His battle tactics in Kosovo are questioned by numerous critics on both the right and left: he kept American casualties low by raining bombs randomly from 30,000 feet on civilian targets.

If that's the critique, then the critics in question are idiots. (I'll leave aside Ridgeway's odd assertion that Clark represents everything conservatives hate -- much of Clark's appeal to professional Democrats is his potential to attract centrists and Republicans.) One can legitimately criticize Clark's decision, made under political pressure, to keep American pilots above the altitude at which they'd be vulnerable to most ground fire, which ensured their safety (not a single American serviceman died in Kosovo) while making it relatively harder to accurately hit targets on the ground. But rest assured that NATO pilots didn't "randomly" drop anything. Quite the opposite: What made Clark's job as NATO commander so difficult, and what makes his eventual success noteworthy, was that every bombing target had to be approved by all 19 countries in the alliance. (You can read more on that here.) More to the point, such was the accuracy of U.S. weapons technology that, on the whole, the bombing campaign incurred relatively few civilian deaths, although as in any war, some targeting of civilian resources, like bridges and power plants, was necessary for victory. But the United States did save tens of thousands of civilian lives by ending Slobodan Milosevic's campaign of slaughter -- something too many American left-liberals refused to give Clinton or Clark credit for.

Next Ridgeway writes:

Clinton denies it, but just about everybody thinks he and Hillary are behind Clark's sudden appearance on the political stage. The former president's old campaign staff and aides are pretty much running Clark's operation. But Slick Willy always hedges his bets. Clark might have been the former president's commander in Kosovo, but Clinton has been accused of forcing the general into retirement. You can be sure that if Clark stumbles, Clinton will drop him like a hot potato.

Clinton-haters always have paranoid tendencies, but then again, Ridgeway is not the only one to overplay the importance of the handful of former Clinton staffers on Clark's campaign. Obviously Clinton has some interest in Clark, but there are literally hundreds of former Clinton aides and campaign staffers in Washington, and you can find them working for or advising all the key Democratic presidential campaigns.

But it's Ridgeway's second assertion in the paragraph that most needs correction, because it's untrue. Note that Ridgeway puts his charge -- "has been accused" -- in the passive voice, so he doesn't have to take responsibility for it. The facts, though, are pretty clear here: Clinton was hoodwinked by senior Pentagon officials, who disliked Clark precisely because he had successfully prosecuted a war they had opposed from the beginning. As Spencer Ackerman wrote in this excellent New Republic piece a few weeks ago:

Clark's tactical and strategic wisdom went unappreciated inside the Beltway. He was rewarded for his win in Kosovo by a terse call from Shelton the following month informing him that his nato assignment would end early. (According to Waging Modern War, Shelton would not even show Clark the courtesy of extending the phone call a few minutes to work out a face-saving exit.) Clinton privately told Clark, "I had nothing to do with it."
The rest of the article is quite good, too, albeit obviously written from a pretty pro-Clark stance. Ackerman does a good job of explaining the war, the reluctance of the Pentagon brass to be involved in it, the obstacle posed by Clinton's wariness of casualties, and the Pristina airport incident for which Clark drew some criticism when he first entered the race.

It's significant, though, that Ridgeway -- who represents thinking not uncommon on the lefty-left -- would choose to criticize Clark for poor handling of the Kosovo war. American success there is one of those Clinton-era achievements that the Democratic Party as a whole should be claiming as part of the record it presents to voters in 2004. But there's as much resistance on the Democratic left to giving the Clinton administration credit for anything as there is on the right. It's an intellectual incoherence liberal Democrats are going to have to resolve if they want to win in 2004.

--Nick Confessore

Posted at 12:04 PM
DEAN AND THE WEB. Tuesday's Wall Street Journal had one of the best, most comphrensive and most clued-in newspaper articles I've seen on the Dean campaign's inventive use of MeetUps, blogging and Internet fundraising to get an edge in the Democratic primary. Much of this will be familiar to people who've read my colleague Garance Franke-Ruta's recent Prospect cover story on the topic. But the Journal article, by Jeanne Cummings, definitely adds some value:
On March 5, the campaign held its first official meetup in New York. The Essex Restaurant was told to prepare for 200 people, but 500 mobbed it, with more in a line outside. Mr. Dean emerged from his taxi and froze. "I was just shocked, stunned," he recalls. "I didn't understand the implications of [the meetups]. [Joe] Trippi understood it immediately."

The campaign still lacked money or manpower and had only one Internet expert. But virtual-world supporters soon showed up on the campaign's real-world doorstep.

Mathew Gross, a 31-year-old environmental activist living in Moab, Utah, had been praising Mr. Dean on blogs for months. In March, he quit his job serving burritos and flew east to join the Dean campaign -- without calling ahead.

After stopping to buy a $10 tie, he took a cheap motel room in Burlington, near campaign headquarters. On his first day as a volunteer, he stuffed envelopes. That night he stayed up late writing a memo on the importance of blogs. The next morning, he marched toward Mr. Trippi's office to deliver it, pausing at the door just long enough for senior aides to start escorting him away. Mr. Gross threw the memo toward the boss. "I write on MyDD!" he shouted, guessing Mr. Trippi would understand.

Mr. Trippi's head shot up. "You're hired!" he yelled back.

Whether or not Dean wins the nomination, the Democratic establishment in Washington would be smart to find a place for Joe Trippi -- either as head of the Democratic National Committee or in some senior post at the organization. (And as Harold Meyerson pointed out in this column, the Democrats should be thinking about ways to make sure the people Dean has drawn into the political process stay there.) For decades, the Democrats have lagged behind the Republicans in the area of party building. And while I think Terry McAuliffe has been vastly underrated in this department -- largely by shortsighted Democrats looking for an easy scapegoat after the '02 debacle -- Trippi is obviously a guy who can think outside the box.

And it's not unimportant that he has an intuitive feel for the technology. You'd be surprised by how many people in Washington don't. This anecdote, from the Cummings piece, is telling:

[Wes] Boyd offered MoveOn's expertise to all the Democratic contenders. Only the Dean campaign accepted, paying MoveOn employee Zack Exley's salary for two weeks. Mr. Exley, 33, made the Dean Web site more user-friendly and preached about e-mail's organizing and fund-raising power.

