December 31, 2005
Posted by Nicholas Beaudrot of Electoral Math
Bar none, the best Christmas present I got this year was a copy of Robert Kennedy: His Life by Evan Thomas. And while I'm still a big fan of Bobby Kennedy, he's starting to make George W. Bush look like a civil libertarian.
During his tenure as attorney general, RFK routinely authorized the wiretapping of telephones and "bugging" of households and hotel rooms, all without a warrant. These wiretaps recorded domestic calls, and the FBI's bugs taped the personal conversations of their targets. Most of the time, the Feds were monitoring mobsters like Sam Giancana -- the Chicago boss who replaced Al Capone -- but they also kept a close eye on such subversives as Martin Luther King and several of his aides. In some cases, particularly with King, Kennedy seemed to request the wiretap only for the purpose of obtaining knowledge of King's planned act of civil disobedience, and not for any legitimate law enforcement purpose. He also spent much of his spare time figuring out how he could get the CIA to overthrow and/or "eliminate" the Castro regime in Cuba.
In Kennedy's defense, the fourth amendment implications of wiretapping and bugging were not yet settled, and in many cases he authorized the wiretaps to placate Hoover, who used the FBI to gather intelligence he later used to threaten RFK, JFK, and many others with blackmail. Still, Kennedy's biography provides a great deal of perspective on how far we've come as a country. It's easy to think that under President Bush, our civil liberties, the environment, the rule of law, and unchecked executive power are more threatened now than they ever have been. But forty years ago, there was no EPA; the Warren Court had yet to establish Miranda and many of its other cases constraining police powers; and no one really seems to have thought twice about the way wiretapping might interact with the fourth amendment. For that matter African-Americans were completely disenfranchised rather than partially so, and efforts to integrate all-white colleges in the South resulted in actual riots that make the WTO protest of 1999 look like childs play. Now, that's not a reason to stop trying to improve the situation, and I think the biggest scandal in this whole snoopgate bruhaha is that FISA pretty clearly says "the United States shall not engage in X" and a fair reading of what the President has done shows that he has engaged in X, but in terms of the real, physical consequences of a President's actions, there have been much more serious consequences in the country's recent past.
September 08, 2005
The James Lee Witt of the 1920's
I'm going to second Brad Plumer on this: compared to the historical screw job Herbert Hoover's been tagged with, Carter got off easy. If we're resuscitating reputations around here, there's no better place to start than the best crisis administrator -- both foreign and domestic -- this country's ever seen.
August 28, 2005
Noblesse You First
War is not possible unless you have internal class warfare. War is not possible unless the rich and powerful feel free to demand the lives of the common people be sacrificed with the same ease you lose a pawn in a game of chess.
It wasn't always this way. JFK volunteered for service in World War II, was rejected due to his bad back, spent months strengthening it, and successfully reenlisted. His two brothers also served and Joe Kennedy, the oldest, was killed. George W. Bush's father fought to get his fighter's wings at age 18, succeeded, and became the youngest fighter pilot in the Navy. His son, of course, wasn't even the youngest fight pilot in the Texas/Alabama Air National Guard. Hell, he didn't even have the best attendance record in the Guard.
There was a time when the children of the rich were expected to do more than others. Noblesse oblige, we called it. And it meant that sons of Senators, of land owners, of manufacturers and business titans served in the same units and died in the same wars as the sons of those who worked for their fathers. The rich paid the same as the poor, and no one could sit back, stroking their chin, offering detached pronouncements on the desirability of war.
But there was a unity of purpose in World War II, a societal agreement -- at least after Pearl Harbor -- that this war was worth fighting, worth dying for. Vietnam, Iraq -- they weren't life-and-death for the nation, they were about better positioning. And one doesn't send their children to die for better positioning.
