Saturday, July 09, 2005

When terrorism begets nationalism...

Jonathan Schwartz, a progressive blogger who has commented recently at The Reaction (see here, for example, where he defends the primacy of the rule of law), offers a thoughtful take on good and evil, terrorism and nationalism at Moral Questions: see here. Key passage:
When you see things in terms of good and evil, you are forcing yourself into some very small boxes in terms of your ability to act. You certainly cannot negotiate with "evil personified". You are virtually forced to act with a heavy emphasis on force. So when we finished with the Taliban, it still, of course, was not enough to make us feel safe. We decide to go by force to eradicate our enemies, to hunt them down if we could in the region of the world where they lived. To destroy, we hoped, what it was in them -- "the evil" -- that we feared, and to make them like us. For that, in the end, is what fanatical nationalism cames down to: the belief that what is in our interest is good, and what is against our interests is evil.

With the London bombing, I have to wonder how much longer it will be before America itself is attacked again. And when that happens, I do fear how powerful nationalist appeals will become again. Indeed, a cynic would say that nothing could be better for Bush's stalled second term agenda. I just hope that if and when that time comes, we keep in mind the words of no less an arch-nationalist Republican than Abraham Lincoln: "with faith in the right, as long as God gives us the ability to see the right."

Good stuff, Jonathan. A lot for us all to think about.

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Iraqis and Iranians, sitting in a tree...

Hard to believe, but it looks like the Iraqi military will, at least in part, be trained by Iran. Demagogue reports here. Yes, one wonders what Bush and Rumsfeld have to say about this. But what about Iraq's Sunnis? There may be a good reason for this, and I'm keeping an open mind, but, given Iran's recent election and the continuing tensions between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq, it just doesn't seem to make any sense. Besides, isn't this yet another case of Bush-style flip-flopping when things go bad?

(Drum weighs in here. Gingersnapp at Blue Gal in a Red State links to the Aljazeera story here.)

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The fighting liberals

There's an effort underway to take philosophy (or ideology) out of the Senate's upcoming confirmation process for Bush's soon-to-be-announced nominee to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court and to replace it with more limited considerations of experience and character. That is, if a certain nominee has the requisite experience and character, why bother examining his (or her) judicial philosophy? This is what was behind Bush's well-received, if misunderstood, statements in Denmark the other day. Bush is credited (and I credited him myself here) for defending Gonzales and for calling for greater civility (and here). In fact, he advised senators not to listen to "the special interest groups, particularly those on the extremes that are trying to exploit this opportunity" and called for "a good, honest debate about the credentials of the person [he] [puts] forward, no matter who he or she is, and then give the person an up or down vote". That is, don't listen to those on the left and right who are talking judicial philosophy, just focus on "credentials" and vote (note: "up or down" means no filibuster).

If this means that Bush is set to nominate Gonzales, so be it. As I've said before, I'll support Gonzales as the least bad of all the leading candidates. But E.J. Dionne makes the case in today's Post that a fight over philosophy is a fight worth having, not least because with this battle over O'Connor's replacement (along with a likely battle over Rehnquist's replacement in the near-future) on the Supreme Court the right threatens to assume control of all three branches of government:
Should a temporary majority of 50.7 percent have control over the entire United States government? Should 49.3 percent of Americans have no influence over the nation's trajectory for the next generation?

Those are the stakes in the coming fight over the next Supreme Court justice. The much-maligned "outside groups" preparing for battle over President Bush's choice deserve credit for openly acknowledging this struggle for power...

Paradoxically, that's why the White House is telling its right-wing allies to shut up. It's not just that the president is understandably peeved over conservative attacks on his attorney general, Alberto Gonzales. By being so vocal, the conservative groups are making clear what the administration would like to obscure: that this is a political and philosophical choice. We are deciding whether one ideological orientation will hold sway over all three branches of the federal government.

That means that the most important questions for senators to ask a nominee have to do with his or her philosophy. It is preposterous to rule such questions out of bounds. It's also hypocritical...

In other words, to win an ideological fight and take control of "all levers of the federal government," Republicans will insist that the battle has nothing to do with either power or ideology. The conservative "special-interest groups," no less than their liberal counterparts, have so far refused to play this misleading game...

Those who say that politics, philosophy and "issues" shouldn't be part of the confirmation argument typically bemoan the prospect of a mean and dirty fight. But if the only legitimate way to stop a nominee is to discover or allege some personal shortcoming, all the incentives are in favor of nasty ad hominem attacks. If senators disagree profoundly with the philosophy of a nominee who happens to be a perfectly decent human being, isn't it far better that they wage their battle openly on philosophical and political grounds? Why force them to dig up bad stuff on a good person? Paradoxically, denying that politics matter in confirmation battles makes for uglier politics.