The advice took hold. In June, the campaign launched its first serious Internet fund-raising effort. Nine days before the second quarter closed on June 30 -- a key moment for measuring each presidential contender's viability -- Mr. Trippi appealed to everyone on the campaign's e-mail list. The list now had 150,000 addresses, thanks in part to the Meetup deal.

This was a key turning point, and an opportunity every other campaign obviously missed. Trippi understood the possibility this represented, especially among young people. My own personal experience, which may not ring true for others, is that people who first started using e-mail and the Web after college rather than during or before it have a different, less intuitive feel for the Internet and its possibilities as a tool for social organization than those whose first introduction to the Web came at an early age. At 47, Trippi obviously didn't grow up with the Internet, but his work consulting for dot.coms seems to have given him an edge over other professional campaign operatives.

--Nick Confessore

Posted at 11:45 AM
October 15, 2003
READ THE WHOLE THING. When I saw an article in The Washington Post headlined, "President Rallying Support in Polls," I was foolish enough to assume that it was about some kind of new poll showing a rally in support for the president. Read the poll results, however, and you'll see that the president's approval rating is actually down one point from the previous Post/ABC poll. In fairness, his disapproval rating is also down -- by two points -- and this is all within the margin of error, so it's not terrible news for the president. But it's hardly a Marlins-esque rally, either. The poll also shows only 46 percent of the public planning to vote for Bush in 2004, as opposed to 47 percent who plan to vote for the Democrat. Last time the poll was conducted, Bush was winning 49-44. A few more rallies like this and the president is going to be out of a job.

--Matthew Yglesias

Posted at 03:41 PM
DEFENDING DEAN. Terry Eastland has penned a column condemning Howard Dean for saying that since he's not a member of Congress he wouldn't say how he would vote on the president's $87 billion Iraq request:
By that logic, Dean needn't answer any question on which a member of Congress might vote. But does the candidate really believe his logic? During the Times interview, Dean also urged the repeal of recent tax cuts to pay for the reconstruction on which he wouldn't opine. Obviously, there could be no such repeal unless Congress approved it, and Dean surely wouldn't want to be understood as saying he has no view on whether a member should vote for or against a course of action he unequivocally has endorsed.

Dean has taken an unconvincing pass on the most important foreign policy question before the country.

Eastland seems to be willfully missing the point here. Dean has given a perfectly clear answer to the most important foreign policy question before the country: He thinks we ought to appropriate $87 billion for Iraq and that we ought to finance it by canceling tax cuts. Bush has also given a clear answer to this question: He thinks we ought to appropriate $87 billion for Iraq and that we ought to finance it by borrowing money and raising taxes on future generations. The question Dean didn't answer was: Forced to choose between the borrow-and-spend approach and the don't-spend approach, which would he prefer? Note that Bush hasn't answered his version of that question either: Faced with a choice between canceling some of the tax cuts and not getting the appropriation, what would the president choose?

Eastland's argument would have been pretty silly even if the underlying facts of his allegation were true -- but, as it turns out, they aren't. According to this morning's Washington Post:

Last week in a New York Times interview, Dean declined to take a position on the spending request. But the next day, in a debate in Arizona, he said he would oppose the $87 billion request unless Bush accepted an equivalent reduction in his tax cuts.
This is, I think, the wrong position on the $87 billion request. (Though, as a tactical measure, it's probably what I would say if I were a member of Congress, in the hope that this way we could get the best possible solution -- spending without borrowing.) But whether or not you agree with Dean, what he said was really pretty clear.

--Matthew Yglesias

Posted at 03:31 PM
MAJORITY RULES. Kudos to The Wall Street Journal for recognizing that Democratic opposition to Bush's judicial nominees has nothing to do with race, gender or religion (as so many other conservatives would have us believe) and everything to do with his nominees' view of the law. On the other hand, I think the Journal could use a refresher course in the meaning of the term "majority":
The only thing these nominees have in common is that they were nominated by a GOP President and share a conservative view of the law. Far from being radical or extreme, their views are shared by tens of millions of Americans--a majority if the results of the past two elections count for something. If Democrats want to dictate who can sit on the federal bench, they can always take the issue to the voters and win either a Senate majority or the White House. They shouldn't be allowed to hijack the confirmation process.
As you may recall, during the 2000 presidential election, one candidate received more votes than his opponents, and that man did not go on to become president. When you add in the votes for Ralph Nader, the election hardly amounts to a ringing popular endorsement of Bush's judicial philosophy. As for the Senate, let me refer you to this post by Nathan Newman from several months ago, which pointed out that Senate Democrats represent over 50 million more people than Senate Republicans. Even when you add in Miguel Estrada's Democratic support, the filibustering minorty was still representing most Americans, according to Newman. Legally speaking, of course, neither of these facts is relevant. The law is the law and it says George W. Bush is president and Bill Frist leads the Senate's majority. But the law also says the Democratic minority can filibuster if it's so inclined, and considerations of majoritarianism give it no reason not to.

--Matthew Yglesias

Posted at 03:20 PM
CLEAR SKIES AHEAD? Congressional Democrats are charging the Environmental Protection Agency with misusing federal funds. At issue is a series of advertisements launched on the Spanish-language Hispanic Radio Network; the ads basically promoted the Bush administration's so-called "Clear Skies" legislation, which may be a violation of federal law. (Here's a primer on "Clear Skies" from Bill Moyers' show, Now.)

From The Washington Post's description, the whole thing doesn't seem too complex. The EPA's appropriations bill precludes the agency from spending any of its money on advocacy for or against legislation. Any experts out there care to weigh in?

--Nick Confessore

Posted at 03:11 PM
THE REAL DEBATE. David Broder raises a worthwhile point in his latest column: The GOP will probably remain in control of the House after the 2004 elections, so any Democratic economic plan is going to need the support of some House Republicans. But then Broder goes a step too far. He argues that the likelihood of Republican control in the House makes a good deal of the debate between the various Democratic candidates about how much of the Bush tax cut to cancel a bit academic, since none of them is realistically going to be able to get what he or she wants. Broder goes on to say that trade policy is the real debate we should be paying attention to:
If a Gephardt or a Dean were in the White House, it is not hard to imagine a sharp change from the liberal trade policies of Clinton and Bush -- no matter which party is in control of Congress. Restrictive policies would be resisted -- and perhaps thwarted -- by a Kerry or a Lieberman.
I'm not so sure about this. For one thing, what "liberal trade policies" has Bush been responsible for? Steel tariffs? Farm subsidies? A round of WTO negotiations that was scuttled after the rich countries refused to address the concerns of poor countries? At the same time, given the dynamics of a Democratic primary, it's hard to know how seriously to take the candidates' positions on trade. Dean used to be a free trader, now he's not, and who knows what he'd really do in the White House. The fact is that the trade skeptics in the race have been putting forward proposals -- such as renegotiating NAFTA to require higher Mexican labor and environmental standards -- that aren't any more realistic than getting a Republican Congress to approve tax increases.

