More on Clark

Mark Schmitt had a really good after-New Hampshire post on Wes Clark which I finally got to read. Schmitt offers a very appealing alternate vision of how Clark's message could have run which would have freed him from all the inane proving he's a Democrat garbage not to mention having to defend his nuanced position on the war to everyone and their mother by oversimplifying it. Basically, Clark had a chance to speak for the middle, the people decidedly not concerned with party labels, but in a supremely principled rather than politically opportunistic way. He could have capitalized on the political neutrality generals are allowed in order to argue that he was the candidate for free-thinking Democrats and Republicans alike unhappy with Bush policy. That in fact, is what his candidacy hinged on, and why, besides the money and Internet bases, he was seen as the anti-Dean. Dean's unreconstructed Dem populist schtick is anathema to Republicans, but a Clark candidacy for the middle could easily lay claim to Clark as the 'real' uniter of the increasingly hostile parties. But somehow Clark got goaded into swearing all sorts of lefty affiliations he didn't need to, they don't really fit, and they are stunting his ability to really get in the spotlight. One has to wonder if Bill Clinton, who became the hardest working man in politics just to prove he was the real president of the middle, is trying to figure out why Clark is in this position when he wouldn't have had to lift a finger for the same creds.

It is quite a shame that when self-professed 'moderates' look at the Dem candidates, their best bet looks like Lieberman. That's really weak. It should be Clark.


Threshhold of Electability

Ruy Teixeira has a string on where John Kerry stands now, which I think is a pretty good take on the apprehension a lot of people are probably feeling about the primaries right now. That is, a lot of the people who, circa December 2003, were talking about how they learned to stop worrying and love the Dean.


The thin economy

Do read Kevin Drum's post on the economy today. Drum says:

These anecdotes all point to the thing that bothers me the most about the direction of our economy: there are too many trends that are squeezing the wages of traditional working-class and middle-class workers.

It's a very important point. Granted, some people are picking up on it very well, but it can't be emphasized enough. Loser deals for the American middle class are only increasing and we have to do something about it. Indeed, there are many forces beyond our control at play, and the middle class is inevitably going to take some hits as the phenomenon of white-collar third world outsourcing stabilizes. But that doesn't mean we can't do anything about it. The regression of the American middle class should be priority one for every politician in the country.

How I learned to stop worrying and love the Dean

So went the mantra of every pundit you could shake a stick at, circa December 2003. Things, obviously, have changed. Dean's second place finish in New Hampshire tonight--nothing too spectacular, but nonetheless solidly outperforming the polling--means he will stay in this race for a while yet, and the spectators will have to hold off on those ready-to-go obits for a while longer.

That's good, in one sense, because it forces us to reconsider why we came to terms with Dean in the first place...reasons that, even if they do not a nominee make are critical to the Democratic party nonetheless. A lot of criticism has been leveled at the Dean campaign for prizing 'process' over 'electability'. But going into February 3rd, the fundamentals of that 'process' have not changed, and, in fact, are the one indisputable thing between Dean and certain oblivion.

While other candidates talk about picking and choosing between the February 3rd states, Dean has organization on the ground in all 7, and he has the money to back them up, too. While the other candidates decide how to apply their meager resources to the most momentum-garnering primary opportunities, Dean has the luxury of organizations ready to go.

The lesson of this is not that Dean is the finest candidate for the job. But it does speak to what other candidates aren't doing, i.e., building excitement and building loyalty on a decisive scale.


Clark confusion

Garance Franke-Ruta, has a good post on Clark at Tapped which sums up a lot, I think.

Last September, I did not experience the same Wesley Clark swoon as many of my male colleagues in the press. I attribute this partly to the fact that I am female. For reasons that have not yet been fully plumbed by members of the media, women are less receptive to Clark's charms than are men. Clark has tried to counteract this female caution by proposing the most explicitly pro-family agenda in the Democratic field. Yet women voters remains more diffident than men towards Clark here in New Hampshire.

I think this goes to the heart of what has always been Clark's potential downfall: the fundamental enthusiasm about his candidacy is purely theoretical. In late 2002, if you could have asked frustrated Democrats to build a fantasy candidate for the '04 election, he would look a lot like Wes Clark. He's military, he's Southern, he's attractive, he's smart, and he has dibs on Clinton people and Clinton legacy. To some extent, the buzz around Clark is still largely based on that theory. There's been a strange hollowness to his campaign, and when reporters critique his appearances now, the complaints are largely the same leveled at his announcement speech. He just doesn't appear to have come into his own as a candidate. The hypothetical Clark is still a good choice, as evidenced by his continued strength in the polls, but the damage wrought by his inability to create a unique message that transcends his resume has been heavy.


Dean RIP

Really? The post-mortems are flowing fast and furious now, since Dean's poor showing in Iowa and the stupid yelp controversy (on which Mark Schmitt has a fine take in the midst of a longer post about Paul Wellstone). I think the post-mortems are probably a bit premature, but they do reveal a lot about this next phase in the nomination process (also known as the 'first' phase to the rest of the country).

