Thursday, May 11, 2006


The President may have 31% approval ratings, and the country may despise Congress, but that didn't stop 15 Democrats from joining all but two Republicans in the House of People's Deputies to pass the Tax "Relief" Extension Reconciliation Act yesterday.

Even the administration's collaborators at the Washington Post think this tax "relief" bill stinks to high heaven:

This is what passes for fairness in Washington these days: a big windfall for the wealthy to "pay for" -- at least in the skewed reality of Washington budgeting -- another tax cut for the wealthy.


You'll hear the administration and its allies crowing that a recent surge in tax revenue proves that the Bush tax cuts are "working." Capital gains cuts aren't a particularly effective way to stimulate the economy, and while the rise in the stock market coincided with the passage of the cuts in 2003, the evidence of a causal link is weak. In fact, tax revenue (and the stock market) did pretty well in the 1990s, too, with a more responsible fiscal policy.

It's true that there were enough Republican votes to pass this bill but, and even perhaps because of that fact, you'd think that by this time, the administration's Democratic enablers would have gotten the point and realized they don't need to keep bending over.

So who were faux 15?

Barrow (GA), Bean (IL), Boren (OK), Case (HI), Cramer (AL), Cuellar (TX), Davis (TN), Ford (TN), Gordon (TN), Marshall (GA), Matheson (UT), McIntyre (NC), Melancon (LA), Peterson (MN), and Salazar (CO).

Of this clan, only Barrow and Marshall voted Nay on last year's Leave No Credit Card Company Behind Act. Of course they were joined by 60 other Democratic weasels that day to pass bankruptcy "reform".

I'm really glad this group is on Our team, aren't you?

Campaigns, Money, and "Crisis" Politics

So the Wash Post has a story out today about discord between the DNC and the DCCC on how to spend money.

Ezra Klein and Garance Franke-Ruta at TAPPED have jumped in to say that if the Dems bomb out in 2006 it will be Dean's fault for spending too much money on a so-called 50-State Strategy.

I respect Ezra Klein a great deal and this criticism of Dean may very well be on the mark. But there's a statement in Garance's post that makes me think the DC Beltway types don't quite get it:

Should Democrats fail to regain power, it's likely they won't get as favorable an electoral environment again any time soon, regardless of what's built out on the ground.

And Ezra says much the same thing:

Dean's...determination to create a 50-state structure would deprive the party of crucial resources in an almost historically fertile election year.

Do you hear the desperation in those statements? With the president's poll numbers at record lows, Democrats are drooling at the prospect of not only reducing Republican majorities in the House and Senate, but the very real potential that they could in fact recapture control of both houses. And to folks like Garance, the president's and Congress's low poll numbers mean this election may be the only chance Democrats have of getting themselves and their unpopular values elected. If we blow it this year, the thinking goes, we're toast for another generation. We have to win Now! or else all is lost.

Does that thinking sound familiar? In the sports world, it typifies teams that mortgage the future for the win-now demands of the present. But the strategery is a risky one because if the team does mortgage its future by trading away draft picks (the Washington Redskins) and still doesn't win Today, the team is in worst shape than when it started. Contrast that approach with the approach of the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers who frequently let the high-priced talent walk and keep reloading through the draft with young, less costly talent, and yet almost always are in the playoff picture, if not winning the Big Game outright.

There's a parallel in the religious world as well. If you have read about or have spent any time at all in the world of religious "reform" movements, you'll notice a characteristic that's always present: the church or denomination is in "crisis" and it's up to the pure elements in the body of Christ to right the ship. Regardless of the church's growth or lack thereof, to the purists, the church is always in crisis. The result of this perpetual crisis mode in the churches is that there's no time for objectively assessing the church's teachings or place for permitting thoughtful inquiry or truth-seeking.

Likewise in the political world, there's a risk in cashing in all your cards on the next election--which is pretty much what the Democrats have been doing for the last several decades. This short-term focus has resulted in the party's declining presence and support in many areas of the country and a narrow "swing state" strategy in national elections. Building long-term structures and support at the local and state levels are important for many reasons. As
David Sirota notes:

First and foremost, we've got to start focusing on politics in our backyard--not just national politics. The media and the political elite in Washington want us only focused on federal politics. They seem to think, as ABC's The Note epitomizes, that the only thing that is important in politics is what a bunch of suits in D.C. decide is important. Though that might make the self-important Washington political operatives, pundits and media chattering class feel good about itself, nothing could be further from the truth.