Which brings us back to the relevance of the tax debate in the primaries. Assuming the Democrats take the White House and the Republicans keep Congress, it's likely that some of the Bush tax cut will be repealed, but more of it will stay than the next president wants. The Democratic stance during the campaign, however, is going to serve as an opening offer in a negotiating process, so it's hardly irrelevant. In particular, a president who can win a mandate from the public for repealing all the Bush tax cuts is going to have a much easier time coercing wavering Republicans to support a partial repeal. On the other hand, it may well be impossible to win a mandate like that, so maybe the party would be better off nominating someone with a moderate proposal that's more likely to win the public's support. Either way, the debate matters.

--Matthew Yglesias

Posted at 03:05 PM
NICE TRY. New York Post columnist John Podhoretz apparently had the same column idea as Jonah Goldberg -- nasty liberal media elites make fun of Rush Limbaugh for being a drug addict. I'll just point out how unsuccessful Podhoretz was at finding good examples of left-of-center schadenfreude. His only two examples of liberal "glee," as he calls it, are both rather limp. Here's the first:
CNN's Aaron Brown, who always looks as though he is presiding over a funeral, spoke Friday night about "the permanent smirk that seems to be attached to my face" owing to Limbaugh's troubles.
Sounds to me like Brown feels a little self-conscious about that smirk. It's hardly an expression of glee. And if all Limbaugh, who has demonized drug addicts for years on his show, gets from Brown is a smirk, he's getting off easy. For heaven's sake, the man's a flaming hypocrite. Limbaugh's allies should be praising Brown for his restraint. Podhoretz's next target:
Newsweek's Jonathan Alter referred to Limbaugh as a "bully-boy conservative" and said "the big guy himself could help the dialogue if he returns to the airwaves after rehab with a more tolerant and less vitriolic message. But then he wouldn't be Rush Limbaugh anymore."

Of course, what Alter means by "more tolerant and less vitriolic" is . . . more left-wing.

Perhaps Podhoretz has mind-reading abilities of which I am unaware, but maybe when Alter says "more tolerant and less vitriolic" he means . . . more tolerant and less vitriolic. Does Podhoretz think it's impossible to be both conservative and tolerant? Well, he is working from the inside.

The point is, Podhoretz couldn't find a good example of a mainstream or liberal pundit who expressed glee over Limbaugh's addiction. (Pointing out that Rush is a hypocrite on drug policy, or wondering how he would react if Bill Clinton were revealed to be a drug addict, or asking whether having experienced the reality of drug addiction will change Limbaugh's views on how we treat non-violent drug offenders -- none of these count, because all are eminently fair questions.) And if you take a look around, most of the right's usual targets have declined to take the bait. Joe Conason (here) and Robert Scheer (here), two guys who are not known for their reluctance to stick in the blade, explicitly offer Limbaugh sympathy for his addiction (if not for his past remarks on addicts). Paul Krugman is, as yet, nowhere to be seen on the Rush front.

This is a good example of why it's usually safer to let your reporting drive your column idea rather than vice versa.

--Nick Confessore

Posted at 02:26 PM
BUSH VS. BUSH. As the administration tries to convince the American people that the problems in Iraq are all a figment of the liberal media's exaggeration, the fact remains that the president's $87 billion request is running into trouble on Capitol Hill. If you look at the latest Gallup poll it's easy to understand why. While Operation Blame The Media has helped boost Bush's personal approval rating to 56-40, his budget request is now favored by only 41 percent of the public, with 57 percent against.

This is probably no coincidence. After all, people don't normally think that the government should spend tens of billions of dollars on solving a problem that doesn't exist. Of course, if people get too pessimistic about Iraq they won't want to throw good money after bad either, but unless Bush brings home the fact that the situation remains precarious, I don't see how he can expect people to support forgoing expenditures at home in favor of aid to a foreign country. In a sense, the political people in the White House are working at cross-purposes with the policy people. Traditionally, politics has always won out in this administration, but hopefully the political operatives will see that it's in the president's -- and country's -- long-term interests to get the job in Iraq done right.

--Matthew Yglesias

Posted at 02:11 PM
HIGH-TECH BALLOT STUFFING. The Independent newspaper has one of the best reports I've seen on the issue of electronic-voting-machine tampering. Andrew Gumbel's article is comprehensive and explains the technological issues pretty well. It's also quite chilling. Examining some unusual election results in Georgia during the 2002 races, Gumbel writes:
In many Georgia counties last November, the machines froze up, causing long delays as technicians tried to reboot them. In heavily Democratic Fulton County, in downtown Atlanta, 67 memory cards from the voting machines went missing, delaying certification of the results there for 10 days. In neighbouring DeKalb County, 10 memory cards were unaccounted for; they were later recovered from terminals that had supposedly broken down and been taken out of service.

It is still unclear exactly how results from these missing cards were tabulated, or if they were counted at all. And we will probably never know, for a highly disturbing reason. The vote count was not conducted by state elections officials, but by the private company that sold Georgia the voting machines in the first place, under a strict trade-secrecy contract that made it not only difficult but actually illegal - on pain of stiff criminal penalties - for the state to touch the equipment or examine the proprietary software to ensure the machines worked properly. There was not even a paper trail to follow up. The machines were fitted with thermal printing devices that could theoretically provide a written record of voters' choices, but these were not activated. Consequently, recounts were impossible. Had Diebold Inc, the manufacturer, been asked to review the votes, all it could have done was programme the computers to spit out the same data as before, flawed or not.

Astonishingly, these are the terms under which America's top three computer voting machine manufacturers -- Diebold, Sequoia and Election Systems and Software (ES&S) -- have sold their products to election officials around the country. Far from questioning the need for rigid trade secrecy and the absence of a paper record, secretaries of state and their technical advisers - anxious to banish memories of the hanging chad fiasco and other associated disasters in the 2000 presidential recount in Florida -- have, for the most part, welcomed the touchscreen voting machines as a technological miracle solution.

