Saturday, January 31, 2004

The Hinge of History
Voices are beginning to surface suggesting that John Kerry's Vietnam record is not considered particularly heroic by all of his fellow veterans. In the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Terry Garlock lumps Kerry's anti-war activities after coming home with Jane Fonda's. There's even an organization called "Vietnam Veterans Against John Kerry," which is supposed to have a website, although I can't access it today. Rest assured that such veterans will be prominently featured in Bush's reelection campaign if Kerry is the nominee.

Jack Beatty of Atlantic Monthly went to a Kerry appearance recently and says: "Listening to him, I saw a long line of Democratic bores--Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Bradley, Gore--who lost because people could not bear listening to them. John Kerry belongs in their dreary company." Beatty contrasts the long-winded "Senatitis" of Kerry with John Edwards' vitality. If, as a friend of mine reminds me, voters want a president who has the sun in his face, Edwards' optimism tops Kerry's record every time.

Recommended reading: Lots of it. First, wars over ideology are a fairly recent human invention. Until about 300 years ago, wars over resources were the norm--one political entity had something that another wanted, so the latter went and got it. Could global warming cause us to return to those bad old days? Even the Pentagon is thinking about it, as David Stipp writes in Fortune magazine. While we often think that the environmental effects of global warming will take place gradually over two or three generations, Stipp says signs are pointing to the likelihood of a more sudden collapse that might require only 10 years to go from bad to worse. The Defense Department has even sketched out a possible scenario for what might happen after a sudden environmental collapse. If they're even close to being right, we'd be nostalgic for the days when we were only worried about terrorists under the bed.

Next, is Dick Cheney on his way out? Journalist Jim Lobe adds up the evidence from Cheney's recent spate of interviews and says "Maybe." Reports are that some of Daddy Bush's old hands, such as Brent Scowcroft and James Baker, find Cheney too radical for their taste. Even if he heads to a quiet retirement in Wyoming next January, Cheney will still sit at the very hinge of any history written about our historical moment, if anybody is around years from now to write about it.

And finally, after three months of daily reading, I remain utterly in awe of the Progress Report from the Center for American Progress. For example, last Wednesday's edition was an absolute goldmine. (Forward it to a friend who thinks Bush is OK.) There's evidence that the Report is starting to have an effect on the admininstration--earlier this week the Report asked readers to submit possible questions for an online chat about health care that the White House was hosting on its website--but the chat was mysteriously canceled. No wonder, what with the stench of the overpriced Medicare bill and the spectacle of the bill's primary author auctioning his services to lobbying firms threatening to detract from softball questions about anti-smoking programs.

More Guacamole, Dammit
I do not have a rooting interest in the Super Bowl tomorrow. Even when the Packers aren't playing, I have occasionally rooted, but generally in the negative--against teams like the St. Louis Rams or Dallas Cowboys. This year, I don't particularly care whether New England or Carolina wins it (although if I had to make a prediction, I would take the Patriots, and by something like 24-17). Of course, I will be watching the game--because it's the law. Isn't it?

The Super Bowl is unusual in that we celebrate it by standing outside of ourselves to observe ourselves celebrating. Nearly every pop-culture commentator finds it hard to take the whole thing seriously--and then writes a story about how hard it is to take the whole thing seriously. We all talk about the trivia involved in watching the game, like how many tons of guacamole will be eaten nationwide. We react to the commercials, and then read news stories about how people reacted to the commercials. (The new NFL Network on cable will repeat all of the in-game commercials following the game, in case anybody wants to see them again.) We know that the hoopla surrounding the game is mostly ludicrous, but we can't help ourselves.

Well, me neither. Here's my list of Super Bowl observations--four of them, one for each quarter of the game:

1. Super Sunday is the least-interesting weekend of the NFL playoffs--the three previous playoff weekends are much more compelling every single year. It certainly was true this year, with Green Bay's overtime win over Seattle and the titanic slugfest between Tennessee and Baltimore on the first weekend and the Packers/Eagles and Rams/Panthers classics on the second. Once we're down to two teams, available storylines are magnified by the fact that they're the only storylines there are to work with. Magnified, yes. More interesting, no.

2. There is utterly no need to watch the Super Bowl pregame show. Every year, the pregame shows have too little football for the serious fan and too much football for the casual fan. This year's pregame show will feature a tribute to NASA, since the game is in Houston and the Columbia disaster was a year ago tomorrow. Such tributes are always a dicey proposition--sometimes they work, like U2's spectacular 9/11 tribute two years ago, but more often, they're clunky and maudlin. Bottom line: Anybody who can afford to watch the entire pregame show (four hours' worth this year) has entirely too much time on their hands. Even when Green Bay was in the big game in 1997 and 1998, we didn't turn the game on until about an hour before kickoff.

3. When you're hip, you don't have to call attention to yourself--you just are, and everybody can tell. The Super Bowl halftime show does everything but put up a graphic on-screen that says, "Hipness now taking place." This year's headliners, Janet Jackson and P. Diddy, are just far enough removed from their cultural peaks to seem vaguely uncool. The ubiquitous Kid Rock and Nelly are also on the bill, as well as a "secret performer." Since MTV is producing the show, the secret performer will likely be somebody people over the age of 22 have never heard of.

4. The game is on CBS, which means that once it begins, the focus of the broadcast will be largely on football--which is a good thing. Greg Gumbel and Phil Simms are the most watchable of the major play-by-play teams, lacking the bombastic befuddlement of John Madden (who should think about retiring) on ABC or the self-referential archness of Joe Buck and company on Fox. Because the game is not on ABC, we won't be subjected to crossovers from ESPN's crew, either. ESPN's NFL shows were once must viewing for the serious fan--now they're almost completely unwatchable, riddled with ex-jocks who have no business near a TV studio generating far more heat than light. This year at the Super Bowl, ESPN has allowed fans to watch while the analysts tape their bits for Sportscenter, thus adding a chorus of drunken hooting to the on-set bickering.

All that said, however, professional football remains my favorite sport, warts and all. It's true even though the NFL is the most uptight and corporate of all pro leagues, and even though football is, as George Will once termed it, "violence interrupted by committee meetings." The rituals of game day, the power and speed of football, the passion it incites, and its links to history, both the history of the game and the personal histories of each fan watching, are unmatched by any other sport. Indeed, the worst thing about the Super Bowl is that it's the last game until next August, when the season begins anew.

Friday, January 30, 2004

Dittoheads in Dixie
Leave it to me to be a week late. I was in Iowa this past Tuesday night and Wednesday for the results and aftermath of the New Hampshire primary. Here are a few quick impressions of the race at the moment.

Howard Dean has to win somewhere on Tuesday, period. That Dean is considered to be on the ropes is not fair, of course--he still leads the official delegate count even after New Hampshire--but that's the way the game is played. The problem for Dean is that he's blown through his $46 million dollar war chest and is off the air in the seven states up for grabs next week. Plus, he's still being victimized by negative PR masquerading as journalism. I nearly choked on my Cheerios yesterday reading a front-page story in USA Today about his replacement of campaign manager Joe Trippi with former Gore chief of staff Roy Neel. Reporter Jill Lawrence felt compelled to observe, "Neel epitomizes the type of Washington insider Dean rails against in every speech," a double-action slam painting Dean as dishonest and, by using the verb "rail," irrationally angry. That sentence simply doesn't belong in a news story, and would get red-penciled in any Journalism 101 course in the country. Kerry will receive his own share of cheap shots from reporters like Lawrence in due time, of course--but probably not soon enough to stop him from getting the nomination.

The rush to Kerry's bandwagon has been breathtaking, and I suspect it's not so much because of message or personality. On Daily Kos, Chris Bowers summarizes the impact of media attention on candidate polling--Dean rose when he was getting all the attention last summer; Clark rose when he got all the attention upon entering the race; Kerry has risen since Iowa. Bowers concludes, "Democrats are dittoheads." We want to win in November, and Democrats are rushing to the guy who they think is most likely to do it. But the polling on electability that I've seen so far--that Democrats think Kerry is the most electable of the candidates by a margin of about three to one--is just weird. The Bush gang doesn't seem too intimidated by him--they have already transferred some of the same rhetoric they were using against Dean to Kerry, and the Soundbite of Death is already out there: "Kerry's voting record is more liberal than Ted Kennedy's." And at the risk of belaboring a point, I say again--Kerry's war heroism will not make him immune to accusations of being soft on evil. Max Cleland lost three limbs in Vietnam, but was portrayed as a friend of Osama in his 2002 Senate reelection bid and was beaten by a chickenhawk who didn't serve.