The run-up to the Iraq War relied on the broad societal agreement that this war should be fought. 75% agreed. But their agreement was soft. It was a shoulder shrug against tyranny. The question was never "Would you send your child to fight in Iraq?" The pollsters, in essence, asked if Americans minded if their regular news channel added a small war component. That it turned out to be a bigger, longer, more sustained programming interruption is now turning those polls. But it's not been big, long, or sustained enough. Most Americans still live lives untouched by the conflict. Americans didn't even have their tax cuts touched by the conflict.
War doesn't require class tension to be fought. Wars of choice do. And it's not class tension, it's inequality. If the folks on the fun side of the income curve don't see, touch, feel or know their distant neighbors across the graph, a war can be launched that they'll never feel. And when the government can do that, certain wars that would never otherwise prove possible suddenly become broadly acceptable. That is, they prove broadly acceptable until war proves itself to mean more than "victory", and its intrusion demands that the formerly untouched imagine how they'd feel if Uncle Sam came for a visit. And the answer, as Bush is seeing down there in the "Western White House", is that they'd cock a gun and ask him to kindly step off the porch.
The war has begun to transcend class. The rest of the country has begun to feel it. For Bush, that means a rocky road ahead. His mountain-biknig ain't prepared him for shit.
August 26, 2005
Ed Kilgore's got a good post on the "Who Lost the South?" debate that folks interested in the subject should probably read. I think his points lines up well with my argument that the Civil Rights Act destroyed the region's Democratic identification, but it's the culture clash and the Party ID, not the racial politics, which still hold us back years later.
The reason McGovern matters, though, is that 1968 and the McGovern convention really pounded that split home. It was right after Wallace had peeled off our supporters and suddenly we were running a guy who, for all his other attributes, struck this region as an alien life form. As Kilgore notes, Jimmy Carter provided a welcome interruption by being a Southern, religious, former naval officer, but his perceived wimpiness in the executive's chair ended up reinforcing our problems -- even when we run a tough guy, they'll govern like a scared child. Reagan, of course, codified the split in 1980, creating Reagan Democrats, who today are Bush's treasured white males. Anyway, you guys have heard this before. Kilgore's post is quite good, and you should read it.
August 24, 2005
Why 1972 Matters
Matt's got an interesting post on the McGovern realignment, which basically argues that the actual realignment happened four years before, when Nixon and Wallace left Humphrey with a mere 42% of the vote. That it split three ways made it look more like an anomaly and less like a phase shift. But Nixon's landslide in 1972 came from getting the Wallace voters, and we wrongly ascribed that to McGovern's Vietnam position, rather than the logical extension of 1968.
That's correct, but only to a point. As a historical point, Matt's quite right. But insofar as it affects modern elections, the South is no longer, by and large, voting against us because they don't like black folks. What we're dealing with instead is party identification, law-and-order preferences, religious issues, and an aggressive military culture. Since Democrats aren't Republicans, are considered soft on crime, questioning towards authority, hostile to Christianity, uncomfortable with the armed forces, and condescending and hostile towards Southerners, we're facing a real cultural problem. In that way, as Jim Crow became less acceptable to a more modern South, these issues subtly replaced the racist appeal of the Republican party. The South subbed out the original reasons for their realignment and simultaneously got angry at Democrats for reminding them of their embarrassing past.
In this way, McGovern matters, and his failure should be taken seriously by Democrats. Everything McGovern represented -- disorder, the 1968 convention, peaceniks, hippies, etc -- has been reanimated into the Southern stereotype of the Democratic party. In some places, like Virginia, that can be overcome with the right candidate. In other parts of the region, we've got no chance. But even if realignment wasn't originally about these issues, for a fair percentage of contemporary Southerners, it now is, and that makes the difference academic.
Update: For a really interesting essay on the South's political evolution since realignment, check out "The Real Southern Problem" (pdf), by former Alabama Democratic Congressman Glen Bowder. I don't agree with him on everything, but he makes a hell of a case for why the Democratic party is losing there, how much of it is attitudinal and related to what he calls "guy culture", and why we can't give up on it.