Georgia was not the only state last November to see big last-minute swings in voting patterns. There were others in Colorado, Minnesota, Illinois and New Hampshire - all in races that had been flagged as key partisan battlegrounds, and all won by the Republican Party. Again, this was widely attributed to the campaigning efforts of President Bush and the demoralisation of a Democratic Party too timid to speak out against the looming war in Iraq.

Strangely, however, the pollsters made no comparable howlers in lower-key races whose outcome was not seriously contested. Another anomaly, perhaps. What, then, is one to make of the fact that the owners of the three major computer voting machines are all prominent Republican Party donors? Or of a recent political fund-raising letter written to Ohio Republicans by Walden O'Dell, Diebold's chief executive, in which he said he was "committed to helping Ohio to deliver its electoral votes to the president next year" -- even as his company was bidding for the contract on the state's new voting machinery?

Though the article talks a lot about Georgia, it also points to some anomalies in Alabama's gubernatorial election, where the Democratic incumbent, Don Siegelman, was initally declared the winner before victory was awarded to Republican challenger Bob Riley. I think this should be a concern for Republicans as well as Democrats -- in a country as evenly divided as the United States, widespread vote-tampering will hurt both sides.

What's the solution? Go back to printed ballots, which, unlike voting machines, provide a reliable record that can be reexamined when necessary. But not just any ballots. This article in Slate argues that the biggest problem with paper ballots isn't that they're paper, but that they're so poorly designed -- usually by bureaucrats and via regulation:

[C]ounty officials oversee their production, and the ballots are put together according to each state's election code. California's code, like many of the other states', is a lengthy document that reads like a bureaucrat's version of the Ten Commandments: "The Secretary of State shall conduct a drawing of the letters of the alphabet, the result of which shall be known as a randomized alphabet. … There shall be four drawings, three in each even-numbered year and one in each odd-numbered year." You half-expect mention of a plague.
This is not a knock on election officials or regulations. It's just that if you want a ballot that's easy to read, it needs to be designed by someone who knows how to achieve clarity with a visual product.

Read the rest of Jessie Scanlon's article to learn about the numerous ways in which California's ballot, for one, violates basic principles of graphic design.

--Nick Confessore

Posted at 01:44 PM
October 14, 2003
WHY STOP NOW? I'm not Joe Lieberman's biggest fan, but looking at his travails in the current presidential campaign, I can't help but feel sorry for him sometimes. He goes ahead and proposes a tax cut for middle class families to be paid for by a tax hike on very rich families and The Washington Post gives him "Lieberman Proposes Tax Hikes on The Wealthy" as a headline. Why not "Liberman Proposes Middle Class Tax Relief"? After all, there are far more people (married couples earning between $14,000 and $114,650) who would see their taxes go down under Lieberman's plan than there are people who would see them go up. If I recall correctly, Bush's tax cut proposals weren't greeted with headlines like "Bush Unveils Bold Deficit Increase Plan." And check out the GOP reaction:
"Call your blueprint what you will, Senator Lieberman, but Americans understand that a tax increase is a tax increase is a tax increase," [Republican National Committee chairman Ed] Gillespie said. "Raising taxes won't create jobs. In fact, it will make job creation harder."
If raising taxes is always wrong, no matter what the money's being spent on, even if the purpose is to raise funds for cutting other taxes, and if the deficit is never a concern, then why shouldn't we just eliminate taxes outright and finance the government entirely through borrowing from future generations? Taking a look at the latest tax-cut binge, a series of lobbyist-driven corporate giveaways being ginned up under the pretense of eliminating a WTO-banned export subsidy, I suppose that's the direction we're headed in, so why not just come out and say it?

--Matthew Yglesias

Posted at 04:11 PM
LOTT OF TROUBLE. If you haven't seen it yet, you'll want to check out Prospect contributing writer Chris Mooney's devastating article about gun scholar -- we must now use that term warily -- John Lott, currently at the American Enterprise Institute. A number of academics, along with an even larger number of bloggers, have called into question Lott's empirical data; Mooney's article, published by the good people at Mother Jones, is the first piece in a mainstream magazine to put everything in one place and in context.

What struck me most was this passage, describing Lott's efforts to avoid conceding errors on some key pieces of data. It's a little complicated, but reading it all the way through will definitely cause you to wonder about Lott's basic honesty and integrity:

The Stanford Law Review critique, authored by Yale's [Ian] Ayres and Stanford's [John] Donohue, analyzed more recent crime statistics, extending Lott's original 1977-1992 crime dataset to include data through the late 1990s. As it turned out, after 1992, partly due to the end of the 1980s' crack cocaine-related crime wave, crime rates dropped dramatically in states with large urban centers, many of which had not passed right to carry laws. This fact proves highly inconvenient to the "More Guns, Less Crime" argument. After testing Lott and [co-author] Mustard's analysis with more years of data and different econometric tweakings, Donohue and Ayres conclude, "No longer can any plausible case be made on statistical grounds that shall-issue laws are likely to reduce crime for all or even most states"; their analysis even suggested such laws might increase violent crime.

This may seem like an ordinary scholarly dispute, but it quickly devolved into the sort of controversy that has followed much of Lott's recent work. Lott was invited to write a response to Ayres and Donohue, scheduled to run simultaneously in the Stanford Law Review. He accepted the invitation, but then suddenly withdrew his name from the response as the editorial process wound down. The cause, according to then Stanford Law Review president Benjamin Horwich, was a minor editing dispute involving literally one word; Lott, however, complains of an editorial "ultimatum" from the journal.

And so Lott's response was published under the name of two co-authors, economists Florenz Plassmann and John Whitley. They accused Donohue and Ayres of having "simply misread their own results" and, in a feat of statistical one-upmanship, claimed to extend the crime data even further -- through 2000 -- thereby rescuing the "More Guns, Less Crime" hypothesis in the process. But when Ayres and Donohue analyzed this new data, they say they found severe coding errors that, when corrected, thoroughly obliterated the attempt to confirm the "More Guns, Less Crime" thesis. Similar coding errors, wrote Donohue and Ayres, have cropped up elsewhere in Lott's work, including in his new book, "The Bias Against Guns".