One epitaph says that Dean and his organization became too obsessed with the messianic movement aura that had been created around the campaign. That it stifled substance in favor of inevitability and moral certainty and only really appealed to pundits and the people that fancy themselves pundits for what it said about the future of campaigning, Democratic party organization, etc. When the movement left the confines of the invisible primary and went in front of real voters, it lacked a coherent policy vision, seemed too negative compared to Edwards and Kerry, and maybe even a bit creepy. The outside the box campaign slammed into the hard wall of said box, inside of which were the regular voters and John Kerry.

Another says that the regular voters just don't hate Bush that much. The passionate anti-Bushness at the center of the Dean campaign was news to the voters, and other candidates, who had more fluid anti-Bush messages, were able to capitalize on this. The upside of this postmortem says that Dean has served a truly invaluable purpose during this election cycle. He drew the anti-Bush anger of the Democratic base away in a way that avoided the narcissism of a Nader candidate. Attentive democrats were angry about Bush. And had no candidate emerged to lead that anger it would have ended in a primary season characterized by divisiveness and bitterness. But that's over now, and people want a candidate that can win.

I guess my question is, can we really give up on 'process' that easily? Many smart people constructed very smart reasons around why a new campaign strategy would be required to beat G2. Obviously one issue is money. If Dean is out, the only candidate than can hope to raise his money is Kerry, by plundering his wife's fortune. The narrow population of Democratic donors is a big problem for the party, one that the Dean campaign promises to resolve. The second issue is a question of message. As many would-be Dean theorists said, the Al Gore message would not rouse the base and independents to the level it needed to win the election. Of course any departure is a gamble, but the gamble, as exemplified by Dean, was the only shot at defeating the Bush juggernaut.

The latter reason is why I feel ultimately ambivalent about Kerry. I don't have any real dislike for him, he just doesn't excite me, and I think the primary thing necessary in this campaign is a sense of excitement. Everyone is now discrediting the Dean strategy of mobilizing the base, since the late arrivals in Iowa sealed his loss, but I don't think that utterly disproves the idea, and my gut tells me woe to the candidate who thinks he can win this election with some mushy crap designed to appeal to swing voters.

Dean, regardless of his future has been useful. He made regular Democrats who give a damn feel like someone understood their horror at the Bush administration, and that's no small thing. Personally, I like Edwards more every day. He has transformed the message of middle class disenfranchisement into something powerful and eloquent, and he's the kind of candidate you can fall in love with. He'll definitely need to make a big stand on foreign policy/homeland security, which won't be easy. But if he can snare that, he may just get the nomination.

What poor?

Hrm. That Robert Rector thing from the Heritage Foundation about how poor people have it good seems to be catching on everywhere. See this NRO article about how John Edwards' discussion of struggling low-income families is a cheap ploy, exploiting sympathy for the mythical poor.

The mythical poor meme is quite convenient for conservatives trying to divert attention from the real stakes this election year: the stagnating middle class. Since welfare reform, the poor have become almost an invisible issue in national politics. The watershed change in how Democrats approach the problem of poverty, engineered by Bill Clinton, swept away the 30 year stretch of Democrats monopoly on engaging poverty, begun in earnest in the Great Society programs. Republicans have been a bit adrift on this point since then, having lost a long-favored whipping boy in partisan debate: "Oh you know Democrats, they're always crying about those lazy-ass poor people who scam the government and then go home to make more babies and roll around on their food stamp hoards."

Part of the deal Clinton made dictates that Democrats now can't really focus on poverty without losing that bulwark against Republican taunts. So this time, Democrats are trying to shape a new message about the middle class, and how it is being left behind as America's wealthy are catapulted into exponentially higher income brackets each year. John Edwards is probably the most eloquent candidate on this point, but the general idea is near ubiquitous. The problem for the middle class is that wages are stagnant, jobs are meager, while the big-ticket items that promote improved life experience and security, like education, health care, confidence in your retirement, are all getting more expensive and out of reach. Republicans are having a hard time with this because, for all the mileage Bush gets with middle Americans for being tough and kick-ass, no one can honestly argue that he's untouchable on middle-class security issues.

So some conservatives have decided to go for a flank they remember fondly, the poverty debate. "Hey, poor people have all these big screen TVs, why are you exaggerating their problems?" Edwards: "Um, I take issue with that, but I was talking about the middle class." "La la la la la. Oh poor people have it so bad, you guys haven't changed at all." See?

This attack resonates with people who are still concerned about poverty, and offends. Because while poor people in America today obviously have a better standard of living than they did 100 years ago, or than poor people do in say, Somalia, (which I think might be setting the bar a smidge low for the world's preeminent post-industrial democracy, but whatever), there are objective standards of decency in medical care, in educational attainment, in nutrition, etc., that many people are still far short of. Maybe Rector should think about why poor people have the money to buy Playstations...perhaps because there's no chance they can afford health insurance or college for their children? Just a thought.