State, county and municipal policy often affects people's daily economic lives in far more profound ways than even federal policy. That's not to say that federal policy isn't important, but it is to say that there are other arenas for engagement. And because the hostile takeover is far less pronounced in these other arenas, it means citizens still have an ability to affect policy at this level, elect good people to office, and make real change. Put 20 people in a room with your city council person and demand something from them, and you will see that while they may not fully switch their position or do exactly what you ask, they are listening a hell of a lot more than your average national politician.

The other reason to get local is because these city council people, county commissioners and state legislators are going to be tomorrow's congressmen, senators and presidents. We've got to get to them now before they become co-opted by Washington's money-drenched indoctrination system.

Now, it may be that the Dean skeptics are right and that reallocating greater funds towards the party's once-in-a-lifetime shot at recapturing political control of Congress in '06 would be the Democrats' best strategy this year.

But it is also undoubtedly true that the party faces not just simple numerical obstacles to taking control of Congress, but in fact, faces
considerable structural impediments as well; impediments that have come about because Republicans have been busy winning state and local elections and thus controlling the electoral machinery in those states and redrawing congressional districts to prevent the sort of Democratic tidal waves the DCCC is hoping to accomplish This Year.

Naturally, a political party aims to win every election. But it would be short sighted to think that The Next Election is all that matters. It would be better, obviously, if Democrats were able to capture control of one or both chambers of Congress in November. But for all practical purposes, the Bush II presidency is dead. What happens in November won't significantly alter that reality. True, a Democratic Congress could investigate, finally, the administration's excesses. But it wouldn't be able to pass any meaningful legislation with George W. ready to throw down his first vetoes. And if the structural impediments to winning This Year are as steep as some of our best analysts point out, a cash-run on 2006 could set the party back if it isn't successful.

Ultimately, for Democrats to be a majority again, they have to change the paradigm of American politics, the one that has been operative for the last 25 years or so. And in the wider scheme of things, that is the kind of thing that requires both the necessary rhetorical foundation as well as the appropriate political structure--neither of which would a 2006 Democratic sweep necessarily accomplish.

So while I know we're all anxious for big gains in November, recognize that conservatives have spent decades building up a movement and party apparatus. That won't be conquered over night in one election or at one level of government.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Kingfish Government

I've been reading Kingfish: The Reign of Huey Long by Richard White.

One of the striking things about the book and Huey's real-life story is how it makes his
fictional counterpart in All the King's Men seem almost positively benign.

The other striking thing is how similar the real Kingfish's politics resemble that of the current Republican regime ruling in Washington.

Both were obsessed with obtaining and maintaining absolute power. Like the Cheney Administration's
unitary executive theories, 750 signing statements, and FISA-busting NSA wiretaps, the Kingfish believed he was a law unto himself. Like the Cheney Administration's disregard for Congress (even when controlled by its own party), the Kingfish was known for his direct intervention in the legislative process, even going so far as to patrol the floors of the Louisiana state legislature, threating and cajoling the people's representatives to vote for his bills. Like the Cheney Administration's promotion of loyalty over competence and legality, the Kingfish used patronage to reward his friends and contributors and punish his enemies. Like the Cheney Administration's retribution against opponents, Huey Long would employ "any means necessary" to enact his policies and control the state. Like the Cheney Administration, Huey cast himself as a representative of the Common Man and sprinkled his speeches with and based his policies and political manueverings on stories and quotes from the Bible (while failing to uphold that Book's ethical injunctions). Like the Cheney Administration, the Kingfish viewed himself as superior to his opponents and those he ruled, never admitting mistakes but instead blaming others for his failures.

Of course, today's Republican Party and ruling elite don't mirror the Kingfish in every way. Huey Long constructed roads (albeit shabby ones at inflated contractor rates) across the state, builty up Louisiana State University (while intervening insufferably in the institution's sport's and academic life) into one of the country's most well-known and well-funded universities, distributed free texbooks for school children across the state, alienating richer districts that didn't want to be "tainted" with the appearance of charity or unfavorably linked with poorer areas of the state, and called for raising taxes to pay for it (once the state's ability to borrow had been exhausted).