A charge of coding errors, while not unheard of, is embarrassing, since it implies that only by using mistaken data can Lott preserve his thesis. The errors might have been accidental, but since the Stanford Law Review exchange, Lott has continued to defend the erroneous work. "There's a bit of concern over making the error, but now there's huge concern over not backing away from the results now that it has been pointed out," says Ayres.

In May, Lott told the Chronicle of Higher Education that the claim of coding errors had not been reviewed by a third party. Now, though, he admits the errors but calls them "minor" and claims they don't appreciably affect the results of the Plassmann-Whitley paper (which is, of course, really his own). "I knew he was going to say that," says Donohue when informed of Lott's response.

To get to the bottom of the dispute -- which goes to the heart of the continuing validity of "More Guns, Less Crime" -- Donohue and Ayres responded to Plassmann-Whitley by contrasting two key tables, one that uses their (read: Lott's) data and one that corrects the coding errors. The first table, using miscoded data, shows statistically significant decreases in murders, rape, and robbery. The second, using corrected data, shows statistically insignificant decreases in murder, rape, and robbery, along with statistically significant rises in property crimes, auto theft, and larceny, which Plassmann and Whitely had also noted in their paper.

In the face of this evidence, how can Lott continue to claim the coding errors don't matter? In an interview conducted on August 18 (transcript), Lott told me that he had posted "corrected" tables on his website for all to see. But when I downloaded Lott's "corrected" version of the contested table, it showed the same numerical values as that of Donohue and Ayres -- that is, the coding errors were gone -- but bizarrely claimed the properly coded data still indicated statistically significant drops in murder, rape, and robbery. That's because Lott had introduced a new twist: Rather than simply fixing the incorrectly coded data, he omitted a key calculation regarding statistical significance used in the Plassmann-Whitley paper. (For statistics geeks, it's called "clustering at the state level.") Faced with no other way to save his thesis, you could say that Lott changed the rules -- rules his own team had laid down -- in the middle of the game.

Confronted with this, Lott's subsequent actions raise even more questions. On the website, Lott claimed the "corrected" table used "clustering," when it did not. In a heated interview on August 19 (transcript), Lott said this labeling claim must be an error. But the very next day, he e-mailed a file containing precisely the same table, claiming that all the tables on his website were "clearly and properly labeled."

On September 2, Lott changed his story yet again, emailing me that "the file should now be returned to what had been up there before." But when I downloaded the new file, the key table had been altered to remove the questionable clustering assertion, but had inexplicably reverted to the incorrectly coded Plassmann-Whitley findings that Donohue and Ayres had long since debunked, and Lott himself had admitted to me were incorrectly coded. And despite all these changes, as of October 13, Lott's website still labels the table as last being corrected "April 18, 2003."

This stuff can be very technical and hard to follow -- one reason, it seems, why Lott has gotten away with it for so long. Kudos to Mooney for explaining everything so accessibly (and to Mother Jones for recognizing what an important story this is).

If you're not convinced, and have some time on your hands, read the transcripts of Mooney's interviews with Lott (here) and (here). They do not reflect well on Lott. Mooney discusses the transcripts and article here, on his own blog.

Mooney also reports that the National Academy of Sciences will be reviewing Lott's work for a report due this fall. If the NAS finds Lott guilty of shoddy scholarship, AEI will be faced with an interesting test of its own institutional integrity.

--Nick Confessore

Posted at 04:05 PM
PUT UP YER DUKES. Can we all now agree that Bill O'Reilly is the most thin-skinned, hypocritical man on television -- the perfect example of a guy who can dish it out (at least when he controls the mute button) but can't take it? Here's a Philadelphia Inquirer story in which O'Reilly explains why he felt compelled to stomp out in the middle of his Fresh Air interview last week:
"I put myself through the ordeal to get definitive proof of what NPR is," said the conservative-leaning populist. "I don't have any problem with NPR or Terry Gross. I do have a problem with [tax dollars] paying for propaganda.

"Ordeal"? No offense to NPR, but cutting short an interview with Terry Gross is like backing down from a fistfight with Urkel. The article continues:

"The far left has a jihad against Fox News Channel, and I'm pretty much the standard-bearer," O'Reilly said. "They don't like the fact that I'm powerful and that I speak my mind."

Well, if by "speak my mind," O'Reilly means "run away like a sissy when the questions get tough," then yes, he does speak his mind. Maybe it's time for O'Reilly to retire the tough-guy act.

--Nick Confessore

Posted at 03:52 PM
OVER OUR HEADS. The Washington Post's estimable Dana Milbank reports on the Bush administration's strategy for dealing with criticism of our occupation of Iraq:
The Bush administration, displeased with the news coverage of the war in Iraq, has accelerated efforts to bypass the national media by telling the administration's story directly to the American public.

Yesterday, Bush granted exclusive interviews to five regional broadcasting companies -- an unprecedented effort to reach news organizations that do not regularly cover the White House.

The effort by Bush to reach out to about 10 million Americans through the regional broadcasters -- Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer had similar sessions previously -- came two days after it emerged that soldiers in Iraq have sent form letters home to local newspapers asserting that the U.S. troops had been welcomed "with open arms" in Iraq.

Identical letters to the editor from different soldiers with the 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Infantry Regiment appeared in 11 newspapers across the country, Gannett News Service reported on Saturday. The news service reached six soldiers who said they agreed with the letter but had not written it, one who had not signed the letter, and one who didn't even know about the letter.

Lt. Col. Cindy Scott-Johnson, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said that the form letter was similar to the "hometown news release program" and that the Pentagon had raised no objection "that I know of" to the letter, apparently written by 2nd Battalion staff and distributed to soldiers.

The form letter from the troops, like the Bush interviews with local media outlets, stems from a frustration with the national media and a desire to circumvent what the administration views as unfairly negative coverage of the Iraq conflict.