As I was saying, although this unexpected raising of the mythical poor is noticeable to the people still concerned about poverty, I wonder if it is such an effective argument for people who took Clinton's bait and haven't thought about it lately. If Bush came out all Pollyanna on middle class troubles, "you people have it great, look at your consumer electronics" and John Edwards says, "Hey, I know you're worried about your health insurance, that's messed up," who are voters going to listen to?

Edwards' "flip-flop"

Let me put my two cents in about this inane "Edwards supports Social Security privatization" attack that's been floating around, courtesy of Drudge. If you read the Drudge smear, its very obvious what Edwards was talking about: investing a piece of the Social Security trust fund in a very, very broad market index fund. This is an idea that lots of Social Security loving people were considering back in the heady days of the late 90s, and truth be told, its still not such a bad idea. Over time, the 10 percent of the trust fund does stand to make a better return than the other 90 percent in treasuries. If the market has a down year, the government can cover that loss with other money, to be paid back when the bull market returns. Social Security makes a little more money, and everyone is happy. Granted, no one is crowing about it now because it would be politically stupid, but sure enough when the market has been humming for an acceptable period of time, this idea will reemerge.

Now, that is NIGHT and DAY from G2's individual investment scheme. That proposes we remove money from the Social Security account, and give it to the recipients early, allowing them a wide degree of latitude in how to invest it. Then, when it comes time for them to retire they get whatever is in the account. For some lucky people, that will be a lot, for other cautious people, it will probably be comparable, but for unlucky people, and for most people if they are trying to retire during a market downturn, that account will be real disappointing. And the government won't be around to cover the loss, because they already gave you the money in the first place. This is a stupid, stupid idea. Not to mention the fact that its already moot, since government would have to cover the deficit in the Social Security account now or cut current benefits to retirees. Sorry grandma, you only get $300 this month. Your grandson is going to take the stock market for a little test drive. When Social Security gets taken out of your paycheck, the cash isn't squirreled away in some box with your name on it somewhere in the Treasury Department, to await you when you're 70. It ends up in a check to an 80 year old somewhere. This should be common knowledge, but I think the Bushes realize it isn't, and are capitalizing on that.


El Mars

I guess we shouldn't talk about Mars anymore since the bad polling appears to mean that 'grand vision' is now conveniently forgotten. But for nostalgia's sake, read Gregg Easterbrook on the unmitigated silliness, on every level, of Bush's proposal:

In the days to come, any administration official who says that a Moon base could support a Mars mission is revealing himself or herself to be a total science illiterate. When you hear, "A Moon base could support a Mars mission," substitute the words, "I have absolutely no idea what I am talking about."

State of the Union

Jon Stewart having basically said it all notwithstanding, here's my take on the speech.

1. The Iraq part really did sound good despite the fact that the bulk of it was pure fantasy. Someone worked hard on that and it was a very eloquent exposition of the whole theoretical Iraq case start to finish which will no doubt play well with people who want to believe it. It also made me come back to the kind of cynicism about Iraq that has been hard to keep straight in the face of confronting the war's legitimate moral questions. It's just hard not to see how politics didn't play a ginormous role in this war of 'choice.' September 11 made the Bush team realize that people really loved their boy when he was commander in chief and it's pretty hard to imagine that they didn't understand that his political success could be insured by keeping him at war. War, and the carte blanche given by September 11 were just such political gold, I don't see how they couldn't make it the centerpiece of their job to keep the president popular. I know its wrong or at least moot to talk about this, but the feeling is just so unavoidable. I mean, people are still grousing about Clinton sending a couple bombers to Kosovo in order to distract attention from Monica Lewinsky. Why can't we grouse about this more?

2. The domestic piece on the other hand, was really suprisingly weak. The last minute speech previews were all about how this address was going to focus on domestic issues and play down the Iraq stuff, in order to score some points on Bush's increasingly sour poll numbers on the economy, health care, etc. But it didn't happen. The the health care proposals were the most meaty section new policy-wise and he ran through them in about 5 minutes, with another 2 or 3 minutes to laud the Medicare drug bill and all of these policy proposals were numbers free. Then he threw a couple of really vague bones to the base about abstinence and forcing kids to get drug tested, the weirdo-steroids thing (also just a suggestion, no policy attached), the immigration proposal, and of course the obligatory permanent tax cut appeal.