Dionne shows that Democrats have actually done quite well in terms of the popular vote: "Consider that since 1992 the Republican presidential vote has averaged only 44 percent and the vote for Republican House candidates has averaged roughly 48 percent. In 2004, with large margins in some of the largest states, Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate received nearly 5 million more votes than their Republican opponents." Republicans may control the White House and Congress, and all the Democrats may have is the filibuster, but the U.S. is not a one-party, one-philosophy state.

So it's time to talk philosophy and for Americans to know exactly what is at stake here. I have no doubt that the leading candidates to replace O'Connor are qualified jurists. That's really not the issue. But if the nominee is Luttig or McConnell or Gonzales or some old-fashioned conservative (see here) or someone still below the radar of speculation, there should be an open debate about what that nominee stands for, what his or her decisions in lower courts mean, what his or her political history is, and what can be expected from him or her on the Supreme Court (where he or she will have enormous power to change the course of American life as we know it).

Conservatives know what they want and they're pushing Bush to nominate one of their own. Liberals, in turn, need to be prepared to fight for what they believe in.

Because philosophy matters. Even when there's an effort to silence it.

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Panic, paranoia, vengeance: America's response to terrorism

Two impassioned posts by Mary at Pacific Views (which recently added The Reaction to its blogroll) address how the British (and Londoners in particular) are responding to the London terrorist attacks and how British leaders like London Mayor Ken Livingstone are "calling out the best and bravest part of the people" -- see here and here. She contrasts this lofty combination of sobriety, stoicism, and courage to what happened in America post-9/11. Here are the key passages from her two posts:

Listening to the BBC news tonight, I heard another commentator talking about how Londoners have faced awful attacks before and they have always reacted in a courageous and thoughtful manner to these attacks. And, yes, since the great Blitz, the British have been told that they react with courage and rationality when faced with harrowing attacks. After all of these messages, I would be surprised to see the British let hysteria and panic rule their reactions. Some could act that way, but the picture the British have of themselves is they are brave survivors and they will make it through difficult times.

Compare that with the story we Americans are told about ourselves. Since 9/11, Americans have been told that we are right to be traumatized. Starting very soon after 9/11, there were stories about how many Americans, even those far, far away from New York or Washington DC, were experiencing the symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome. This was followed very soon by the frenzy of fear that gripped the nation (especially the east coast) when the anthrax attacks cleared the Senators' offices and closed down the postal centers. And who could forget the advice of the government for Americans to stock up on plastic and duct tape so we could build our own shelters in the event of a chemical or biological attack? Or the idea that we should create a nation of spies to report on the suspicious behavior of our neighbors? Or the number of times the government raised terrorist alerts that told Americans that we should be afraid -- very, very afraid?...

Like Pavlov's dogs, Americans have been primed to be not just frightened, but also paranoid, and impulsively ready to strike out. Because as our government and our media told us again and again, the attack on American soil was had been so horrific that it was right for Americans to take the war to Iraq because Saddam was a frightening man and he would get us if we didn't stop him first...

So, I'd like to ask, where would we have been if genuine leaders who reinforced courage rather than fear, rational thought rather than blind vengeance, had been in charge on 9/11? And then I'd like to ask, what can we do to help our fellow Americans come to understand that we can be better than what we've been led to believe we are? And that we can and will overcome these adverse times with courage and dignity even while respecting the humanity of even those who are crazed with their ideology. We are better than that America that the radical right believes we are and we are capable of searching for real solutions rather than just vengeance...

So my question is, what would we see in the US if we had another terrorist attack? I believe that one of the worst things about our current government and the nasty, divisive manner in which they operate is that they pander to the worst elements in human nature. They use divisive and destructive language to marginalize a significant portion of the country. They treat the ordinary citizen as little children who should leave worrying about anything important to the "leaders". After 9/11, people were told that it was patriotic to shop. And just recently, we were told to "support the troops" by adopting a family, but never would we be asked to sacrifice for the cause by having to forego something such as an increase in income taxes to pay for the war, or rationing how many gallons of gasoline we purchase or how many BTUs we use in our houses. And rather than asking people to show courage in the face of frightening times, this administration uses the terror threats to frighten and stampede people into giving up more rights and any rational assessments of the problem. This is an administration that encourages irrational thought and hysteria.