August 18, 2005
The Party of Gingrich
The fun thing about writing articles is you get to bury into a topic you never thought much about before. I'm penning a piece on Gingrich, and so I'm deep into everything the guy's written, said, or had written or said about him. Interesting stuff. And some quotes are just too good to pass on, so here's one for you. This comes from Newt's apologetic, post-fall memoir, Lessons Learned the Hard Way:
For us Republicans in Congress, one of the most impressive aspects of this assault was the way Democratic activists in the House and Senate could be counted on to march in lockstep with it. The Democratic Party, of course, is much more of a political machine than the Republican Party. Those members of the House who had switched from the Democratic Caucus to the Republican Congress -- there have been something like a dozen of them -- kept remarking how surprising they found the lack of groupthink and intimidation [to be].
This, of course, was right after hundreds of Democrats had bailed on the President's health care plan, right after Clinton had had to reach across the aisle to pass NAFTA, right after he'd had to twist arms and break legs to pass his budget, right after fellow Democrats like Kerrey and Moynihan had called for investigation into Whitewater, right after, well, the most stunning show of party incompetence in a generation, all of which aided and abetted 1994's Republican Revolution.
But whatever Newt's historical omissions, the fact that Republicans saw themselves that way is something worth marveling at. The modern, DeLay run Republican party is less conference and more cult. Last week, Rep. Joel Hefley responded to questions about his possible retirement by saying:
"I think I'll wake up some morning and say, 'Enough is enough. I'm tired of Tom DeLay telling me when to go to bed at night.' I'm not there now."
The Party of Newt is not the Party of Tom. Maybe it never was. Newt's been known to look down on the gang of power hungry dolts who currently crack the whips even while he respects their ability to force members in line. But it's interesting to think that the Republican party of a decade ago conceived of itself in an entirely different fashion than its modern incarnation. Back then it was a response to a calcified, tired, brain-dead majority party that ran less on ideas than machine politics. This is no new conclusion, but the degree to which the Republican party has become what it despised is really quite astounding.
June 27, 2005
CJR's got a good interview with John Harris, author of the Clinton assessment The Survivor. I'm on page 340 of the book and it's a fun read; not much new if you've studied the era before, but about as good an introduction as you're likely to find. Harris's insights, though, are more interesting for what they say about him than the Administration he's discussing.
Harris was the Washington Post's lead reporter on Clinton during the President's second term, and the book reflects that. It's more thoughtful and considered, sure, but Harris's focus is the same now as then: process, personalities, and politics all come before policy. No one reading the book could count themselves uninformed on how the administration's internal debates played out, but the flip side is that no one reading could call themselves experts on the policies that drove those debates.
Health care gets ten pages, and the plan itself only a few paragraphs. Welfare reform gets similar treatment. And even on these policy-heavy subjects, the serviceable descriptions of the policies are clearly subservient to the lovingly crafted retellings of the political process that forged them.
Clinton's many scandals also enter the analysis, and as you'd expect, they fill some pages. Lots of pages. And Harris, interestingly, is honest about both his irritation and fascination with them. It's not what he wanted to be covering, but he certainly took to the task with gusto. I, unlike some, don't blame him for that. I'll never forgive Clinton for Monica, a move that was both self-evidently unethical and completely relevant to his presidency. Did it affect his fitness for office? No, he was as mentally capable as ever. But it still destroyed his ability to do his job.
After Marilyn Jo Jenkins, Dolly Kyle Browning, Kathleen Willey, Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers, and all the others, the idiocy it took to take up with a White House intern was staggering. Clinton, as his constant rants against the right wing conspiracy proved, knew he was being watched, knew the game was unfair, knew that he had enemies. And by giving them such explosive ammunition against him, he helped them grind the progressive project to a halt and force his presidency, particularly during the second term, into effective paralysis. In that way, it was the definition of relevant, and that should've been just as clear the moment Lewinsky flashed her thong as the day impeachment proceedings began.