Did people not do their homework? I'm just at a bit of a loss to understand why the domestic part was so weak. I really expected to get a laundry list of back from the dead domestic favorites all coated in faux statistics which liberal pundits would have to dissect for days. I don't want to speak too soon, but this seems like a major misjudgment, and very uncharacteristic of the Bush machine. I mean, what happened to the 'compassionate' juggernaut? The 'ownership' juggernaut? On the one hand, maybe they know what they're doing and decided it was silly to blow their hand when the news will have to turn to New Hampshire, thereby putting a half-life on any compassion points policies will get now. On the other hand, what if they really don't think its necessary? That they can rest on the tax cut laurels throughout the whole campaign? That's going to leave a lot of room for Dem candidates to gain ground on domestic policy. No doubt they MUST keep offering alternatives to Iraq and talk about homeland security with big vision ideas, and so on. But to the extent they can marginalize the foreign policy stuff which Bush must rely on for his legitimacy and offer exciting domestic programs, they should.

3. The Democratic response was sooooo wretched. I mean, OH MY GOD what were they thinking? PLEASE someone notice Kevin Drum's suggestion about getting good speakers and doing the response in a room with other human beings next time. And maybe they could be standing??? I guess I understand why in an off year the response is crappy--where's the momentum to draw on, just make a good showing on the points, so, um, perhaps all the people reading the text of the response later will be able to come to a sensible conclusion about the policy disagreements. But in an election year? When the democratic primary contest is nothing if not filled with a multitude of finely crafted rhetoric about why Bush sucks? We get Tom Daschle, looking like he's about to fall asleep in his big poorly lit chair, and his cospeaker, a creepy Robotress who apparently has no clue how to read off teleprompters and didn't take the time to practice? It's just embarrassing, and the kind of mistakes we cannot make. At least they had a bit with John Kerry, who, although strangely difficult to look at is at least personable. The alternative seems like such a no brainer, and so potentially effective, its just mindblowing that we got what we did. I mean, I couldn't even stay focused on it. He made the homeland security critique lines an absolute snooze. There was way too much poorly delivered math and her eyes made me really uncomfortable. Sheesh. No more of that, please for the love of god.


Let me just say, if you happened to miss it as I almost did, find some way to watch the Daily Show's coverage of the State of the Union that aired last night. As I wept with laughter and was filled with this strange feeling of relief, I had an epiphany about why Jon Stewart is so much more than a funny SNL-type political diversion. The jokes that he makes on that show are the obvious things that everyone has been saying to their coworkers and their friends and thinking about in their head all day, but no one on television actually says them. The feeling of relief comes from realizing that just maybe the alternate universe you were living in when you watched the straight faced newscasters on CNN isn't so unpermeable to reason. For everyone who decries the 'coarsening of our politics' just look at the wide gulf between the Daily Show's no-nonsense take on the State of the Union and the tyranny of artificial civility that makes these stories invisible to the 'mainstream' press corps.


Read Slate's "Liberal Hawks Reconsider the War" dialogue this week, with posts from Jacob Weisberg, Fred Kaplan, George Packer, Christopher Hitchens and others, it's quite good. Writing about the big, tough questions posed by the Iraq invasion has generally declined since the period right before the invasion, when really fine critical thinking about democratization, Middle Eastern history, and American supremacy was appearing daily. The simplifications that inevitably come with presidential campaigns, the neverending backlog of Bush deceptions and improprieties to be explained, and the difficulty of simply figuring out what the hell is happening on the ground in Iraq have all drawn attention from questions of global ethics, defining terrorism, the new world order (?), and American hegemony.

I hope to respond to more of the posts in the future, but for now I'll respond to just one theme: the democratizing 'spillover' effect. The administration and supporters of the war have made a lot out of the concessions made by Syria and Lybia to open their doors to WMD inspectors since the end of the war. Some critics of the war have tried to downplay the connection between Iraq policy and these other successes, but I don't think that's necessary. Intimidating sketchy countries by smashing up countries next to them has proven, over time to be a pretty successful strategy. The drawback is that intimidation is an inconsistent tool, and it often requires a continued demonstration of force to hold everything in place.

But regardless. There's no reason to doubt that getting rid of Saddam will make other corrupt leaders in the Middle East check themselves. Most of the corrupt Middle Eastern states long ago lost their legitimacy as real ideological authoritarian regimes and have become mostly criminal corporatist type states, bent on their own survival and enrichment by any means necessary. Brazenly bucking the West and proving yourself a big Arab nationalist are not so essential to legitimacy anymore, and dictators know what it takes to stay in power. Reluctant war-supporters, with no love or confidence for the Bush administration, tend to see this intimidation spillover as a short-term necessary evil and an important symbolic gesture, even if they don't believe its the most sensible way to address WMD proliferation.