And then there's geography, which has been a fact of electoral life (or, more precisely, death) for Democratic presidential candidates for over 40 years. Although John Edwards is touting his electability in South Carolina, the real news from SC will be how Kerry does. Kerry is vowing to fight for votes in the South, but take note--John Kerry is just as unelectable in the South as Howard Dean would be. The only thing that would be different for Kerry is that a few people would find him more palatable than Dean because of his military service--but not nearly enough to swing even one state. Kerry once suggested a Democrat could win without taking a single Southern state--Al Gore nearly did last time. Kerry's pledge to campaign there in the fall smacks of pandering to the primary voters. The Democrats should just write off the South and concentrate on regions they have a chance to win. If that's anti-Southern bigotry, well, it's no more bigoted than it is for Southerners to dismiss a candidate entirely because he's from north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

But give Kos the last word: "With all the stupid Kerry bashing [from people posting comments on his site], we need to remember the reason we're fighting. Trust me, I find Kerry as uninspiring as the rest, and look forward to a strong anti-Kerry emerging (be it Dean, Clark or Edwards), but Kerry would easily be a million times better than Bush. And it looks like many are losing sight of that."

Yes, but . . . .

Recommended listening: NPR commentator Ayun Hallyday on English as fractured in Korea. I can't fully explain the charm of this piece; you'll just have to listen to it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Reading for the Road
I caught about 15 minutes of John Edwards on C-SPAN last night, and I can see why people are impressed with his style on the stump. He certainly says all the right things a Democrat should say to get elected in normal times--but I got no sense that he has any feeling for the monumental stakes of this election. He's running as if this were just another quadrennial contest, when it's in fact a battle for the soul of the republic. James Ridgeway had more from New Hampshire late yesterday--with John Kerry trying to run out the clock, Howard Dean trying to keep things under control, and Edwards riding a wave of enthusiasm. Also, Tom Schaller analyzes Howard Dean's last stand, and Kos has the poll numbers.

Recommended reading: This fine high-quality news and commentary feature is going on hiatus until Friday of this week, so I'm leaving you with a pile of worthwhile stuff to read.

One of many laugh lines in the State of the Union address was the one touting the No Child Left Behind Act, and how anyone opposed to it must want to undermine standards and accountability. But Virginia, one of the states that enthusiastically embraced the standards and testing movement (with its unfortunately named SOLs--Standards of Learning) long before it became federal law, recently saw its Republican-dominated House of Delegates pass a resolution condemning NCLB. The law is just another example of how the supposed party of states' rights and local control is only interested in states' rights and local control when it advances causes it agrees with. And it's not just in education--in Time magazine, Andrew Sullivan discusses the new "nanny state," a phrase that has generally been deployed in describing lefty social-welfare states. But it's applicable to Bush and Ashcroft's America, too--a place where corporations can do whatever the hell they want, but individual behavior is subject to close government scrutiny and regulation.

Mary Lynn F. Jones has some good news from Capitol Hill--House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is showing some cracks in his armor. Good thing, too. DeLay is a political tyrant who thinks his every action is the will of God, and he's an autocrat with no love for democracy. Much of the stupidity and ugliness displayed by the House Republican majority can be traced to DeLay's leadership. He really is one of the genuine villains in American political history.

And finally: Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was one of the chief architects of the Vietnam War. In 1995, in his book In Retrospect (which I once characterized as the brief he would use before God on Judgment Day), he admitted that he and the U.S. government were tragically wrong about Vietnam, and that he owed it to history to explain why. This month, McNamara gave an interview to the Globe and Mail in Toronto, in which he explored the parallels he sees between Vietnam and Iraq. (Hint: plenty.)

Monday, January 26, 2004

The Heavy Lifting
For all the talk coming out of the White House that tries to characterize our unhappy millennium as the 1940s redux--"the good war," when American motives were selfless and our cause was indisputably just--the parallels end almost as soon as the talking does. Syndicated columnist Cynthia Tucker gets at one of the most significant differences--that the the sacrifices on the battlefields of Iraq are not equally shared among all segments of American society. It's the children of working class whites and minorities who are doing the heavy lifting--and the dying--in Bush's war.

The citizen-soldier ideal, which was never stronger than during World War II and Korea, is still around as a rhetorical concept, but not as a philosophy to be lived. At the time of the Congressional vote on the war in 2002, one member had a child in the service. The number of non-serving chickenhawks in the high councils of the administration has been widely noted. And it's not just the nation's elite. I'm a typical middle-class guy who has friends with adult children, and there are but two people of my acquaintance who are over there, neither one close.

I have to dispute one point Tucker makes, however. She says, "The deaths of more than 500 American soldiers in Iraq have stirred little comment among the chattering classes, whose children are not at risk." I would submit that the "chattering classes whose children are not at risk"--if that means bloggers and other more conventional pundits--are doing more talking about the casualties than the mainstream media are, and certainly more than a lot of privileged Americans seem to be doing. Those of us who oppose the war greet news of each new death with feelings of outrage and pain. Even those who approve of the war should not dare to be cavalier about the losses, or think of them as part of the cost of doing America's business. The least those of us who are safely cocooned in our privilege can do is to try and comprehend the pain of families who don't have to imagine it. Bush has shown no evidence of doing this, beyond sputtering a few lame platitudes. The rest of us can--must--do better.

Now Handling Both Kinds of Cheesecake
If you are of a certain age, you can probably complete the following advertising slogan: "Everybody doesn't like something . . . ." Go ahead, try it. Sing it if you know the tune.

But nobody doesn't like . . . Wonderbra? As if you needed any more evidence that the world is conglomerating past the point that rational people can get their minds around.

Stop Signs
Paul Krugman recently suggested that there are candidates in the Democratic race who understand the stakes in November (Dean and Clark) and those who don't (the rest of them). Art Brodsky echoes the point on TomPaine.com: "In this campaign as perhaps in no other, the papers and talking points are worthless and irrelevant. This election is about the raw exercise of power by the government and the ability of the Democrats to fight it." Can John Kerry, veteran member of the Democratic establishment, or John Edwards, the polite and sunny populist, fight on those terms? When Edwards talks about "two Americas," that's evidence that he has at least as some understanding of the stakes, but in a roundabout way--if two Americas have been built, then somebody in government must be responsible for seeing that they were built and making sure they are protected. But his prescriptions for changing this appear to be on the old-fashioned Democrat level--restrain lobbyists, encourage fairness, increase ecomomic opportunity; in other words, the very position-paper-based solutions Brodsky dismisses. As for Kerry, he's got position papers too, but his campaign seems based at the moment entirely on his perceived war-heroism and vague promises to "fight." If Democrats are counting on that to make him impervious to patriotism-based attack, they'd do best to remember two words: Max Cleland.

Since last summer, I've been saying that what this country needs in 2004 is a real choice between competing futures. But to make an informed choice, you've got to have an intelligent conversation about things you won't live to see. Only Dean and Clark seem serious about doing this. Dean has his "Common Sense for a New Century" and Clark his "100 Year Vision" --both of which go beyond position papers to discuss philosophy, and what kind of country we want this to be after we're gone.

But you gotta wonder if the electorate is ready to talk about the broad future--the long term, what our children and children's children would face--or if we're fixated by nature on the short term, the idea that terrorists might kill us tomorrow, or our taxes might go up next summer. (In my view, the rush to Kerry and Edwards is evidence that the electorate is not ready.) If the short term is our only focus, we'll never have the big conversation we need to have about the long term--and what Bush is all about is the long term, big dreams for dismantling government, installing empire, regulating morality, and unfettering corporations, in big, irrevocable terms. Bush is talking about another American Revolution, one from inside. The prophets of this revolution have been patient in waiting to make it happen, some since the days of Barry Goldwater. If their ideas aren't challenged and defeated with better ideas over the next four or eight years, they can simply wait out the Kerry or Edwards administration and start up again down the road. William F. Buckley once said that it is the responsibility of conservatives to stand athwart history and yell "Stop!" But that's really what Democrats have to do with recent history and what it portends about the long term. So, for all their vaunted electability, Kerry and Edwards, as currently constructed, won't shift the paradigm. And that means they might temporarily slow the country's rightward march to authoritarian corporatism if they were to be elected, but they wouldn't stop it.

Recommended reading: If you can stand one more analysis of the State of the Union address, read the one from James Fallows of Atlantic Monthly. Fallows, a former White House speechwriter and one of the star journalists working today, reprints the entire speech with copious annotations. Fallows found the Iraq portion of the speech more successful rhetorically, and at honestly addressing policy issues. But the domestic portion was less successful--mostly restating slogans and making promises with little talk of how the promises could possibly be fulfilled. Fallows also identifies a third part of the speech--rallying the conservative base, which was filled with coded religious language that resonates with fundies but sounds like platitudes to everybody else. This includes phrases such as "negative influence of the culture," "In grief we have found the grace to go on," "we sense that we live in a time set apart," and "We can trust in that greater power who guides the unfolding of the years." Fallows finds the latter sentence especially effective: "The most secular part of his audience will barely notice this; the most religious part will see him speaking right to them." Indeed, the New York Times did not capitalize the word "His" in the phrase immediately following that sentence: "His purposes are just and true," but the official transcript from the White House did.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

George Carlin, Call Your Office
From the "Of Course They Are, You Idiots" department comes news that links are developing in Iraq between the insurgency and Al Qaeda. If true, this contradicts the popular belief that the war made us safer--it's evidence that the opposite is actually true. (Joe Lieberman, call your office.)