Here's a good Los Angeles Times article on the Army letters, which appear to have been the work of an overzealous battalion public affairs officer. For what it's worth, I don't think the letters and the White House bypass of the national media were coordinated -- the Army, for all its friction with the Secretary of Defense, is very sensitive when it feels events on the ground are being reported in a way that seems to reflect badly on its troops; and the Bush administration, dominated by conservatives, firmly believes that the national media are its enemy. Both have their own reasons for what columnist Jim Pinkerton describes, in a very good column, as "manufacturing news of victories and triumphs" a la 1984's Ministry of Truth. But I'll note that this isn't the first time Bush has used such tactics: During the 2000 campaign, Karen Hughes likewise made a practice of granting reporters and key regional and even local papers face-to-face interviews with Bush; the resulting articles tended to be very uncritical and, thanks to the access granted, usually front page-news. National reporters were stiff-armed and herded along, which most accepted, thus inspiring the Bush folks to continue the practice long after they were in office.

The thing is . . . it worked. Al Gore perpetually tried to please the national media and satiate their demand for new information and responses to charges lobbed by the other side; as a result, his campaign was overly reactive, and his message discipline suffered. Bush largely ignored the national press, brushing off demands for more detailed policy proposals and explanations for apparent inconsistencies. And while it's not really in my interest as a journalist to say so, I think the Democrats running for the White House would be smart to do the same (especially Wesley Clark, who, in trying to make campaign reporters correctly describe his position on the war, gave the appearance of wobbling).

Nevertheless, there's an excellent point made in the Milbank piece, although it comes all the way at the end, about the media:

Martha Kumar, a Towson University professor who has studied White House relations with the media, said reaching out to regional media "can give you a temporary lift." But, she added, "I don't know in the long run what it really buys you. The president's problems now are policy problems, not communications problems."
This is precisely the problem -- a consequence of conservatives' overreliance on the intellectual crutch of "media bias." Like congressional Democrats who believe their main problem is "getting their message out" (rather than lack of a coherent and inspiring vision) the Bush administration seems to believe that everything's fine on the inside -- it just needs to overcome the liberal media. Everything is not fine on the inside. Bush's problems in Iraq do indeed stem from ill-advised policies and obstinance. And as Ron Suskind made clear in his Esquire article of last year, this administration is spectacularly ill-equipped to solve them.

--Nick Confessore

Posted at 02:56 PM
CLARK JUMPS ON SERVICE. Wesley Clark looks ready to tackle national service, according to CNN:
Today, Clark will announce his plan to establish a "Civilian Reserve," comprising everyday Americans using their "unique skills" to tackle an assortment of community-based problems -- from specific tasks like repairing a crumbling school or a neighbor's tornado-ravaged home to broad, less tangible goals such as "securing the homeland."

The Civilian Reserve would work with -- but not replace -- the nation's armed forces in dealing with any number of local emergencies. The campaign did not release any more details on today's proposal, except to say that it would use technology to help identify and mobilize people so that their skills are applied most effectively.

This community-service component of the general's platform was honed in large part by Clark's campaign chairman Eli Segal, who in a past life founded and headed President Clinton's AmeriCorps.

We'll have to wait and see how this pans out, but it strikes me as good policy and good politics. It's good policy in the sense that encouraging more service, and finding ways to channel it in productive directions, is the kind of thing we need more of. It's good politics for several reasons. One is that national service is the kind of "high-centrist" stuff that pundits love to praise. Two is that it's the kind of thing you don't want to really be against, and making himself a champion of national service -- which fits nicely with his biography and message -- gives Clark a chance to whack President Bush for one of this administration's more notorious failed promises. You'll remember that back during his widely praised State of the Union speech in 2002, Bush promised to boost AmeriCorps by 50 percent. Instead, as the Democratic Leadership Council's Will Marshall and Marc Magee pointed out in this Christian Science Monitor op-ed, Bush installed incompetent leadership, who mismanaged the outfit to the point where House Republicans could claim AmericCorps was too troubled to deserve increased funding. Here's how it went down, according to Marshall and Magee:

First, under pressure to reduce costs in their first budget, the Bush administration did not ask Congress for any money to replenish the AmeriCorps trust fund, which pays education awards to volunteers.

Second, after the president publicly pledged to increase the number of AmeriCorps members by 50 percent, Bush's political appointees compounded the problem by accelerating the pace of recruitment to meet his goal a year ahead of schedule.

In November 2002, the CNCS ran out of money and was forced to declare a recruiting freeze. With the White House silent on how to fix the problem, congressional Republicans papered over the emerging deficit by shifting funds from AmeriCorps's grants program to its trust fund. The result was a 30 percent cut in AmeriCorps' operating budget.

It would be ironic if President Bush's promise to expand AmeriCorps was undone by the missteps and mismanagement of his own administration. But if he fails to speak out for emergency funds when Congress returns this fall, he will have no one to blame but himself.

Bush is vulnerable on this issue, and Clark is smart to take it on.

--Nick Confessore

Posted at 11:51 AM
AH, CIVILITY. It seems like only yesterday that conservatives were lecturing us on the importance of civil discourse and lamenting the fact that Bush-hatred has gotten out of control. Now, however, Rich Lowry has a new book out and civility is nowhere in sight:
At least that would be Bill and Hillary's advice. In LEGACY: PAYING THE PRICE FOR THE CLINTON YEARS, I take a scalpel (and occasionally a sledgehammer) to their claims of political and policy mastery in the 1990s, on everything from the economy, to welfare reform, to crime, to health care. I defend Ken Starr and impeachment, and excoriate the Clinton foreign-policy record, which makes Neville Chamberlain look clear-eyed and strong willed in comparison. Sidney Blumenthal and Hillary Clinton have piled massive amounts of manure around the Clinton record. Legacy is your way of digging out. (End of sales pitch.)
Maybe Lowry can explain how that manure metaphor is supposed to work. The Clinton record was good, but Blumenthal and Hillary made it look bad by covering it in manure and Lowry's going to help us see the light? How is a sledgehammer (or a scalpel) supposed to help me dig? Either way our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity is finally over, and we have George W. Bush to thank for it.

--Matthew Yglesias

Posted at 11:10 AM
NO LUNCH FOR YOU. While this week is probably better known for containing Columbus Day, I would be remiss if I failed to note that this is also Marriage Protection Week, as duly proclaimed by the President of the United States. It's tempting to simply poke fun, but it's actually pretty impressive how the president managed to squeeze a little signal to the social right ("Marriage is a union between a man and a woman") and a plug for tax cuts ("My tax relief package eliminated the marriage penalty") into such a brief statement.