The democratizing spillover effect, on the other hand, is key to their support for the war. They understand the cold hard truth that without an invasion, Saddam wasn't going anywhere for a while. We could apply various polite and not-so-polite pressures to his broken state, and hope this kept him in check and maybe even loosened his reigns on the Iraqis, but Saddam was not the kind of leader that leaves unless its on the barrel of a gun. And most of these states have little hope of internal rebellion. Extrapolating from this fact, they posit that the process of dismantling the whole phenomenon of Middle Eastern authoritarianism, and its recent handmaiden the 'terror bubble' (in Friedman's words), can only be brought about by an action of unmitigated force. Would they have liked it better if Bush had gone about the whole enterprise without so much incompetence and arrogance, without inflicting so much unnecessary damage on the alliances and institutions which can only help the cause in the long run? Of course. But thinking the blunt instrument of war can be used under perfect circumstances, that the jolt required to shake Middle Eastern authoritarianism to its core can be dispensed in good faith is a foolish ideal. It is a bungling catastrophe only recommended by the fact that it is a better option than all the others. Hmmm. I think I have digressed.

The point is, the reluctant hawks think the destruction of the criminal Iraqi state, and its replacement with a long hard road of imperfect democratization looks pretty ugly, but it is necessary to create at least one large Arab state which can start to turn the tide of gangster paralysis in the region. But I have yet to see a good discussion of how this democratizing spillover is supposed to function alongside the intimidation spillover which should be paying immediate dividends. The goals of each policy are fundamentally different. The mechanism of democratization by example is usually vaguely described as "What will happen now, when Syrians can look across the border and see Iraqis enjoying democratic practices, freedom from authoritarian heavy-handedness, etc" The idea is that Syrians will then demand more concessions from their government, including the eventual dissolution of the corrupt dictatorship, since as we learned before, everything else is a sham democracy.

Simultaneously however, Bashar al-Assad (or at least the military pushing him around) is supposed to be scared into allowing weapons inspectors in, turning over terrorists they harbor, and abiding by U.S. demands. Which means the Syrian regime will be trying to make itself more palatable to the U.S. Giving in on the headlines the Americans demand about transparency and showing themselves cowed before the U.S.'s hardline against terrorism. Unfortunately, history has shown time and again in the Middle East that regimes know just how to play the Americans on security issues. Most of the Middle Eastern regimes are what they are now because of years of that sort of dealing. And it is decidedly contradictory to the democratization and opening of regional societies.

There should be no real doubt that our invasion means a better future for Iraq. The process of getting there will be far more painful than we will ever know or appreciate, and we will most likely leave long before that process is settled. But we do know the exceptional crimes of the Hussein regime will not be repeated anymore. But whether other countries in the region will be able to take this path without the extraordinary measure of regime change seems very unlikely, especially as we inaugurate a new period of wheeling and dealing with these regimes.

Now, I'm not saying the answer is to regime change all the other bad guys. This instability unleashed by another action like Iraq would be truly devastating and could send the region into a downward spiral which even American taxpayers could not buy away. For now, I'll just say we ought to explicitly address the different and contradictory pressures spilling over to other countries in the region, instead of considering each force in a vacuum.

More McKinley Redux

Richard Florida's recent article for the Washington Monthly, "Creative Class Warfare" is a must read. Of the many excellent points made therein, his discussion of immigration and America's economic future, is especially critical right now. Florida lays out the indispensability of immigrants to the American economy's competitive edge in no uncertain terms, and then goes on to demonstrate how the Bush administration has shot us in the foot on so many levels by making immigration for creative types, entrepreneurs, intellectuals and other educated foreigners unattractive. That could have worked twenty years ago...where else were they going to go? But that doesn't fly today. The world is flush with burgeoning creative capitals, and the U.S. has to get out there and compete like everyone else.

Instead, we get the current immigration proposal focusing on migrant Mexican labor. If giveaways to the coal industry didn't make it clear, then surely it is obvious now that Bush's platform is pulling its issues from the history books. When you think about America and immigration in the 21st century, and then you hear Bush talk about regulating Mexican labor flows, an abiding problem for the last 100+ years (or whenever California became a state), as his bid for a watershed policy change, you start to realize just how out of touch Bush is with all of the lines of national debate Clinton opened. And how deeply pessimistic and insular this country has become. It's not just the lingering feeling of September 11, its this administration and their mission to turn back the clock on American progress.

Final WTC Memorial

Despite my earlier grousing about the bland, clueless memorial designs for the World Trade Center site, I have to say I think the winning design was definitely the best of the bunch, with the revised version only an improvement. In the artistic renderings for the original site plans, there was a similar memorial concept which I liked. That rendering didn't have the water features in the current design, just two dry voids the same size as the tower footprints. Like the current design, there was a narrow cut in the walls of the empty areas, and visitors could descend into a narrow walkway which would look out onto the space. The walls were high enough so that from the subterranean gallery looking up, a visitor would only be able to see the sky. The power in this design came from its ability to create a powerful feeling of alienation from the city itself.

Imagine visiting the memorial in August. Descending from the hot din of Lower Manhattan 40 feet below ground to a cool dark hallway, the noise of the city muted above, the shuffling of other visitors feet, their breathing, suddenly loud and present. When you try to look for the buildings, the people, the life, craning your neck, you find only empty sky. You slowly walk the outlines of the massive squares in silence with your fellow visitors, voices lowered until the hallway ends, and you ascend the long ramp back to the city, the sound, the heat.