The virtue police are back in town. A bill proposed by a California congressman would prohibit six of Carlin's famous seven words you can't say on television from being said on television. (See if you can spot the one that's left out.) If the bill is passed, next year legislation will be proposed to ban such words as "Democrat," "civil liberties," and "lying bastards who ought to be clapped into Guantanamo."

Recommended reading: David Podvin says that despite his claims of being a figher, John Kerry has been missing in action since the 2000 election, his Vietnam hero status won't help him in the fall (McGovern was a war hero too), and like Bush, he's an elitist who neither understands nor cares about the concerns of the vast majority of Americans, although he can sure talk like he does.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

No Money Is Changing Hands for This Announcement, Honest
Go and read the top six posts on Daily Kos today: Kerry the Frontrunner, the Sawyer/Letterman Effect (and also The Sawyer Interview), Into New Hampshire, One Cent Over the Line, and Is There One Issue That's a Candidate Breaker for You?. This is why mainstream media is afraid of the blogosphere--because it proves that average citizens can analyze what's going on just as well as Washington insiders can. What Kos and other bloggers on my links list provide runs rings around anything you'll get from a newspaper or cable channel. The bar is going up for being an informed citizen--if you're not on the web, you can't know half of what you need to know.

Friday, January 23, 2004

Captain Kangaroo Is Dead and Dick Cheney Don't Feel So Good Either
Channel surfing at midday, I was stopped on Fox News when a reporter came on to announce that American WMD hunter David Kay resigned and said he'd found no weapons in Iraq because there aren't any. I half-expected the network to blow apart from cognitive dissonance, like that episode of Star Trek where Captain Kirk convinces an all-powerful computer that it has to shut itself down because it has violated its own reason for being. Kay's announcement doesn't fit the Fox script at all, especially since Dick Cheney told a reporter just this week that he still believes WMDs will be found hidden in Iraq, and whatever the administration believes is what Fox believes. As of this post, more than three hours have gone by, so my guess is that the network will have found a way to discredit Kay by now and thus keep the propaganda ship upright.

Cheney has crossed the line into drooling gooberhood lately--not even Bush believes in WMDs as fervently as Cheney does, if the spectacularly convoluted "weapons-of-mass-destruction-related-program activities" from the State of the Union is any indication. Cheney recently repeated the claim of a Saddam-Al Qaeda link, citing a report that the administration itself discredited when it first appeared. But even if he's showing signs of senility, he's almost certainly on the ticket to stay. If he was replaced (by Ashcroft? Bill Frist? Rick Santorum?) for 2004, that person would become the automatic Repug heir apparent for 2008, and the Bush family wants to keep the chair warm for Jeb. So Cheney will stick, even if they have to hook him up to a car battery and crank him every morning.

Moment of Silence: The boomers lost another childhood friend today--Bob Keeshan, better known as kid-show host Captain Kangaroo, died at age 76. I was surprised he wasn't older--or maybe how young he was when he was hanging out in the Treasure House with Mr. Moose, Bunny Rabbit, and Mr. Green Jeans (who was not, as the oft-repeated legend has it, Frank Zappa's father). As slow-paced and relentlessly un-hip as anything ever on TV, Captain Kangaroo was a regular part of my life on summer mornings and weekdays with no school (at our house, we never watched TV on school mornings back in the day). So tell a knock-knock joke in the Captain's memory, and watch the sky for ping-pong balls.

Roll Over and Be Nice
The Wisconsin legislature hammered another nail in the coffin containing our image as the progressive state last night, as the State Senate voted to override Governor Jim Doyle's veto of a concealed-carry bill. Five Democrats crossed over to vote with the Repug majority. Next up, the Assembly, also controlled by the Repugs--they'll have to find seven Democrats to reach the magic number of 66 for the first veto override here in 17 years. Adding just the right touch of noxious piety to the debate, State Senator Dave Zien says he hoped "God-fearing people would get down on their knees and pray" for the override. He can't imagine why anybody would be against it, although 65 of the state's 72 county sheriffs have said they won't handle the permit paperwork.

Although Governor Doyle earned some progressive props for having vetoed the concealed-carry bill in the first place, we'll take some away for signing something the Repugs insisted on calling the Jobs Creation Act of 2003, which streamlines the permit process for industrial projects affecting air and water quality. The Sierra Club fears the bill will weaken environmental protection--and nobody in the legislature can point to a single job that's likely to be created by the bill, except to suggest lamely that companies might build new plants faster if they could. The bill is mostly symbolic, as its very name proves. It's something for Repug senators and assembly reps to run on come November.

Doyle's been in office a year, and in that time, he's been schizophrenic--sticking to core Democratic principles one day and rolling over to the Republicans the next by making "compromises" that give the Repugs most of what they want and little of what Democrats want. Doyle doesn't seem especially willing to spend political capital to fight on principle. To me, he doesn't seem to have much of a taste for fighting at all.

The presidential fight has moved to New Hampshire, where the polling news gets worse for Howard Dean hour by hour as John Kerry increases his lead. Dean did damage control yesterday, appearing with his wife on ABC and doing the Top Ten List on the Letterman show. But he's not the only one going down up there. Clark and Edwards are dropping a bit too. Nevertheless, Tom Schaller, who's graded last night's debate for Daily Kos, says "Watch out for Edwards." Joe Lieberman, who's staked his entire campaign on New Hampshire, is steady at six percent in the polls. Last night, Lieberman maintained yet again that the United States is safer with Saddam Hussein in custody, but also that Bush has failed in handling the Iraq war. Given the intellectual contortions one has to go through to believe both of those statements at the same time, it's a wonder Lieberman's head doesn't just screw itself off his body.

Recommended reading: advice columnist Dan Savage, explaining why he can't marry his partner of nine years: "Allowing me to marry my boyfriend would imperil lasting, stable heterosexual marriages, like the one Britney Spears enjoyed for 55 hours earlier this month." And also: "Gay people can get married in Canada, in spite of the damage gay marriage does to lasting, stable heterosexual unions. Canadian pop star Celine Dion, to take one example, recently had to flee the country of her birth and take up residence in Las Vegas to save her marriage from marauding gay married couples in Toronto, Calgary, Halifax, and Vancouver." Yep. The only people marauding in the streets if gay marriage were legal would be Republican homophobes.

And finally, I've got a new piece up on the Secular Web, about the usefulness of religion in achieving true peace and justice. Even though I've been published there before, it remains an honor to be in the company of the Internet Infidels.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Keep On Smilin'
James Ridgeway of the Village Voice has two reports from New Hampshire--first, on John Kerry, who represents for Ridgeway the triumph of triangulating Democratic losers who don't want to rock the boat, and not, as he has continuously suggested since Monday, a fighter: "He voted for welfare reform. He voted agaist teacher tenure. He has suggested that the concept of affirmative action needs change. . . . Now he is painting himself as a ruthless critic of the special interests. Actually, the senator has always been pretty much in the background in Washington: He's not known for doing much of anything, and he's hardly a staunch foe of special interests." In addition, Ridgeway suggests that while Dean is catching media hell for losing it on Monday night, Wesley Clark has been flaky--and even angry--but nobody is noticing. Meanwhile, John Edwards keeps on smilin'. (On Tuesday, Ridgeway reported that Edwards' health care position is no different from the one Bush and the Republicans have been pushing--a national system similar to the private-insurance system offered to all federal workers. The same report examined how Dean has become the victim of the same sort of media-aided Democratic insider smear campaign that got Jesse Jackson in 1988 and Jerry Brown in 1992.)

We Haven't Got Him, Honest . . . Would We Lie to You?
Rumors that Osama bin Laden has been nabbed roiled the financial markets this morning, but they've been circulating in cyberspace for months. The generally accepted meme is that he's on ice somewhere in Afghanistan (maybe nabbed last March) and will be brought out by the administration--with a claim that we've only just caught him--sometime in October, just in time for the presidential election. (Remember last December, no less august a personage than Madeleine Albright said--well, joked, she claimed later--that she thought we probably had him.)

The whole idea sounds far-fetched, suppressing news of the capture of the world's most wanted terrorist to use it as a trump card to win an election, but using September 11 that way seemed far-fetched at one time, too. And given what we've seen since 2001, is anything truly too far-fetched for the Bush gang?