Nevertheless, it will be a real shame if Americans are so busy taking the "opportunity to focus our efforts on preserving the sanctity of marriage" that we forget that this is also National School Lunch Week. In this regard it's worth noting that the Bush administration's main achievement on the school lunch front has been to make it harder for poor kids to get food. Just one more small example of the compassion agenda in action.

--Matthew Yglesias

Posted at 11:02 AM
October 11, 2003
COLUMBUS DAY. TAP Online and Tapped will not publish on Monday, Oct. 13. We will return on Tuesday, Oct. 14.
Posted at 09:46 AM
AROUND THE BLOGS. Allen Brill responds to George Lakoff's recent Prospect cover story here. Kevin Drum has a good series of posts (here and here) elucidating just how radical the modern GOP, and in particular the Texas elements that make up its vanguard, has become. Jesse at Pandagon patiently explains to Charles Johnson why the Dean campaign's practice of hiring bloggers is not, in fact, a "pyramid scheme." Nathan Newman explains how unions create Democrats (which will come as no surprise to the right). And Chris Mooney continues his excellent series of posts on the uses of congressional technology assessment here.

--Nick Confessore

Posted at 09:45 AM
October 10, 2003
A LITTLE BRAGGING. Yesterday, TAP Online learned that it had received its first-ever nomination for an Online Journalism Award. The honoree is our longtime culture columnist Noy Thrupkaew, who is a finalist for the award in the commentary division. The winner will be announced on Nov. 15 at the Online New Association's annual conference, but just by becoming a finalist, Noy has joined some pretty impressive journalistic company. Here are the five columns that earned Noy the nomination. All of us here at the Prospect couldn't be happier for her.

--Richard Just

Posted at 05:12 PM
CIVILITY IN POLITICS. In this column, Paul Krugman wonders, er, who is David Brooks kidding?
[A]ngry liberals can take some lessons in civility from today's right.

Consider, for example, Fox News's genteel response to Christiane Amanpour, the CNN correspondent. Ms. Amanpour recently expressed some regret over CNN's prewar reporting: "Perhaps, to a certain extent, my station was intimidated by the administration and its foot soldiers at Fox News." A Fox spokeswoman replied, "It's better to be viewed as a foot soldier for Bush than as a spokeswoman for Al Qaeda."

And liberal pundits who may be tempted to cast personal aspersions can take lessons in courtesy from conservatives like Charles Krauthammer, who last December reminded TV viewers of his previous career as a psychiatrist, then said of Al Gore, "He could use a little help."

What's really important, of course, is that political figures stick to the issues, like the Bush adviser who told The New York Times that the problem with Senator John Kerry is that "he looks French."

Some say that the right, having engaged in name-calling and smear tactics when Bill Clinton was president, now wants to change the rules so such behavior is no longer allowed. In fact, the right is still calling names and smearing; it wants to prohibit rude behavior only by liberals.

But there's more going on than a simple attempt to impose a double standard. All this fuss about the rudeness of the Bush administration's critics is an attempt to preclude serious discussion of that administration's policies. For there is no way to be both honest and polite about what has happened in these past three years.

There's a lamentable tendency on both sides of the aisle to psychologize the opposition; I've probably been guilty of it myself on occasion. (On the other hand, I think it's only among Republicans that this has become a kind of standard operating procedure when attacking presidential candidates, all of whom -- except for Bush -- are apparently pathological liars.) But there's simply no equivalent on the left for the kind of bile spewing daily out of allegedly responsible conservative television and radio shows. I can't think of a time when, say, Jim Hightower compared President Bush to the devil or made fun of his daughters for being ugly. We could all stand to be a little more civil. But it's certainly a little rich to get such lectures from conservatives, even genteel ones like Brooks.

--Nick Confessore

Posted at 04:27 PM
REHABILITATING RUSH. It's tempting to take advantage of the news that Rush Limbaugh will be entering rehab to obtain treatment for his OxyContin addiction to kick a man I dislike while he's down. Honestly, though, Rush deserves our sympathy and I hope he's able to kick the habit. Still, it's worth noting that many Americans are not lucky enough to have the opportunity of dealing with their drug problems in this way. Instead of treatment, tens of thousands of people -- mostly poor people and minorities -- are thrown in jail thanks to their drug addictions.

I take it that as Rush was discussing this situation with friends, family and colleagues no one ever suggested that he ought to check himself into his local prison because, as everyone knows, the best way to deal with this problem is to get treatment, not do hard time. Maybe someday the criminal justice system will recognize what's obvious to everyone else. Atrios also notes some hypocrisy from Rush on this score, so let's hope he comes out of this with a changed perspective.

--Matthew Yglesias

Posted at 04:15 PM
RIGHT-WING RELATIVISM. Two Tim Graham posts on The Corner today making allegations of media bias illustrate the growing embrace of absurd relativism in conservative circles. First regarding last night's Frontline documentary:
Alessandra Stanley of the Times grasped the point: PBS "does not provide new information so much as it richly illustrates the case against the Bush administration -- a prosecution brief enhanced with charts, photographs, and a thick leather binder." In short, the taxpayer dollars of the Bush half of the electorate are being transferred to make the campaign arguments of the Gore half.
Well, are the facts being presented true? If they are, then what exactly is PBS supposed to do, throw in some false pro-Bush claims in order to make the report more balanced? When the press reports on an issue, it ought to be searching for the truth in an unbiased manner; if the truth is inconvenient for one side or another in a political debate, the press can't be held responsible for the fact that one side of the debate consists of liars. Then over here (you've got to scroll down a bit) Graham's upset about something he saw on the Today show:
Lester Holt to William Donohue this morning on Today: "Promiscuity happens around the world, so who's putting more people in danger right now: the Catholic Church's advice not to use condoms that they don't protect, or the World Health Organization that says use them, they're at least 90 percent effective?"
But look, condoms are 90 percent effective. The World Health Organization is right, the Catholic Church is wrong, and the Vatican is putting more people in danger right now. The media already seem to take the Graham-approved relativist approach when it comes to economic questions -- "Person A says so and so, but person B says he's wrong," without any effort to figure out who's right -- and it's created a large and systemic bias in the press in favor people advancing bogus economic policies.

Extending the "he said, she said" model, fetishizing balance above accuracy, would do incredible damage to the public's understanding of other issues. If conservatives don't want to get called out by the press for saying things that aren't true, they should stop saying things that aren't true.