It works because it focuses on process rather than substance. It draws you out of the routine, the familiarity of the city, and by extension, of life. The rhetorical purpose isn't clear, but the disjointing emotional effect is. It also works because it deals with the people experiencing the memorial rather than people memorialized by it. Its power is not in keeping a literal record of those who have died, but in bringing the living into contact with memory and lost experiences.

The similar design chosen as the finalist has retained many of these features, although the window on to the void will now be obscured by a curtain of water, the voids themselves will be half filled with water, and you'll also be able to go underneath the voids and look up through the pool. Also, there won't be walls around the top, so you won't get the blocking out effect planned in the other design. The memorial doesn't really need these aspects and I wonder if the designers will decide they are extraneous at some point, but neither are they too offensive. I tend to believe that memorials shouldn't require mechanical upkeep, and by 2010 the water is probably going to be pretty scummy and some parts of the water curtain will probably be on the fritz, which will be embarrassing and make the whole enterprise feel dated.

The revised plan also includes an underground memorial museum. While I think this is OK and feeds a necessary demand which visitors from around the world will have when they visit the site, I would hope that it is kept separate from the memorial itself, which should try to keep its content as simple as possible.


Campaign finance canard

Heard something distressing on All Things Considered earlier, a line which has made its rounds before. Basically, the idea is that liberal 527 and 501(c)3 organizations represent the damning loophole left open in the McCain-Feingold law. Much has been made of George Soros' 10 million pledge to defeat President Bush, and how liberals, who never had much money to begin with have had to go all sneaky now that their noble idea has ended up screwing them. And, of course, that's true to some extent. That's why people are excited about Howard Dean.

But on an ethical level, we need to draw a line between the activities of anti-Bush 527s and what campaign finance reform intends to change about the system. While devilishly hard to legislate, the spirit of campaign finance reform, and laws like McCain Feingold, is to eliminate the quid-pro-quo rampant in the election funding game, i.e., Rupert Murdoch directs Newscorp to give the Republicans a couple million and they just somehow end up reaping hundreds of millions of dollars in deregulation from administration appointed telecom officials. That is a whole lot different from Soros giving millions of dollars to organizations who produce negative campaigns about George Bush. There's no clear path for how Soros is maximizing his financial self-interest by having George Bush NOT in the White House.

Liberals were incensed that crazy conservatives bjillionaires like Dick Scaife spent millions upon millions of dollars to create nonprofits, magazines and action groups dedicated to spreading nastiness about Bill Clinton, but they never held it up as a violation of campaign finance ethics.

McCain-Feingold has a whole lot of issues, and I hope we don't think the campaign finance battle is taken care of now that the Supreme Court has signed off on the law. There is still much work to be done, many loopholes to be closed, and far more innovative thinking to be put into practice. But asserting that the biggest problem in campaign finance laws are groups who truly have no more specific agenda than opposing the current administration is not the way to go.


The new DOL numbers

Yikes. The new BLS numbers report only *1,000* new jobs added last month. At the same time the unemployment rate fell two tenths, to 5.7 percent. What's going on here? As discussed here before, the discrepancies in reporting between the Bureau of Labor Statistics payroll survey, which produces the number of actual jobs added, and the household survey, which informs the official unemployment rate can be very revealing in determining the real nature of jobs created during a recovery. The payroll survey looks directly at establishments' payroll records, while the household survey asks a sample of households about employment: The flaw of the payroll survey is that it will count an individual with two jobs as two separate official 'jobs.' Likewise, if the two-job individual loses one job, that is counted as a lost job, even though that specific individual is still employed. It is also slow to pick up on new business creation (although defenders say it is getting better, and a similar lag in eliminating dead businesses from the survey somewhat accounts for any new businesses missed).

The flaw of the household survey, on the other hand, is that it reports jobs based on the responses of individuals. Thus, if someone does 5 hours of undocumented work and reports it, that is counted as a job. In a recovery, the household survey numbers increase more quickly because businesses will be cautious about investing in new full time workers, but will take on temporary and undocumented workers as they grow capacity.

Ultimately however, continuing divergence between the surveys serves as a crude indicator of the quality of new jobs being created in a recovery. And we are starting to see confirmation that the new jobs created in this recovery, what few there are, are well below the jobs they are 'replacing' in wages and benefits. CAP cites this study from the U.S. Conference of Mayors showing new jobs created during the 2004-05 period are forecast to pay an average of $35,855, much lower than the $43,629 average pay of jobs lost between 2001-03.

We will get the jobs back eventually. Even though the Bush administration has done everything in its power to make the recovery reward business first, new investement is only trending upward, and we will continue to see healthy positive growth. The jobs will come, if only at a trickle. But the real lasting impression of this recession may be that it quickened the American labor market's descent into a jungle of low-wages, few protections, and no security. For all the problematic aspects of growth under the Clinton years, they did represent income gains for low- and moderate-income workers, a shaky foundation surely, but something to expand on and solidify. This recession may be the nail in that coffin, proof that the late 90s were truly an anomaly, a momentary diversion on the long downward spiral for American workers.