The Bust After the Boom
The obituaries started appearing thick and fast already yesterday for the Dean campaign: Josh Marshall, Jerry Bowles, Rick Robinson on Daily Kos. But the most poignant, also on Daily Kos, comes from a Dean supporter called Grassy Troll. (Although the effect of Troll's words is diminished by a second post later, in which Troll says he/she is so disappointed with Dean's failure that he/she may not even vote on November 2 if there's something better to do--which indicates Troll may have been more caught up in the romance of the Dean insurgency than with the broader issue of stopping George W. Bush, about which more below.)

This morning's tracking polls show Kerry on top, but still within the margin of error. It's likely that New Hampshire will be as volatile as Iowa right up to the end, unless something drastic happens in the debate up there tonight. (Liberal Oasis has advice for the candidates here.) Dean might benefit from a switch in focus to Kerry as the new frontrunner. Josh Marshall suggests that Dean could help overcome his speech screech of Monday night by making a joke about it, like Reagan joking about his opponent's age and inexperience in 1984.

In the end, Dean needs to win New Hampshire or finish a close second to remain viable. He does have an advantage once the campaign goes to multiple states on February 3, because he's got the million dollars a day it takes to buy the necessary advertising to stay competitive. He's in far better financial shape than Kerry, or Edwards for that matter. He also has a higher national profile than either of them. But if voters in the February 3 states (Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, New Mexico) are as concerned about electability as they were in Iowa--electability being a big factor in his failure to gather the Iowa undecideds--advertising may not help.

To decide on a candidate based on electability instead of whether he's right or not seems like a perversion of what politics is supposed to be about--competition in the marketplace of ideas and all that. But as Jerry Bowles observed in the post linked above, this election is not so much about electing Dean as it is about stopping Bush. We win or we're done. (Example: Today's the 31st anniversary of Roe v. Wade, which will be reversed by 2008 if Bush is reelected. You can bet the house on it.) Even when Dean is demonstrably right on the issues, the negatives he can't change--what he is and where he's from--are insurmountable. And when two 1000-pound gorillas like that are dominating the room, it seems foolish to go about your business as if they aren't there.

It's hard to imagine that we might be talking in another week or two about the end of the Dean campaign. If it happens, it's not that we couldn't see it coming. Perhaps we just didn't choose to.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Your Turn
Announcing another new feature from this high-quality news and commentary site--there's now a comment link following each post. If you've got something to add, click and type, and welcome to it.

Claim Versus Fact
I stuck to my resolution and didn't watch the State of the Union speech, but I read the transcript--even the parts between the lines.

"For diplomacy to be effective, words must be credible, and no one can now doubt the word of America." (Except when my lips are moving.)

"America is a nation with a mission--and that mission comes from our most basic beliefs. We have no desire to dominate, no ambitions of empire. (If I was trying to be an emperor, I'd have to wear one of those funny Roman hats, and Dick says I don't have to.) Our aim is a democratic peace--a peace founded upon the dignity and rights of every man and woman. (Except for ragheads who don't love Jesus.) America acts in this cause with friends and allies at our side, yet we understand our special calling: This great Republic will lead the cause of freedom." (All you other countries, we will tell you what to do and when to do it, so wait quietly for your instructions, and don't get uppity or we can bomb you too.)

"[J]obs are on the rise." (Sure, we lost 2.5 million in the last two years and it could have been three, but we gained a whole thousand of them last month alone! Whoo-hoo!)

"And we should limit the burden of government on this economy by acting as good stewards of taxpayer dollars." (Blogger snorts milk out through nose.)

"By computerizing health records, we can avoid dangerous medical mistakes, reduce costs, and improve care." (And it will make it a lot easier for Homeland Security to add the records to the Big Database of Potential Evildoers.)

"So tonight I propose an additional $23 million for schools that want to use drug testing as a tool to save children's lives. The aim here is not to punish children, but to send them this message: We love you, and we don't want to lose you." (And because we love you, we're going to assume you're a drug abuser until you prove otherwise by surrendering your dignity and peeing in a cup.)

"So tonight I call on team owners, union representatives, coaches and players to take the lead, to send the right signal, to get tough and to get rid of steroids now." (Do you like the way I threw this in so I would get my face on Sportscenter? I wanted to say something about Spongebob Squarepants so I could get on Nickelodeon, too, but Dick says that's a cartoon, so I couldn't.)

"The momentum of freedom in our world is unmistakable--and it is not carried forward by our power alone. We can trust in that greater power Who guides the unfolding of the years. And in all that is to come, we can know that His purposes are just and true." (I am taking my instructions from God, so whatever I do can't be wrong, and anybody who thinks otherwise is with the terrorists.)

One of the things I missed by reading the speech instead of watching it, says TV critic Tom Shales in the Washington Post, was Bush's demeanor: "[T]he words of the speech were written to sound lofty, but Bush had such a big Christmas-morning grin on his face that they came out sounding like taunts--taunts to the rest of the world or taunts to Democrats in the hall." We all know that smirk--the smirk of playground bullies everywhere, the smirk of a person who knows it's not what you know but who you know (and scorns you because you don't know who he knows). You'd think Karl Rove would work on that with Bush--but maybe they just don't care.

My usual blogosphere stops are light on speech analysis--everybody's in New Hampshire mode, which wasn't what Rove imagined when he scheduled the speech for the day after Iowa. There is some to be found, however: Gary Kamiya in Salon--"[T]here was no real story line in Bush's address beyond 'cut taxes' and 'kill evildoers,' and his delivery was not inspiring." Liberal Oasis--"The lack of substance has to make you wonder if the Bushies have anything left for a final act, anything to build a engaging second-term vision. In fact, there was so little to chew on in the speech, NBC spent most of its post-SOTU wrap-up talking about the Dem primary." And the Center for American Progress has its usual devastating Claim vs. Fact analysis to render Bush's entire text a smoking ruin.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Barbaric Yawp
I have been waiting to see reaction to Howard Dean's screeching speech to his supporters last night in Iowa, and here's a summary. If you haven't heard it, Dean was trying to fire up the troops by listing the states to which he is going to take his campaign. His voice shredding and breaking, he concluded the remarks with a kind of strangled cry--half Roger Daltrey on "Won't Get Fooled Again," half stepped-on cat. I heard the soundbite this morning and instantly thought, "Uh oh." It sounded like the man was melting down. Little things matter more now, when the expectations game is the reality and the time frames are compressed. The widespread derision he's enduring today doesn't help with Dean's job one--finishing first or a close second in New Hampshire.

Recommended reading: This article, albeit long, is a must: It's Robert Kuttner of the American Prospect on the road to permanent one-party, anti-small-d-democratic rule--we're already on it.

Also, you can take back 45 minutes of your life tonight by learning real State of the Union here. And also here--although the latter, from Atlantic Monthly, will take more than 45 minutes to read. But the good thing is that you won't have to look at and listen to Bush. And in both cases, the information will be both accurate and truthful.

And finally, a friend checks in from Iowa with his caucus experience. His experience is not especially dramatic--it's not like John Kerry himself came over and asked for his support (or like Howard Dean screeched at him)--but it's worthwhile because it's a tale of real participatory democracy, more real even than going behind a curtain and casting a vote (or declaiming away in a blog, to be sure) because you literally must stand up and be counted.

The Shirker
I will not be watching Bush's State of the Union address tonight. I know that shows a shocking lack of public spirit, not to mention a dereliction of blogger/pundit duty, but I have my blood pressure to think about, which will go high enough reading the news reports, let alone watching the damn thing. (Last year I watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail instead, so maybe I'll start a tradition and watch it again tonight.) But if you're planning to watch the speech, you might want to refer to the State of the Union Dictionary from the Center for American Progress to help you understand what you're hearing. Some choice excerpts:

"Economic success: Economy loses 2.5 million jobs: could have lost 3 million."

"Incentives to work: Welfare recipients need a few dollars less, otherwise they won’t show up for work; CEOs need a few million more, otherwise they won’t show up for work."

"Coalition of the willing: 160,000 U.S. troops, 'symbolic' support from the South Pacific archipelago of Palau, and 2,000 Moroccan monkeys to defuse mines."

"Mission Accomplished: Seemed like a good idea at the time."

Ifs, Buts, Candy, Nuts, Christmas: Every now and then, a news story's spectacular details trump its true news value, as is the case today with a University of Wisconsin scientist suggesting that the helium-3 in moon rocks could meet the nation's power needs for the next millennium. All we have to do, see, is shovel up the moon rocks, extract the helium from them, and voila! Energy independence forever! Except first, we've got to figure out how we're going to mine it and process it, and how to get the mining and processing stuff up there, and how to get the helium-3 back down from 250 million miles away, when everybody thinks just getting a couple more astronauts up there to walk around for six hours might cost half-a-trillion dollars. Oh, and figure out how to use it down here, where our cars and power plants aren't equipped to burn it yet. But other than that, holy cow, what a great thing! Wisconsin Public Radio played this story like it was the wonder of the age this morning--or like the scientist was some news producer's uncle.