In short, the Bush Restoration, together with its Gingrich-Delay K Street Project forebearer, has given us the worst of the Kingfish's autocratic excesses but little or none of its generosity.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Frank Rich Sounds Off

Today's NYT op-ed is priceless:

DON'T feel guilty if you, like most Americans, have not run or even walked to see "United 93." The movie that has been almost unanimously acclaimed as a rite of patriotism second only to singing the national anthem in English is clinical to the point of absurdity: it reduces the doomed and brave Americans on board to nameless stick figures with less personality than the passengers in "Airport." Rather than deepening our knowledge of them or their heroism, the movie caps an hour of air-controller nail-biting with a tasteful re-enactment of the grisly end.

But it's not a total waste. The debate that preceded the film's arrival actually does tell us something about the war on terror. The two irrelevant questions that were asked over and over — Does "United 93" exploit the tragedy? Was it made too soon? — reveal just how adrift we are from reality as we head toward the fifth anniversary of the attacks.

The answer to the first question is yes, of course "United 93" exploits 9/11. It's a Hollywood entertainment marketed to make a profit, with a smoking World Trade Center on its poster as a gratuitous selling tool and a trailer cunningly deployed to drum up pre-premiere controversy (a k a publicity) by ambushing Manhattan audiences. The project's unappetizing commercialism is not mitigated by Universal Pictures' donation of 10 percent of the opening weekend's so-so proceeds to a memorial at the site of the crash in Shanksville, Pa. Roughly 50 times that sum is needed to build the memorial (and its cost is peanuts next to the planned $1 billion extravaganza in New York).

Still, a movie that exploits 9/11 is business as usual. This is America, for heaven's sake. "United 93" is merely the latest in a long line of such products and relatively restrained at that. This film doesn't use documentary images of shrouded remains being borne from ground zero, as the Bush-Cheney campaign ads did two years ago. And it isn't cheesy like the first fictional 9/11 movie, Showtime's "DC 9/11: Time of Crisis," in 2003. That dog, produced with White House cooperation and larded with twin-tower money shots, starred Timothy Bottoms as a derring-do President Bush given to pronouncements like "If some tinhorn terrorist wants me, tell him to come get me!" It's amazing that it hasn't found an honored place beside "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" as a campy midnight perennial.

As for the second question in the "United 93" debate, it's disturbing that it was asked at all. Is this movie too soon? Hardly: it's already been preceded by two TV movies about the same flight. The question we should be asking instead is if its message comes too late.

Whatever the movie's other failings, that message is clear and essential: the identity of the enemy. The film opens with the four hijackers praying to Allah and, in keeping with the cockpit voice recording played at the Zacarias Moussaoui trial, portrays them as prayerful right until they murder 40 innocent people. Such are the Islamic radicals who struck us on 9/11 and whose brethren have only multiplied since.

Yet how fleeting has been their fame. Thanks to the administration's deliberate post-9/11 decision to make the enemy who attacked us interchangeable with the secular fascists of Iraq who did not, the original war on terrorism has been diluted in its execution and robbed of its support from the American public. Brian Williams seemed to be hinting as much when, in effusively editorializing about "United 93" on NBC (a sister company of Universal), he suggested that "it just may be a badly needed reminder for some that we are a nation at war because of what happened in New York and Washington and in this case in a field in Pennsylvania." But he stopped short of specifying exactly what war he meant, and that's symptomatic of our confusion. When Americans think about war now, they don't think about the war prompted by what happened on 9/11 so much as the war in Iraq, and when they think about Iraq, they don't say, "Let's roll!," they say, "Let's Leave!"

The administration's blurring of the distinction between Al Qaeda and Saddam threatens to throw out the baby that must survive, the war against Islamic terrorists, with the Iraqi quagmire. Last fall a Pew Research Center survey found that Iraq had driven isolationist sentiment in the United States to its post-Vietnam 1970's high. In a CBS News poll released last week, the percentage of Americans who name terrorism as the nation's "most important problem" fell to three. Every day we spend in Iraq erodes the war against those who attacked us on 9/11.

Just how much so was dramatized by an annual report on terrorism issued by the State Department on the same day that "United 93" opened nationwide. The number of terrorist attacks was up by a factor of nearly four in 2005. While Al Qaeda is scattered, it has been replaced by what Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism czar, describes as "a many-headed hydra that is just as deadly and far harder to slay." Osama bin Laden, no longer an operational leader, retains, in the State Department's language, "the capability to influence events, and inspire actual and potential terrorists."