Round 1

Well, no one ever said the man was stupid, right? Right??? The immigration reform plan that Bush proposed in a White House speech yesterday is pure political genius.

As mentioned here before, the hardships endured by both legal and illegal immigrants since 9/11 has the potential to be a big, big story, at least so called liberal media wise. It has big human tragedy written all over it, and could be persuasive to those voters who don't think we should trample absolutely everything in the name of security. If nothing else, it at least loses Bush his 'compassion' points in one area. At that's the worst possible thing that can happen to him in terms of swing voters. The hawks are already in the bag.

Here's G2's basic election strategy: cover every possible base with vague policies you don't intend to follow through on, but which can be held up as indisputable examples of "compassionate conservatism." (Sweet Jesus I hope I never see that word not in quotes) And he didn't have one for immigration yet.

Note that this proposal, which involves 'immigrants' and sounds kinda progressive (The Progress Report has a good rundown of why the proposal stinks anyway) is directed squarely at illegal Mexican laborers. There is no mention of the other immigrant populations so adversely affected by Bush policy. (You know, the educated economically mobile ones who want to become hardworking citizens and spread American values and knowledge all over the globe) Because their mention might invite criticism, and there is no criticism in the Bushiverse. It's as if they don't even exist. It's perfect.

In a media which turns on sentence fragments instead of paragraphs, this policy stunt will end up preemptively closing every argument on immigration policy. Sing along if you like:

Critic: "Bush's policies towards immigrants have been draconian and counterproductive. Let's repair our relationship with the foreign born population at home and with hardworking people that want to come to America around the world."

Scarbohannireilly: "Didn't the President just announce the most sweeping immigration reform of the last 30 years when he said illegal workers should get temporary status, and be able to receive benefits, legal protections, even Social Security??? What more do you want from him?"

Had enough yet? It's only getting started.



Brooks today "argues" that critics of the neo-conservative movement are really just anti-Semites and loony conspiracy theorists. I'm trying to figure out how to succinctly explain everything that is wrong with this, and Brooks, and a world in which this passes muster on the op-ed page of the NYT, but I think I'll just let Josh Marshall do it for me.

That dang Lieberman, or, how to keep Dean out of the tank

"You said that to say what" award for Sunday's debate goes to Joe Lieberman for his now-ubiquitous quip comparing our current situation with Saddam in custody and Osama bin Laden on the loose to our situation after World War II, with Hitler defeated and Joseph Stalin still in power. Gack. Did he actually say that? I know there are other more pressing issues here, but Lieberman really ought to be chastised for indulging in the kind of gross historical hyperbole that conservatives have played to such a hilt since 9/11. The scary thing is, if Bush had a little more leeway in the demonstrated threat department, you can bet he would be tossing around Saddam and Hitler interchangably. This is precisely the direction he is going, and Lieberman obviously can't stop himself from doing the man a favor. William Saletan has a funny rundown of the whole shebang here.

Also, obligatory link to James Traub's Dems and National Security piece from Sunday. No doubt an excellent piece, it provides a wonderfully concise explanation of the ghosts animating Democratic debate over the war. Sometimes, though, I wonder if Democrats worry about the national security issues a bit too much. Obviously, security and foreign policy are more important now than they have been for a long time, but the polls (and perhaps I'll look for the links tomorrow) that I've come across still put these issues way below the domestic items that have consistently trumped all other concerns on election day.

But the past two elections and September 11 have made us jittery about the conventional wisdom: Gore ended up not being president, despite an economy and federal budget that couldn't get much better, and when Democrats tried to bank on domestic items in 2002, they learned the hard way that September 11 was still fresh in people's minds (although, for the record, that defeat was not as decisive as its made out to be, and hysterical GOP propoganda about security and patriotism made those issues seem more decisive than they probably were). In any event, the current Democratic neuroses over how to position ourselves on national security is understandable. Nonetheless, I think there is a good chance that three shifts may become apparent as we get deeper into 2004:

(1) 3 years later, September 11 won't be so fresh in the minds of voters who don't live and breathe orange alerts, and the fresher and considerably more mixed foreign policy story, namely Iraq, won't have anywhere near the ability to get voters minds out of their pocketbooks;

(2) the general electorate may not be so quick to see the budget busting value in Iraq as a valiant humanitarian mission. Michael O'Hanlon has a nightmare, apparently, "in which Dean wins the nomination, conditions in Iraq improve modestly and in the course of a debate, President Bush says: ''Go to Iraq and see the mass graves. Have you been, Governor Dean?'' In this nightmare, Bush has been, and Dean hasn't. ''Saddam killed 300,000 people. He gassed many of these people. You mean I should have thought there were no chemical weapons in the hands of a guy who impeded our inspectors for 12 years and gassed his own people and the Iranians?''"