The Morning After the Night Before
Here's a trip around the blogosphere for Iowa analysis, with my own two cents thrown in for good measure:

Best of the Blogs, which is openly Dean and Clark friendly, has two lengthy posts that offer slightly different perspectives. Groom Lake suggests that the fall race will still revolve around the economy, stupid and that Howard Dean needs to roll out his economic message pronto. Groom also says that in New Hampshire, the mud will be slung between Kerry and Clark. (If what happened in Iowa happens in NH, the candidates who stay above the fray may benefit. This time, that might be Dean, and also Edwards, who will need every iota of momentum to get off his most recent five percent showing up there.) Josh Hammond sees Dean staying on his message, even though his message, anti-war and anti-Democratic establishment, didn't resonate with Iowa voters, and some retooling seems necessary.

Tom Schaller on Daily Kos observes that at the caucus he attended, Dean had lots of troops on the ground, but the organization in the room once the give-and-take began was superficial and ineffective. Kerry brought in Michael Whouley, who's considered something of an organizational legend in Democratic circles, to run his ground game, and it clearly paid off. Schaller reports what might be the most nauseating quote of the night, from CNN's Tucker Carlson, who told him: "Rooting for Dean is fun, it's exciting, but in a way that adultery and drunk driving are fun and exciting--the next day, you're like, 'What was I thinking?'"

This morning on the way back from the bagel shop, I tried to imagine how the news must look this morning to somebody who hasn't been following the Democratic race for nearly a year. Tapped pointed the way to a post by Mark Schmitt on the Decembrist, in which Schmitt imagines it, too, saying voters coming into the race at this moment want a substantive candidate and not just somebody who hates Bush. To that end, he says Howard Dean is done, comparing his rise and fall to a stock bubble.

Liberal Oasis echoes some of the other posts (Dean's organizational weakness, the likelihood of Kerry vs. Clark sniping in New Hampshire). In addition, LO suggests that Dean's blowups under pressure this past week were not unlike John McCain's in 2000, and raises another point that occurred to me as I heard John Edwards on NPR this morning. Edwards (nicknamed "Johnny Sunshine" by a contributor to Daily Kos) yammered on and on about his positive campaign--but is he willing to fight back when it's necessary, either in the nominating campaign or in the general election struggle against Bush?

Josh Marshall says that Dean's collection of high-profile endorsements in the past few weeks--Gore, Bill Bradley, Harkin, Carter--seemed to have bogged him down. In the end, the endorsements seemed odd for a guy who claimed to be running against the establishment. (Something I read somewhere last night suggested that had Iowa gone for Dean, Tom Harkin might have had a shot at being Dean's running mate.)

And so, up they go to New Hampshire. The stars are aligned so that the fight will likely continue for a month or more--in fact, the Wisconsin primary on February 17 looms large and potentially decisive. Purely as spectator sport, this is going to be fun.

Monday, January 19, 2004

Once Again, the Hamburg Inn Is Quiet
Kerry 38, Edwards 32, Dean 18. This is not the night Howard Dean hoped to have. Earlier tonight I said that anything in the low 20s, about where the latest polling showed him to be, could be labeled a success for Dean no matter how well Edwards and Kerry did. I'm not sure that's accurate anymore because he did so poorly in comparison--I was thinking they might be in the high 20s, but Kerry more than doubled Dean's total, which is a big shock to me. Even though tonight's caucuses selected delegates to county conventions, which will select delegates to the state convention, which will select a tiny sliver of the total number of delegates to the Democratic national convention, it's all about expectations. And all of a sudden, Dean seems to need to finish either first or second in New Hampshire, lest he be perceived as fading. But remember--Gephardt won Iowa in 1988. Paul Tsongas won New Hampshire in 1992. So it ain't gonna be over for a while yet.

In addition to beating Bush, the Democrats will also have to beat the news channels. CNN felt the need to put on Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie at 10:00 to provide analysis, presumably because when you want incisive analysis of the Democratic race, you should ask a Republican hack. MSNBC's coverage, anchored by the insufferable Chris Matthews, went to Kerry's acceptance speech in Des Moines, only to cut away from the introduction about 10 seconds later to let Joe Scarborough launch a broadside at Ted Kennedy, who was introducing Kerry. (What Scarborough's point was, I couldn't grasp--something about Democrats not being able to win Florida.) I didn't even bother with the "fair and balanced" channel. As we used to say back on the playground, liberal media, my eye.

What's On Tap
One of the funniest new features on the Internet is the summary of weekend op-ed pieces and Sunday talk shows at Tapped, the blog from The American Prospect. There's nothing like a one-sentence zinger to burst a bubble of pompous punditry. (The summary also includes links to op-eds you actually need to read.) Tapped also has extraordinary posts today on the imminent failure of Howard Dean's plan to win by bringing new Democratic voters to the polls, and how the Republicans have stopped trying to solve national problems and merely use their legislative power to reward their supporters. Good stuff, all of it.

Recommended reading: Disagreeing with Bush has already been equated with treason in the loonier precincts of the right. Should he be reelected (something tonight's festivities in Iowa are being held in hope of preventing), you'd best believe that equating criticism of the administration with giving aid and comfort to the enemy will become pretty common--and more than just talk. The intellectual case for imprisoning or executing those who dissent is already being made in neocon circles, and is summarized in this hair-raising piece from Insight magazine. Insight is published by the same company that publishes the Washington Times, which can be quite loony-right--so be advised that the author of the Insight piece thinks he's onto a very fine idea. He's even got Abe Lincoln to back him up.

The Odd Couple
John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich have made a deal to share support in Iowa tonight. Candidates must reach the magic 15 percent to be considered viable in any individual caucus, so in a precinct caucus where Edwards has nine percent and Kucinich has six, the two groups will team up to support Edwards, and vice versa, should it happen. The two are on the same team, but barely: Kucinich, the pure progressive, and Edwards, the DLC centrist. It's hard to imagine the Kucinich faithful in college towns like Iowa City and Ames moving over to somebody who supported the war--although they'd be doing their party a service by supporting somebody who is slightly more electable than their guy. Likewise, it's hard to picture Edwards supporters suddenly swinging that hard to the left. (How many true believers of each candidate actually follow their champion's lead will be left to the exit pollsters to figure out. Some of the anti-war Kucinich suppoters might prefer to go for Dean, while some of the trade-and-union people might go for Gephardt.) In the end, it's not quite clear what's happening between these two--unless Edwards is trying to get the Secretary of Peace gig in the Kucinich administration.

The latter link in the above paragraph points to another post on the Daily Kos, and it speculates that if Gephardt delivers his supporters to the caucuses but they realize their man is finished, they might be more likely to switch to Kerry or Edwards than to Dean, who's been getting hammered by Gephardt for two weeks.

I'd like to make a prediction on the result, but the fact is that I have no idea. Regardless of the actual numbers, I suspect that Edwards is going to be portrayed as the winner of the Big Mo, given that he's come from literally nowhere to striking distance of a win in two months, but he's nowhere in New Hampshire, and he has only seven days to make something out of nothing. He could end up like the '88 Gephardt--winner of Iowa but nothing else. If Dean holds in the low 20s, where he's been since overtaking Gephardt last fall, that would be good enough to call Iowa a success. Strong numbers for Kerry put him back in the game in New Hampshire, where Dean has smoked him since last summer. Gephardt will withdraw tomorrow or Wednesday. (I do not interpret the Kucinich pact with Edwards as an indication he's getting ready to bail.)

While most of the political world is focused on Iowa, James Ridgeway of the Village Voice has been up in New Hampshire following the candidates--mostly Wesley Clark and Edwards. Clark has been gaining strength there against Dean and the heretofore sliding Kerry, but in Ridgeway's report, he comes off as an empty suit. It's as if he has the same speak-before-thinking problem that's been attached to Dean, although the things Clark says are merely odd instead of politically incendiary. As for Edwards, he seems similarly empty, trading mostly on his Southern charm and a few catch-phrases.

Clark has had the state mostly to himself for a couple of months, and his poll numbers have been steadily rising there. (Joe Lieberman has been there quite a bit too without raising his numbers much, thus cementing his status as the only person in America who doesn't know his candidacy is finished.) But the dynamics in New Hampshire will change a great deal starting tomorrow morning.

Welcome to the Real World
NewsMax.Com is usually pretty entertaining. For a liberal, it's like a trip to the Bizarro World, where the cable channels are run by screaming liberals who Hate America, and Bill and Hillary are responsible for everything from September 11 to the budget deficit. But it's useful for getting an idea of the basic mindset of the conservative news consumer. Which is what makes this Paul Craig Roberts column interesting--instead of genuflecting at the Altar of Bush, it's highly critical of the Iraqi "trap" his neocon advisors have caught him in.