Worse, and this might be the central (though unintentional) insight of the Harris book, it was what the press knew how to cover. Whether they wanted to write about unlaundered dresses and overweight interns, the press had long since left the realm of policy and moved over to personality, to political coverage that offered color and plot. A deficit surplus and strong job market only become stories when they change. Otherwise, they don't fill newspaper pages that need to keep coming out. That's why you need tales that develop, that come with quotes, that offer anecdotes. It's what John Harris tells now and what he and his colleagues told then. Lewinsky was simply a particularly egregious example of the dominant form of reporting -- all storyline, no policy import.
Liberals today rage that Bush's legion of fuck ups lack the lavish coverage given to Clinton's. They shouldn't be surprised. Bush's fuck ups are substantive. They simply exist. They can be told in a sidebar, with numbers, in an article. They require little investigation and less detective work. They can be told once, and remain substantively the same a week, a month, a year later, with only the numbers showing growth. Plame seemed promising, but one day the information simply stopped coming.
The conservative innovation of the Clinton years was that scandals have shelf lives, a new one has to hit when the old one stops giving. They were lucky that Clinton offered Whitewater after "travelgate", Jones after Whitewater, Lewinsky after Jones. None on their own (well, maybe Monica) could've dragged through the presidency, but as a relay team? There was plenty to print.
Funnily enough, however, the public is less insipid than the press. Clinton won both elections with wider margins than Bush. He enjoyed higher popular approval than Bush (much higher, in fact). And he did all that without an epochal event to use as a crutch when the ratings dipped. Americans, it would seem, like peace and prosperity, are happy with job growth, are content without invasions. That's not to say they're particularly unforgiving when those things aren't around, but they don't ignore the good news, either.
Nevertheless, they still read the paper every day, or at least pretend to, and so news organizations put it out daily. And to have daily content, you need to tell stories. That's Harris's book in a nutshell: stories, tales, drama, plot. Gingrich's machinations, Clinton's jokes, Morris's eccentricities...they're all here, and they help the book stretch past 440 pages. Policy, in the end, takes up only a smidge of total word count, and it's well hidden amidst all the color (I had to go back and check to see if Harris had provided a rundown of Clinton's health plan. It'd been so perfunctory as to completely vanish from memory).
But the book, if it only gives surface insight into the Clinton presidency, offers deep insight into the media's mind. Read as an example of what catches the press's attention, it's well worth the time spent and surprisingly relevant to the largely successful press management practiced by the Bush Administration. And that's not meant as bitter or judgmental, merely realistic. The world works a certain way, and though we'd all like for it to run different, we might as well read the rulebook while we wait.
June 07, 2005
Looking over excerpts from some new Hillary-bashing book, Matt posts up a purported conversation between Mrs. Clinton and Sen. Moynihan where Hillary forgets to credit Moynihan on a bill and so the aged senator, acting like the dignified legislative leader he was, bowed out of the meeting under false pretenses and hid in an adjoining room until Hillary left the building. Matt rightly notes how bad this makes Moynihan look, but the truth is really worse. If you had to pick the Senator who did the most to kill Clinton's bill, it wasn't Dole, it was Moynihan.
During the Health Care fight, Moynihan played Lieberman on Social Security, but to a much greater degree. He called Clinton's numbers "fantasy numbers", he told the press that the Senate had no majority for reform, he opined that there "was no health care crisis". When, directly in the middle of the health care fight Whitewater began to pick up steam, Moynihan was the first Democrat to urge the appointment of special prosecutor, so he gets partial credit for giving the country Ken Starr. What lay at the heart of all this was that Moynihan didn't want to do health care reform, and given his own self regard, he figured he shouldn't have to. Moynihan instead wanted to do welfare reform first -- a judgment he was right about, but partially because his own intransigence rendered it correct.