We remain unprepared should they once again strike here. Like Hurricane Katrina before it, the Dubai Ports tsunami proved yet another indictment of our inept homeland security. While the country hyperventilated about the prospect of turning over our ports to a rare Arab ally, every expert on the subject, the former 9/11 commissioners included, was condemning our inability to check cargo at any point of entry, whether by sea or land, even if the Sopranos ran the show. Congress's Government Accountability Office reported that in a test conducted last year, undercover investigators smuggled enough radioactive material past our border inspectors to fuel two dirty bombs.

To add insult to this potential nuclear Armageddon, Afghanistan is falling back into the hands of religious fanatics; not even the country's American-backed president, Hamid Karzai, dared to publicly intervene in the trial of a man facing execution for converting from Islam to Christianity. "The Taliban and Al Qaeda are everywhere" is how a shopkeeper described the situation to the American commander in Afghanistan, The Times reported last week. These were the conditions that spawned the hijackers of "United 93" — all four of them trained in Qaeda camps in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. At this rate, we are in danger of marking the next anniversary of 9/11 with a reboot of the Afghanistan war we were supposed to have won more than four years ago.

Our level of denial about these setbacks is embedded not just in the White House, which blithely keeps telling us "we're winning" the war on terror, but also in the culture. The decision of most major networks and newspapers (including this one) to avoid showing the inflammatory Danish Muhammad cartoons attests less to our heightened religious sensitivities (we've all run reproductions of art Christians and Jews find blasphemous) than to our deep-seated fear of the terrorists' unimpeded power to strike back. The cheers that greet the long-awaited start of construction at ground zero are all the louder to drown out the unsettling truth that no major private tenant has bet on the Freedom Tower's security by signing a lease.

We also practice denial by manufacturing vicarious and symbolic victories at home to compensate for those we are not winning abroad. Two major liberties taken with the known facts in "United 93" — sequences suggesting that passengers thrashed and possibly killed two of the hijackers and succeeded in entering the cockpit — are highly cathartic but unsupported by the evidence. In its way, the Moussaoui prosecution conducted its own Hollywood rewrite by exaggerating the stature of the only person to go to trial for the crimes of 9/11. The larger this marginal creep loomed, the better the proxy he'd be for those we let get away (starting with bin Laden). Perhaps we might even be tempted to forget that F.B.I. incompetence had kept us from squeezing Moussaoui (or his computer) for information that might have saved lives during the weeks he languished in jail before 9/11.

Two of the F.B.I. bosses who repeatedly squelched Moussaoui search warrants in August 2001 remained at the F.B.I. as he went to trial. The genuinely significant 9/11 figures in American custody, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, cannot be prosecuted because their firsthand accounts of our "interrogation techniques" at Guantánamo and our "black sites" are bound to incite more terrorists. Meanwhile, the American leaders who devote every waking moment to defending their indefensible decisions in Iraq have squandered the energy, the armed forces and the international good will needed to fight the war that began on 9/11 and that, in our own State Department's words, is "still in the first phase."

That's the scenario before us now. Next to it, "United 93" may in time look as escapist as the Robin Williams vehicle that outgrossed it last weekend, "RV."

The airplane personnel and passengers aboard United 93 were indeed heroes that day. No doubt about it. But the right-wing intellegencia that is demanding we sacramentalize 9-11 to advance their own authoritarian agenda is not, by any means. Time to let the Keyboard Commandos on the right and the administration they blindly support know we won't be intimidated by the memories of 9-11 and the threat of terrorism to sanction their domestic spying among other civil liberty abuses. Not anymore. As in starting Monday when:

Barring a change of heart, aides expect Bush to name (Deputy National Intelligence Direct, General Michael V.) Hayden tomorrow as his choice to succeed CIA director Porter J. Goss, who resigned under pressure Friday. Hayden, a former director of the National Security Agency and now deputy director of national intelligence, has become the most forceful defender of Bush's eavesdropping program since its disclosure in December.

Rather than steer away from a Hayden nomination because of the controversy, the White House seems ready for a new fight over it, convinced that it has public support and that Democrats opposing Hayden's confirmation would risk looking weak on terrorism. Democrats yesterday began formulating a strategy built around grilling Hayden during hearings and then determining whether any refusal to answer questions provides enough justification to oppose his confirmation.