Roberts writes that if Bush delivers free elections to Iraq, he gets a Shi'ite majority and civil war, which will bring Turkish intervention; if he doesn't, he gets escalating Shi'ite violence as demands for free elections increase. Escalating violence from either source would eventually become more than our present armed forces could control without resorting to a draft, and would threaten the stability of the whole region, from Saudi Arabia to the Indian subcontinent.

Welcome to our side, Mr. Roberts. You have summarized the problem in the proverbial nutshell, and you have demonstrated that there's no good way out of it. It's precisely what we said a year ago when this whole show was getting ready to hit the road. It was perfectly clear then to anyone not drunk on the adminstration's Kool-Aid. That the existence of this trap is only becoming clear to a handful of conservatives now would be humorous if the stakes weren't so high and the outlook so grim.

Bush, of course, will not acknowledge one iota of this during his State of the Union speech tomorrow night. He'll say we're winning and praise the troops; he'll subtly blame Saddam for September 11; he'll promise to stay the course.

Recommended reading: On this Iowa Caucus Day, a CBS News/New York Times poll from over the weekend digs deep into voter attitudes regarding the direction of the country and the November election and provides some optimism for Democrats. It shows that the bounce Bush got after the capture of Saddam has evaporated, and that Howard Dean has recovered the drop in support he suffered after the capture. By two to one, Democratic voters say they'd prefer a nominee who opposed the war to one who supported it--also good news for Dean. And 42 percent of the voters still think Bush stole the 2000 election.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Report From the Front
With very little fanfare, Salon has launched a blog called War Room 2004, which will track political news. One of its interesting features is a subscriber-only poll question, which is currently, "Who will drop out of the Democratic race next?" Keeping in mind that such polls are unscientific and often just this side of useless, the results (as of the time of this post) are still surprising:

Lieberman 25.92%
Dean 25.89%
Kucinich 21.57%
Clark 11.77%
Sharpton 6.77%
Kerry 3.45%
Gephardt 3.25%
Edwards 1.27%

Given that Salon's coverage of Dean has been strongly supportive, and you can presume that many of Salon's readers are Dean-friendly, these numbers are odd. Anybody who stops to do the political arithmetic should be able to see, among other things, that Gephardt is finished if he doesn't win tomorrow, but none of the others face a choice that stark, and won't until after February 3 at the earliest. I believe Sharpton and Kucinich may stay in it until the convention because their campaigns are not about actually winning the nomination.

Additionally, I have to wonder if there's an omen in Edwards' strong showing. He's been rising in Iowa the last week, and maybe, as I speculated a while back, voters are tired of the sniping between Dean and Gephardt and are moving to someone else entirely.

(Late addition: the Daily Kos has further speculation on the impact of negative attacks on those doing the attacking.)

Recommended reading: Also from Salon, Rich Proctor intercepts a secret Bush campaign memo to the media on how to spin Howard Dean.

Also, I think Matt Taibbi is kidding about what the Democrats should do on foreign policy. Maybe. You be the judge.

Saturday, January 17, 2004

Barefoot and Pregnant
Anybody who was moved (as most people were) by the site of Afghan women removing their burkhas after the Taliban was uprooted should read this little number. The U.S.-installed Iraqi governing council has voted to take away the freedoms that Iraqi women enjoyed under Saddam Hussein and replace them with regulations derived from Islamic sharia law. It's claimed that U.S. proconsul Paul Bremer is unlikely to approve, but in five months, he'll be gone when we hand over all power to the council. So we brought freedom to the Iraqi people, eh? Another lie.

The Modern Illuminati
Despite our tendency to believe in some pretty wild suppositions even when they're not backed by evidence, we don't generally buy into conspiracy theories, even when evidence is bountiful. In Online Journal, Michael Hasty observes that when enough evidence piles up, it becomes nuttier not to believe. In the Spectator, John Laughland jumps from a similar takeoff point, but ends up detailing how, in a world crawling with covert agents, we should assume that things are not what they seem to be.

New links: Under "Good Blogs," I've added Joshua Micah Marshall's Talking Points Memo--this guy is plugged into Washington tighter than anybody else in the blogosphere. I've also added Columbia Journalism Review's Campaign Desk, which is examining media coverage of the presidential campaign, and will quickly become indispensable.

The Whole Ballgame
If you don't think the upcoming Supreme Court deliberations on the holding of enemy combatants at Guantanamo and the jailing of Americans Jose Padilla and Yaser Esam Hamdi are the most important of the last 50 years, then I challenge you tell me what they've done that's been more important. Anthony Lewis examines the outlines of the cases here; John Dean looks back at court rulings against Nixon's imperial presidency and speculates on the coming court rulings here.

To say simply that the stakes are high misstates the gravity of the situation. If the Supremes rule that Bush has the right to lock people up incommunicado and throw away the key, there will be nothing--nothing--to stop him from ordering people to be "disappeared" off American streets on any whim he might have. He could, for example, have Al Gore picked up for a speech like the one he gave in New York this week for MoveOn, in which Gore accused the administration of corruption and moral cowardice. All Bush would have to do is deem that such accusations gave aid and comfort to the enemy, whoever the enemy might be, and Gore would be gone.

Of course, it won't be people as prominent as Gore who come under the hammer. It'll be little people, the ones who fall through the cracks of the CAPPS airline passenger profiling system, for example. And perhaps it'll even be the people out here in the blogosphere with the temerity to suggest that Bush deserves his own cell in Guantanamo.

Sound extreme? These are times in which to think extreme thoughts. Bush and company are doing so, and those of us on the other side had better get in the habit of doing so as well. As Paul Krugman wrote yesterday, for Democrats to assume that the 2004 election is like all the others, and can be fought just like all the other elections, is a prescription for disaster. If reelected, Bush will finish the job he's already begun. The screwing we're going to get on every conceivable aspect of public policy will make his first term seem like sweet and gentle love. Thus this election is nothing less than a war for survival, and it has to be fought like one.

Friday, January 16, 2004

The Wrong Man
One more thing to read on Friday night: Doug Ireland's chronicle of that great Democrat flip-flopper, "Dead Dick" Gephardt. The best news from Iowa this week is that Gephardt is slipping in the polls. If the trend holds and Ireland is right, his campaign will be over after Monday night.

I am sure that Dick Gephardt is a nice man who loves his country, and there was a time--maybe in the 1970s--when he might have been presidential timber. But those days are gone. Today, a Gephardt-style thirst for courtly bipartisanship, which is still prominent in the Democratic Party, is getting the party killed. Time and again in his presidential campaign, just as in the 2002 midterm campaign, he's shown he won't fight--sometimes, he's acted as if he doesn't even know the Democrats are in a fight with the Republicans. He certainly doesn't seem to know it's a fight to the death. Howard Dean knows it. Lately, John Kerry has shown signs of understanding it as well. Gephardt doesn't, and it's good for the country that his retirement from public life is only a few days away.

Wanna Be Startin' Something
The cable channels were all over the Michael Jackson court appearance today. (Count on them to tell you what's really important, and you'll get crap like this.) What strikes me as even more pathetic than Jackson himself, and his mind-boggling insistence that sharing a bed with children isn't wrong and that he'd do it again, are the throngs of people carrying banners proclaiming their support and weeping at the "injustice" in Jackson's "persecution." We're all fans of different people. I happen to be a fan of Brett Favre, John Cusack, Rosanne Cash, and T. Coraghessan Boyle, to name just four. I have enjoyed their work in the past, have an interest in what they'll do next, and would likely be reduced (and in Boyle's case, I have in fact been reduced) to a grinning, inarticulate goober in their presence. But if they were to break the law in some way, I don't think my first response would be to loudly proclaim that the accusations couldn't possibly be true, that they're being persecuted, and that it's all a witch hunt. (As with Jackson now, so with Kobe Bryant last summer.) And even if that happened to be my immediate kneejerk reaction, if evidence appeared that made the accusations seem more credible, as it has in both the Jackson and Bryant cases, I don't believe my response would be to stopper my ears, cover my eyes, and proclaim my idol's innocence even louder.

But that's just me--a guy with a life. My guess is that many among the throng of Jackson supporters today are people with no life beyond what they see on E and read in People. But that's no excuse for the rest of us, and for the news directors at the cable channels. Just watch. Every prime-time show tonight, from Bill O'Reilly to Aaron Brown to Keith Olbermann to Court TV to Headline News--will lead with the Jackson story, even though the Iowa caucuses are coming down to a dead heat and Bush agreed to modifications in the Iraq power transfer plan, both of which have to do with people's lives in a meaningful way--as opposed to Michael Jackson, who deserves 15 seconds at the end of the newscast instead of 20 minutes up front.