--Matthew Yglesias

Posted at 03:07 PM
GREENS GET REAL. One of the un-noted anomalies of the recall is that third-party and independent candidates got unprecedented publicity and legitimacy, and then bombed at the polls. Arianna Huffington and Green Party candidate Peter Camejo (whom Prospect readers of a certain vintage might recall as the Socialist Workers Party presidential candidate of 1976) participated in all the major debates. Camejo, in particular, performed admirably, occasionally straying into arcana, but for the most part highlighting the state's underinvestment in the public sector and the less than progressive nature of most state tax systems.

A Green Party dream, right? Not exactly. In November of last year, when Camejo couldn't get on camera to save his life, he won 5 percent of the vote. In the recall, he won 3 percent. Where did his vote go? In the Los Angeles Times exit poll, a plurality of the voters who said they'd voted for Camejo last year -- 44 percent -- owned up to backing Democratic Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante when they cast their votes this time out.

The reasons for this defection from within the ranks aren't hard to discern. Last November, Gray Davis was expected to dispatch Republican Bill Simon handily, and Greens and other lefties felt free to go with Camejo. This time out, the specter of Arnold loomed over the state, and so Greens joined most other liberals in voting against the recall and for the hapless Bustamante. Camejo himself almost encouraged this deviation, saying on numerous occasions along the campaign trail that he understood if his supporters felt compelled to vote for Bustamante.

Dare we say it? That after three years of the Bush presidency, a wave of principled pragmatism is detectable among the Greens? That Naderian identity politics is no longer the dominant strain? We can only hope.

--Harold Meyerson

Posted at 02:45 PM
CUBA CONUNDRUM. For both parties, there are electorally pivotal groups that must be pandered to no matter how bad the resulting policy is. For Democrats, I think, the worst pandering takes place in Iowa, over ethanol subsidies, which at this point has reached the level of an inside joke -- Democratic presidential candidates know the subsidies are bad policy, Iowans know they have the candidates by the short hairs, and everyone just plays along with a wink and a nod.

For Republicans, or at least those hoping to be re-elected to the White House, the group in question is Cuban-Americans, whose support and turnout is pivotal to GOP success in Florida. The embargo is a stupid policy. It has done nothing to put pressure on Fidel Castro to allow democratization. It is opposed by many right-thinking conservative intellectuals and almost the entire business community. It is absurdly hypocritical. (What, no China embargo?) Yet the embargo lives on because a well-funded lobby of diehard Cuban exiles in South Florida wants it to. And this morning, apparently after being shaken down by same, President Bush has announced that he is going to try to stiffen the embargo. Some of the stuff covered in The Associated Press article is hard to quibble with, like cracking down on trafficking in women (although that's hardly a problem confined to Cuba). But parts of the president's speech that I watched on television this morning -- a transcript isn't yet available -- discussed ordering homeland security chief Tom Ridge to start putting more effort into cracking down on people who misuse the Cuba travel waivers to conduct business or pleasure trips or to bring hard currency into the country. And while we should certainly be enforcing our laws, it's hard to justify making this one of Ridge's priorities. Shouldn't we keep the guy focused on, you know, keeping terrorists out of the country?

--Nick Confessore

Posted at 12:47 PM
NADER IDENTITY POLITICS. Just in case you harbored the slightest notion that Ralph Nader thinks that the splinter candidate route can ever be wrong, think again. It may have gotten lost in the lead up to the California recall, but on Oct. 1, Nader wrote an op-ed article in the Los Angeles Times excoriating Arianna Huffington for dropping out of the race. And Nader was only warming up: He also cast a cold eye on such Republicans as Darrell Issa and Peter Ueberroth for deferring to Arnold Schwarzenegger, and then blasted Republican conservatives for selling out their principles by not sticking with Tom McClintock.

"It's not because Schwarzenegger is vanquishing McClintock on the merits," Nader lamented. Candidates were dropping and longtime ideologues were trimming their sails, Nader wrote, all offering the same excuse: "The polls made me do it."

"Did they drop out because their opponents shared their views?" Nader asked -- answering his own question with a simple, "No."

In fact, the above-named candidates dropped for a range of reasons, but each of them did believe that the candidate they meant to help -- Schwarzenegger or Gray Davis, depending -- was in fact closer to their views than his main opponent. And that aggregating votes for the candidate to whom they were closer was, in fact, a proper political choice in a winner-take-all electoral system.

Politics is like horseshoes: Closeness does count. But not, apparently, for Nader, who gives a new meaning to identity politics: If you're not identical to me, I'll run against you.

--Harold Meyerson

Posted at 12:30 PM
JOURNALISTS AND ABUSE OF POWER. After praising a terrible Mark Steyn article (debunked by Ted Barlow here), David Frum really gets down to business, mocking the press for caring about abuses of power:
The Wilson story excites journalists because it accuses the Bush administration of abusing its powers for political advantage -- and there is nothing that journalists enjoy more than abuse-of-power stories, at least during Republican administrations. The Wilson story ratifies journalists’ prejudices, and so journalists revel in it.
The notion that the press somehow ignored allegations against Bill Clinton is so absurd that one hardly knows what to say (I seem to recall having heard something about someone named "Monica"), so I'll ignore it. Frum came to journalism after being forced out of the White House (ironically enough, for leaking) so maybe he really doesn't understand why journalists think this kind of thing is important. Normally, when a crime is committed the public has reason to believe that the police (or, as appropriate, the FBI) will apprehend the perpetrator. That, after all, is their job and they're trained to do it. But when a crime is committed by a high-level government official, we have reason to believe that the official (or the official's boss) will impede the investigation in order to avoid public embarrassment.

The solution to this kind of thing is democracy -- either public pressure will build on the politician to act, or else the public will throw the bum out. This, however, only works if the public is aware of what's going on. That, in turn, will only happen if the public is made aware of what's going on and that only happens if journalists bring things to the public's attention. The Plame affair is a case in point. The Bush administration seemed to have zero interest in pursuing the investigation until the story suddently reappeared on the front page of The Washington Post.

--Matthew Yglesias

Posted at 12:14 PM
NATURAL DISASTER. It now appears that Republican squabbling may postpone the energy bill until early next year. At TAP Online, Prospect contributing editor Merrill Goozner explains why it would be better if it were postponed forever.

--Richard Just

Posted at 10:36 AM