"By nominating him, they are looking for a confrontation and forcing the Congress to take sides, so I am troubled by this," said Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, who has a close relationship with Hayden and considers him "very professional and dedicated."

A senior White House official said Bush did not choose Hayden to pick a fight but would welcome one if it came. "We felt that we're in a position on offense," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the nomination has not been announced. "We have no concerns about a public debate over the terrorist surveillance program."

A National Disgrace

Embarassed by the war in Iraq, their president's basement-dwelling poll numbers, and by their party's leadership generally, the right wing intelligencia is demanding we all go see United 93 so that we make sure we don't ever forget about 9-11 and that maybe we'll somehow forget about everything else.

Like Katrina.

Last week I wrote that any Democrat worth his salt should make the repeal of last year's Bankruptcy "reform" bill a centerpiece of his or her 2006 congressional or 2008 presidential campaign.

The 2008 hopefuls might also want to point their fellow Americans' attention to the continuing national disgrace that is the Gulf area devastated by last year's hurricanes. Yes, I know, Katrina is so last year, there are no Missing White Women, why should we care? Because apparently the place is still a disaster, Katrina's dead bodies are still being found, and even establishment journalists like Howie Kurtz are pissed.

I know we've all given the guy a hard time for his Republican bias, but this article in today's Post is blistering:

Like many Americans, I've followed the Katrina story closely, but then tuned out for days when other news or the daily strains of life intervened. After eight months you assume they must be making some progress. Downtown and the French Quarter basically look fine; the worst damage by now must be limited to a few of the hardest-hit areas, such as the Lower Ninth Ward.

But then you come here and see the devastation up close, and discover that things are far worse than you imagined. And you realize that, despite the millions of words and pictures devoted to the hurricane's aftermath, the normal rules of writing, photography and broadcasting are just not equal to the task.


It is a depressing story, hardly a ratings grabber. It is like Iraq, day after day of numbing sameness: violence and suicide bombs there, a frozen-in-time lack of recovery here. Reporters like to cover tangible issues -- the battle over small-business loans, the race to buttress the levees, the failures of FEMA, the campaign for mayor, the first post-storm Mardi Gras. Everyone knows what happened to New Orleans; it is not new news.

But it is still news, if news is defined as a catastrophic event that alters a community and a country forever. (NBC News Anchor Brian) Williams, dismissing some viewer complaints and nasty e-mail saying that he devotes too much air time to this city's struggles, stays on the case, as do a handful of other television and print journalists.

CNN's Anderson Cooper has been here several times, and ABC maintains a bureau for rotating correspondents. Major newspapers have devoted plenty of resources to the region. Since Jan. 1, the New York Times has run more than 110 news stories on New Orleans, the Los Angeles Times about 90, The Washington Post about 75, dissecting the current state of hospitals, schools, housing, even Cajun cooking and jazz.

But can anyone really say that New Orleans remains an urgent, top-of-the-newscast issue, that the recent coverage captures the raw emotion of a crisis that continues unabated? By and large, the plight of this crippled city seems to have become background noise.

Reporters by trade parachute into disaster zones, steeling themselves against sadness. You start out as a young scribe chasing car accidents and then graduate to plane crashes. Later you might find yourself in Oklahoma City or in Lower Manhattan, trying to chronicle the aftermath of a terrorist attack, or in Bosnia or Baghdad, filing dispatches about military conflicts. Then the war ends, the community rebuilds, and you move on. Collectively, we all move on.

That is not possible in New Orleans. Yes, many people are tired of the Katrina saga. In a world filled with problems large and small, in a business that gravitates toward the latest buzz, the up-to-the-minute news flash, that's easy to grasp. If people saw what I saw, however, they would understand why journalism's work here is not done -- not by a long shot.

No, journalism's job is not done there, despite the demands by many of the country's white middle-class for the media and political establishments to focus on something else, anything else (like movies about 9-11). And if journalism's job isn't done down there, than neither can be any 2008 prospective Democratic contender's. Feingold, HRC, Bayh, Biden, Warner, you want some attention, you want to appear "authentic", you want to show leadership, camp out in the land time forgot. Save all the money you would have originally used to run TV ads or hire consultants and orchestrate a "convention", and just set up shop along the Gulf Coast. Do it in protest, demand answers and action. Will the country and public respond to the call? I don't know. Probably not. But leadership is as leadership does. If you don't lead, you don't deserve to be president, and the country will deserve whatever imitation of leadership it gets.