Yada yada yada, though, right? You will be able to find hundreds of entries just like this one throughout the blogosphere tonight and on the editorial pages of newspapers in the days to come. We all hate it, but we all pay a little bit of attention to it. The most precious part of it was the quote from one of Jackson's lawyers when the judge admonished Jackson for being late to court. The lawyer said: "We are lawyers. He is an entertainer and there is no rule book on how he can perform. He is not a professional defendant." I don't know what the hell the first part means--he's not performing, he's entering a plea in a court of law. And as for not being a professional defendant, well, even an amateur defendant should know enough to get to court on time. It's easy as 1-2-3. As simple as do-re-mi, actually.

It's All Becoming Clear to Me Now
In the pantheon of great headlines, this next isn't quite as great as last summer's "Wolfowitz Warns Foreigners to Stay Out of Iraq," but it's pretty amazing nevertheless--"White House: Give Industry Greater Voice." The story that follows claims that we need a "new presidential council to give U.S. companies a greater voice in government decisions." So presumably this means a change from the current system, in which industries enclose large checks to the Bush reelection fund with their lists of requests for new laws or relaxed regulations. I get it.

More clarity: CBS will not permit MoveOn.org to run its winning Bush in 30 Seconds ad during the Super Bowl. "We have a policy against accepting advocacy advertising," a network mouthpiece said. So presumably this means when someone wants start airing spots advocating the reelection of George W. Bush, the network will decline to run them. I get it.

You know, when you start thinking about stuff logically, stuff is not that hard to understand.

American Idols
I had to chuckle this morning when I heard that that the Bush administration is pushing ahead with plans to appoint an Iraqi legislature, going so far as to ask the hated United Nations for help, even though a prominent Shi'ite cleric is demanding democratic elections. The reason for the appointment scheme, it was said, is because there's not time to set up democratic elections in time for the July 1st deadline to hand over power. Not time for who? If this completely arbitrary deadline were missed, the Iraqi people wouldn't suffer as much as Bush's reelection campaign might. The July 1 date is a deadline only in the sense that the handover has to happen by then so Bush has time to bring some troops home to stand beside him at Ground Zero on September 11 when he accepts the Republican nomination. If Kofi Annan is wise, he'll drag his feet--because the only way to ensure that the UN will be meaningfully involved in Iraq (or any other place that might attract American interest someday) would be to get Bush thrown out of office.

But just because the troops are coming home doesn't mean the war is over. None of us, it seems, are going to live long enough to see that. Dick "Him Before He Dicks You" Cheney told an audience in Los Angeles this week that Al Qaeda is so big and bad and evil and awful and terrible that we will have to fight wars against them continuously all over the world for the rest of eternity, but even then we're all going to die anyway, and only Republicans can lead us effectively to our glorious, albeit assured, doom.

Good god, we've got to throw this bastard out in November.

And we're working on it. When southern states began seceding from the Union after Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860, newspaper editor Horace Greeley said that if disunion was inevitable, then "Let the erring sisters go in peace." More than 140 years later, with what might be the most significant presidential election since 1860 looming, the old Confederacy is a battleground again. Norman Solomon suggests that instead of devoting time and resources in a fruitless attempt to win votes he's not going to get, the Democratic nominee should let the southern sisters go to Bush and concentrate on consolidating the blue state base and fighting for winnable red states such as Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico.

But before we can think too much about how to win, we have to pick somebody to run. Columnist Elaine Kamarck has been following the Democratic race from day one, but it took some advice from Simon Cowell, the vicious British judge on American Idol, to help her pick the winner.

(Late additional note: Tapped notes that Kamarck is one of the founders of the Democratic Leadership Council, for cryin' out loud--the people who've been trying to foist Lieberman on us for damn near a year. So for her to endorse Dean is quite something.)

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Flap and Doodle
There are certain things we accept on this website as givens. What goes up must come down. Briefs before boxers. Packers good, Vikings bad. George W. Bush--worst president in history. That last one is just a guess, of course. History must judge him, not those of us who are here now. And who knows? He could go on TV one night, admit he stole the 2000 election, fire the whole cabinet from Dick on down, and promise to take all of his future policy positions from the Center for American Progress, Ted Kennedy, and Al Franken, which would be the greatest act of patriotism since Nathan Hale's necktie party. So there's still time for him to save his historical bacon, and therefore, we can't say definitively whether he's the worst president ever quite yet.

Neither can we effectively judge presidents in living memory, but Nixon, Carter, and Reagan would win no prizes. I have a grudging respect for Nixon as a political strategist and infighter, and I suspect that historians 100 years from now will rank him somewhat higher than those of us who actually remember him--but always with an asterisk for his crimes and resignation. Carter spent four years making "Democratic Party" synonymous with "pathetic losers," although he's been our greatest ex-president. Reagan would have made a good king, in the symbol-of-the-state sense--nobody ever evoked the America we'd like to believe we live in better than he did, but at the same time, he loosed upon us the ideologies and the people who are currently screwing up the world.

But if we set the Great Depression as our dividing line--the fringe of living memory, say, presidents before Hoover--we can start to make some legitimate judgments. Thus my short list of worst presidents would include U.S. Grant, a great military leader who saved the Union but who as president combined Carter's out-of-depth befuddlement with a modern Republican's tolerance for graft. I'd also put James Buchanan up there, who did a great deal to speed the coming of the Civil War and responded to it by getting out of Dodge as fast as possible. (In the honorable mention category, I'd note William Henry Harrison, who didn't know enough to come in out of the rain at his 1840 inauguration and died a month afterward.) And I'd also include old Warren G. Harding, subject of a new biography by John Dean.

Harding is best known for being nominated in the original smoke-filled room, for the Teapot Dome fraud and bribery scandal involving oil leases in Wyoming, and for making love to his mistress in a White House broom closet. (Harding was quite a goat, apparently--the GOP paid off one of his mistresses to keep quiet before the 1920 election; while serving in the Senate, he fathered an out-of-wedlock child with the same woman he would later boff in the broom closet; and some people think his death in 1923 was because his wife poisoned him.)

We know, of course, that Bush will not be having sex in any White House closets. (Indeed, the unlikelihood of his having sex at all was what recommended him to a great slab of the electorate as a successor to the world-class tailhound that was Bill Clinton.) But one thing Bush has in common with Harding is his tendency to abuse the English language. Harding was capable of Bush-style mangling, but was also a master of empty phrase and cliche. Journalist H. L. Mencken said of him: "He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. . . . It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abyss of pish and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash." (Rather like the entries on the daily "Bushisms" calendar that sits on my desk.) The poet e.e. cummings greeted news of Harding's death by writing, "The only man, woman, or child who ever wrote a simple declarative sentence with seven grammatical errors is dead."

When Harding died in office, Americans knew little about the scandals that have since tarred his reputation, and his death was greeted with unprecedented national grief. It's historians of the last 80 years who have anchored him firmly near the bottom of the hit parade. And so we can't know for sure where history will place George W. Bush one day, but we can make an early betting line. And now we're back to one of the givens on this website.

Get Your Ticket
From Iowa comes news that the presidential race is now a dead heat. This is profoundly newsworthy only if you don't understand the concept of margin of error in polling--the race has been a dead heat for weeks--although the numbers are interesting: Kerry 21.6, Dean and Gephardt 20.9, Edwards 17.1. Kerry and Edwards are on the upswing--undecided voters deciding, maybe? Gephardt is about where he's been for a while, and Dean is down a bit.

Of the three candidates sucking wind, Carol Moseley Braun is the first to bail. Her campaign never took off, but then, it's probably done what she intended it to do--secured her a job next year if the Democrats win in November. Sharpton will likely be gone after February 3. Kucinich is tougher to figure. His support in Iowa is three percent and in New Hampshire one percent, but many of his supporters are true believers in the 2000 Nader mold. He may leave the Democratic race at some point, but my suspicion is he'll run as an independent. But I don't think anybody else will be dropping out for a while. Everybody else could last until Super Tuesday, March 2. If anybody goes out before then, it will be Lieberman. Gephardt, who's going to be competitive nowhere except Iowa and Missouri, will be the next to go, particularly if he gets spanked in labor-heavy Michigan on February 7 (although I expect him to stay in until after Super Tuesday).

Beyond that, who knows? But let's make some guesses anyhow. The ticket will almost certainly be made up of some combination of the remaining four candidates. Although Dean is seeing some slippage in Iowa and Clark is surging in New Hampshire, I suspect that Dean has developed enough momentum to claim the nomination before the convention, although not by an especially wide margin. Next in the betting is Kerry, then Clark, then Edwards.

Whoever finishes second in the delegate count would be the likely running mate of the winner, unless it's Kerry finishing second to Dean or Dean finishing second to anybody. Edwards says he doesn't want a running-mate gig, but that could change when one is actually offered; Clark is practically the prototypical Democratic running mate no matter who's at the top of the ticket. If anyone outside the field of four gets the VP nomination, it might be Bob Graham. There's nobody else with the right combination of national stature and gravitas to fill out the ticket, with the exception of Hillary, but she won't get asked and wouldn't take it anyhow.