His committee eventually produced a mockery of a health care bill that was neither universal nor concerned with cost controls and, when that proved itself clearly flawed, he fell back on his fetishization of bipartisanship and mused about a joint Dole-Moynihan bill. Of course, Dole was running for president, everyone knew the right had sworn to end his candidacy if health care reform passed, and no one was under any illusions that the majority leader was going to hand Clinton a legislative of victory right before he challenged him for the White House. But Moynihan held out some hope, didn't push hard for any other plans because of it, and was predictably disappointed when Dole ignored the whole thing so he could knife Clinton. Given all that, Hillary's offense was a piddling misstep, it was Moynihan who poisoned the well.
June 06, 2005
The Real Watergate Mystery
With retellings of Watergate ricocheting around the blogs, I can't, as a 21-year old, help feeling that the most stunning thing about it wasn't Nixon's willingness to break the law, wasn't Felt's bravery in coming forward, but the fact that anyone considered the Brookings Institution worth firebombing. As things stand, I can't think of a more anodyne, staid group than the Brookings folk, but 30 years ago they posed enough of a threat that a sitting president wanted to detonate their building? Forget what happened to Felt, what happened to Brookings?
June 02, 2005
So Do I get Ben Stein's Money Now?
Via Sam Rosenfeld, Ben Stein's article arguing that Deep Throat somehow brought the Khmer Rouge to power and was thus responsible for a genocide is just about the craziest thing I've ever read. The first portion of the piece is hamfisted hagiography, like:
That is his legacy. He was a peacemaker. He was a lying, conniving, covering up peacemaker. He was not a lying, conniving drug addict like JFK, a lying, conniving war starter like LBJ, a lying, conniving seducer like Clinton -- a lying, conniving peacemaker. That is Nixon's kharma.
The problem with that formulation is you're taking one aspect of his presidency and blowing it into the guy's singular mission. By that standard, Kennedy was a lying, conniving economy-grower, Johnson was a lying, conniving enemy of poverty, and Clinton was a lying, conniving harbinger of the information age. It doesn't even make sense.
I, by the way, am pretty sympathetic to Nixon. His economic policies were stupidly formulated and a major cause of stagflation, and Nixon only let them through because he idolized his Treasury Secretary, John Connally, but other than that he wasn't a particularly bad president. His approach to foreign policy was quite sound and he wasn't so much a Republican as a Whig, he viewed the presidency as a quasi-spiritual institution that could be leveraged to make Americans better themselves morally. Indeed, Democrats would've been far better off if Watergate never happened. Jimmy Carter's ascendance was just about the worst thing that's happened to our party in the last 50 years, and in an alternate universe where it never occurred Democrats wouldn't be seen as nearly so weak, pessimistic, paralyzed in the face of danger, etc. If you want to know why we lose currently, it's because we're viewed as the party of Carter rather than Clinton.
Nevertheless, Ben Stein's argument is massively stupid. It was the American bombing of Cambodia, authorized by Nixon and aimed at helping Lon Nol's government squash the Khmer Rouge, that ultimately destroyed popular support for the American puppet and allowed Pol Pot and his forces to achieve power. Worse, the whole thing began when Sihanouk was deposed by Lon Nol, a move we supported. On a lighter note, if Stein thinks Nixon would have deployed troops to fight a popular movement that laid claim to most all of Cambodia's territory, than he's not a peacemaker, he'd have been embroiling us in another Vietnam. One can argue that it'd have been worth it, but no one knew that at the time.
Second, Ben Stein argues that Nixon's resignation somehow made the South Vietnamese government lose the war. This, of course, was a few paragraphs after he argued that Nixon ended the war in Vietnam. Can't have both, Ben. Either Nixon would have recommitted troops and tried to win the war or he would've let Vietnam fall to the Communists, but they're mutually exclusive propositions.