I know this sort of moral reckoning talk strikes a chord with a lot of people on the coasts who felt solidarity with Clinton's interventionist policies, but as I remember, he had a devil of a time selling that to everyone else. If Bush keeps talking about all the Iraqis he's saved, and Dean keeps talking about how the war-induced budget deficit is going to take away your Social Security, who wins?

(3) Finally, I think a lot of what passes for debate about foreign policy could be better characterized as which candidate has more appeal to male voters. A lot of the rhetoric about toughness and decisiveness has a lot less to do with security issues than it does with Al Gore losing the white male vote faster than you can say cableknit earth tone sweater. Dean obviously has his own considerable character issues to deal with, but macho cred is definitely one area where he can compete. In fact his polling among women is already considerably weaker than his polling among men. Surely that's also worrying in its own right, but it reveals an opportunity that Democrats mostly assume is out of reach. Now, starting a couple wars obviously gives Bush a lead no matter how you score the man points, but let's not assume that character issues are synonymous with the more involved debate about the merits of the war.


My hate is bigger than yours

Much ink has been spilled over the differences between Clinton and Bush 'hatreds'. Conservatives have mostly played wounded, i.e., what did we ever do to deserve this? Mean ol' crazy-ass liberals. Oh well, they'll get theirs. Liberals have responded indignantly: now they're going to go and take our knee-jerk disgust away? What happened to just ignoring us?

Middle-of-the-roaders tut-tut that Democrats will never win an election if they insist on venting their frustration in a childish manner bound to alienate moderates. No doubt a valid issue, even if argued in a really smug tone by people who should spending their time investigating Bush.

Now, just for the record, Bush hatred is NOT the same as Clinton hatred, at base. The right wing hardcore of Clinton haters was composed of opportunists and sleaze mongers trying to destroy him by any means necessary: condemning him for adultery, saying he murdered people, and hysterically pushing any number of scandals peripheral to the actual business of policy making.

Bush haters, on the other hand, are composed of the elite of the liberal intelligentsia, people with real professional reputations to protect. Furthermore, while there is certainly no end to snipes about Bush's intellectual curiosity (and even those accusations have footnotes) Bush haters' real anger is focused on actual policy. Their most heated accusations are leveled directly at the administration's flagship initiatives and public political strategies.

Some have said that the it's just Bush's success that drives Democrats mad with hatred. Like Clinton, Bush can't be touched despite the huge risks his administration has taken and the criticism always snapping at his heels, the logic goes. There may be further truth to this, since, like Clinton, much of Bush's success has been based on his ability to coopt his opponent's rhetoric and policies, thereby grabbing a broader swath of public support. Only difference is, Clinton was actually a centrist, and when he stole ideas and language from the right, he went out and actually made policy that incorporated both sides. Not to say this wasn't a huge political advantage for him, but nonpartisan conservatives actually got some of what they bargained for. Bush, on the other hand, rips off the language of the left, and then wraps it around radically conservative policies. Thus, while Clinton haters had good reason to be angry that he was getting away with policies they should have been enacting, Bush is just getting away with murder.


Oh wait, Dean does have something going for him...

Nice post by Jack Balkin on the age old question of why governors keep getting elected President. Balkin notes two big reasons: governors enter the race with a loyal and tested executive staff already assembled, and they can more easily lay claim to indispensable 'outsider' creds. This scenario has been more than proven again in the Democratic field this year, as Dean's loyal staff has run circles around the Ccongressional candidates' operations, and, of course, he has milked his outsider status to no end. I would just add one thing to Balkin's analysis: one problem for Senators and Congressmen is that they just can't help but try to run on their legislative records, which invariably proves to be deathly boring. The public doesn't really get how one yea, nay, or cosponsorhip is all that impressive, especially since the incumbent or outgoing president has probably already sucked all the credit out of whatever bill Senator X proudly voted for. Furthermore, it opens those candidates up to vote-specific attacks which are near impossible to defend against: "You don't know what the riders were on that measure! The committee bill was a 180 from what passed the House!" Snore.

Governors on the other hand generally use their records in the statehouse selectively--culling a few good bits (i.e. Bush on Texas' education reforms (yeah, it's not true, but you get the point) or Dean on the astounding rates of health coverage in Vermont). No one is really going to make their case against a rival candidate based on the policy vagaries of a one state government, because voters don't want to hear about that, and when it gets picked up by the media, the stories are usually isolated and fizzle quickly. Not too many reporters are going to sit there and Nexis the Montpelier Gazette for juicy front page revelations. And again, governors tend to use their state records selectively rather than using them to prove every point. Can you imagine if Bill Clinton had based his whole campaign on Arkansas (I'll tell you why I'd be good on health care, Bob, because Arkansas was 47th in the nation on child poverty but now we're 43rd! Take that!)