Quote of the day: from Dom Stasi, a writer whose work appears regularly at ICH News--"This week George W. Bush is expected to announce that he wants to go to the moon. Once there, he wants to set up a lunar base, and from that permanent settlement launch manned missions to the planet Mars and back. Wow! Three years ago he'd never even been to Europe."

The Bush announcement yesterday is almost surreal in its absurdity--so crazy that it's hard to imagine it's any more than a PR gambit on which he doesn't seriously intend to act, like his AIDS initiative launched last year. The press is lapping it up, of course, which is probably the real point--the White House doesn't want to cede every front page and cable channel to the Democrats all week. It's unfortunate that the Bush announcement has pushed a more relevant space story to an inside page--the adventures of the Spirit rover on Mars. This mission, like the Mars Pathfinder a couple of years ago, is a triumph of exploration on a budget--and what these craft do on Mars is not a great deal less than humans could do. Except maybe drill for oil.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

American Laff Riot
If a bankrupt country trying to go to the moon isn't wacky enough for you, how about the effort by wealthy white people to tell poor black people that the solution to their problems is to get married. That Dubya. Such a funny guy.

Sticker Shock
I have been trying to deny this to myself for quite a while, but I don't think I can anymore. As William Saletan succinctly summarizes it, Howard Dean, as presently constructed, is not electable. His position on taxes--repeal the entire Bush tax cut--is as electorally lethal as Walter Mondale's "Reagan won't tell you he's going to raise your taxes; I just did" in his 1984 acceptance speech. Dean's fuzzy plan to keep America safe from terrorists puts him squarely behind the eight-ball with no effective way to respond to Bush's squinty-eyed "dead or alive" sheriff act, even though that act is bullshit. (Jerry Bowles notes that Dean's position on the war on Iraq is, according to polling data, "against the current." The poll he mentions, quoted by David Brooks in the New York Times earlier this week, was taken even before Saddam was nabbed, and it shows overwhelming support for the war among Republicans and strong support for it among Democrats.) Saletan suggests that getting beat in Iowa and New Hampshire would change Dean's tune, but it may be too late for that, given three things--the lateness of the hour, the political cost of being perceived as a flip-flopper, and the evangelical fervor of Dean's own troops on the ground and on the Internet, who like him just fine.

But if Dean is unelectable, then so are the other Democrats. Every one of them--Kerry the vet, Gephardt the worker's friend, Lieberman the pious, Edwards the Southerner, Clark the inexperienced--they've all got their electability problems.

It's a long way to November 2. A lot can happen. And Bill Clinton looked unelectable in the spring of 1992. So at the moment, the Dean sticker remains on my car. But I am beginning to wonder where I put the razor blades and WD-40.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Quibble and Bubble
MoveOn.org is out with its winning ads in the "Bush in 30 Seconds" contest. I didn't vote when the initial batch was put online back around Christmas, but I am exercising my right to quibble anyhow. Of the four category winners, the youth winner, "Bring It On," is far sharper than the overall winner, "Child's Pay," which is poignant but lacks a sufficiently strong punch at the end. Nevertheless, if MoveOn reaches its financial goal and is able to run an ad during the Super Bowl, "Child's Pay" will play better with that mass audience.

Also today, the pot continued to bubble over Paul O'Neill's 60 Minutes interview. On Saturday, I commented that the most significant revelation in the interview to me was Bush's momentary concern about whether the 2003 tax cut should include relief for the middle class instead of just more for the rich. James Ridgeway offers inside information about what unfolded at the meeting O'Neill alluded to, and tells how Bush was steamrollered by the ideologues.

Recommended reading: Yesterday I wrote that I no longer care who wins the Iowa caucuses. What I meant was that I have reached the saturation point on campaign news from Iowa. The tone of the campaign has sunk to a level that causes a conscientious citizen to despair, so I wish they'd just vote, already. But for a political junkie, the maneuvering and strategizing that goes into the Iowa caucuses is a drug you can't quit cold turkey. The preference poll numbers for the race are close, but political scientist Thomas Schallert says a critical fact that is unknown--the second choice of likely caucus-goers--could be very important to Dick Gephardt. Speaking of maneuvering and strategizing, the Daily Kos has analysis today on what the five viable candidates want to achieve on Monday night. Nobody does this sort of thing better than Kos.

Paranoia Will Make Us Free
Here's another security improvement from the Transportation Security Administration (motto: "Making Air Travel More Tedious Since 2002")--henceforth, airplane passengers on U.S. domestic flights will be discouraged from congregating outside aircraft lavatories. The directive doesn't appear to be a rule--in other words, the undercover air marshal assigned to your flight may not be able to shoot you--but how precisely such lines are to be avoided is not clear. Maybe we'll have to start taking a number. "Number 27, you are clear to do a number two."

Recommended reading: Salon is out today with a series of articles on the evolving "master narrative" in the media regarding Howard Dean. In 2000, remember, the master narrative was that Al Gore was an insufferable bore prone to exaggeration, and that perspective warped the coverage of many reporters. Eric Boehlert suggests that Dean is already seen by many media outlets as angry, gaffe-prone, and unelectable, even though the perception of Dean by the voters doesn't reflect the media's bias--yet. Also at Salon, Aaron Kinney analyzes an astounding series of questions put to Dean by Newsweek's Howard Fineman on points of religious doctrine, which were ultimately little more than an attempt to sandbag Dean to the Republicans' benefit.

Quotes of the day (courtesy of the Progress Report): Florida Republican congressman Tom Feeney on the Bush push to return to space: "Somebody is going to dominate space. When they do, just like when the British dominated the naval part of our globe, established their empire, just like the United States has dominated the air superiority, ultimately, whoever is able to dominate space will be able to control the destiny of the entire Earth. And I think America is the only country with the moral capability and authority to establish what I consider a Monroe Doctrine in space, guarantee all free nations can use space, but no hostile nation will use it to take us over." And blogger Josh Marshall on the Paul O'Neill/classified documents flap: "Number of days between Novak column outing Valerie Plame and announcement of investigation: 74 days. Number of days between O'Neill 60 Minutes interview and announcement of investigation: 1 day. Having the administration reveal itself as a gaggle of hypocritical goons . . . priceless."

A Wondrous Land Whose Boundaries Are That of Imagination
It's been a rough 24 hours for those of us who think the war on terror is an excuse to turn the country into a Republican police state. Homeland Security announced that it will go ahead with a program that assigns threat levels to airline passengers even though the airlines have refused to comply and there's opposition in Congress, and the Supremes refused to make Ashcroft reveal the names of post 9/11 detainees. Not that the day was a total loss--the ACLU stepped up to defend Rush Limbaugh's right to keep his medical records secret, which is the kind of karmic payback Rod Serling used to put on the last page of Twilight Zone scripts. So why shouldn't we just let The Twilight Zone be our guide? Not that we're going to leave the world's concerns behind--quite the contrary. But we're going to explore more deeply the realm where the world's concerns meet the unexplained and unimaginable.

There's a Twilight Zone episode in which a man goes about his normal daily routine, unaware that his entire life is a movie, and that every other person in his life is an actor playing a role. In the Boston Globe, Mark Schone of Spin magazine suggests that the war in Iraq and the neocon drive to rule the world might be only a figment of Richard Perle's imagination.

What if everything you ever said or did was on tape somewhere, and there were armies of people digging into the tapes trying to find the most embarrassing, damaging bits to show to the world? (The preceding sentence should be imagined as being spoken by Rod Serling.) You'd be in the same boat as Howard Dean, whose 2000 criticism of the Iowa caucuses surfaced last week, and now Wesley Clark, who's on tape saying he believed in a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda, although he's said the opposite in his book Waging Modern War and on the campaign trail.

(Return to Serling voice.) What if the country's watchdogs over public safety, health, and the environment, scientists and trained experts, were forbidden to warn citizens of threats to public health and safety until the White House had weighed the potential political impact? We'd say that was crazy, Rod. Except that's precisely what the White House is trying to gain the right to do. Currently, individual federal agencies issue health warnings, recalls, and the like. Under a new proposal, the White House Office of Management and Budget would decide what information to release and when. This is as profoundly crazy an idea as has yet surfaced from Bush gang, but it's in keeping with their disdain for peer review and the scientific method, which doesn't serve political ends as reliably as junk science and paid industry propaganda do.

Rod Serling once described the Twilight Zone as "the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition; it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge." Sounds like where we are, yeah.

Recommended reading: In the New York Press, Alan Cabal investigates what we don't know about 9/11--mostly in the context of the lawsuits filed by five widows of men killed in the attacks, but not entirely. In the last half of the article, Cabal asks some of the most basic questions of all--why did the buildings fall down to begin with?

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