So do you thing that Americans will be proud of how they react if another attack happens on our soil? Do you think that they will use the occasion to pull together and to encourage rational and effective responses to the incidents? Or is it more likely that those who believe "the ends justify the means" will think that a future attack would be an ideal time to attack the traitorist liberals and Democrats and to use the incident in order to consolidate power by calling to the most base and destructive part of human nature? Well, what has been this administration's track record? If (or more likely when) America has another terrorist attack on our soil, I fear our disfunctional administration will take a bad situation and most assuredly make it worse.

I agree with much of Mary's assessment. However, one thing I must stress, because it is perhaps not explicit enough in her posts, is that there is a difference between America and the "current government". Having lived down in the U.S. for a long time, having many American friends and family, and having what I think is a deep understanding of and a profound respect for the American soul, I do believe that Americans are a truly virtuous people who are capable of the highest expressions of humanity. That may not always come across here at The Reaction, given how critical I am of Bush and the Republicans who control Congress, but I would argue that Bush and those Republicans have waged a "war on terror" by manipulating their own people and by bringing (or trying to bring) out the worst elements of the American soul. While the British seem to be responding to the London attacks with "courage and rationality," Bush has fueled an atmosphere of panic, paranoia, and lust for vengeance as a means to secure his political fortunes. How else did he prod America into a devastatingly ill-conceived war in Iraq? How else did he win last year's tight presidential race when everything was pointing to a Kerry victory?

No, Americans aren't stupid and they aren't easily manipulated. And now, as Bush's falling approval numbers indicate, they are finally beginning to show real discontent with their "current government" (even though Bush's approval rating on terrorism is still over 50%). I don't mean to sound condescending or to validate condescension here, though it is true that language such as "what can we do to help our fellow Americans come to understand that we can be better than what we've been led to believe we are" smacks of condescension.

But I would argue otherwise, and I think this is what Mary is getting at. It's not that Americans are merely pathetic dupes who can't think for themselves, it's that most Americans, all cynicism aside, spend most of their time working, taking care of their families, and otherwise living their private lives in pursuit of happiness. There is a healthy distrust of government in America, but I think that most Americans are content to leave the affairs of state to their elected representatives, and indeed to trust that their elected representatives will act in the best interests of the American people. So, no, Americans aren't dupes, but they've been duped (think intelligence "fixing" to meet certain political objectives) by those they've entrusted with the power of self-government that is naturally theirs. And this is precisely where there is ground for outrage and where Americans must call out this "current government" to account for itself.

In the end, if I may speak as an American by relation and association, "[w]e are better than that America that the radical right believes we are and we are capable of searching for real solutions rather than just vengeance". The problem is, "real solutions" require different leadership, because the "current government" has shown few signs that it knows what it's really doing.


See the the full text of Livingstone's speech here. It's definitely worth reading, but here's how it ends:
Finally, I wish to speak directly to those who came to London today to take life.

I know that you personally do not fear giving up your own life in order to take others -- that is why you are so dangerous. But I know you fear that you may fail in your long-term objective to destroy our free society and I can show you why you will fail.

In the days that follow look at our airports, look at our sea ports and look at our railway stations and, even after your cowardly attack, you will see that people from the rest of Britain, people from around the world will arrive in London to become Londoners and to fulfil their dreams and achieve their potential.

They choose to come to London, as so many have come before because they come to be free, they come to live the life they choose, they come to be able to be themselves. They flee you because you tell them how they should live. They don’t want that and nothing you do, however many of us you kill, will stop that flight to our city where freedom is strong and where people can live in harmony with one another. Whatever you do, however many you kill, you will fail.

He's absolutely right.

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Friday, July 08, 2005

Echoes of Watergate: Rove, Plame, and the freedom of the press

I seem to be alternating quite a bit in recent days between the Miller-Cooper-Plame saga and the Supreme Court, and I'm back tonight with more on the former. As some of you have have seen, I've been having an ongoing discussion with a couple of my readers (see here and here) on whether or not, or at least to what extent, journalists should be protected from prosecution with respect to their use of anonymous sources. It's more a matter of nuanced difference than fundamental disagreement, however. I tend to take an absolute stance on the freedom of the press while others argue that, for example, journalists should not be permitted to protect anonymous sources in cases where a felony has been committed and there is no obvious public interest in maintaining the cover of anonymity. Actually, though, I'm still wrestling with this issue. Although it seems like a mere technicality, with one journalist in jail and no apparent harm done, this case brings to light the broader issue of the place of journalism in democracy, both the freedom of the press and the degree to which that freedom may be limited for the sake of the public interest. I encourage all of you to think seriously about this issue, and, should you care to do so, to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments section of this post.

In the meantime, I also encourage you to check out The Carpetbagger Report's take on Karl Rove's possible role in the story. (I've addressed it briefly here.) This is a separate issue, to be sure. However, despite relatively lukewarm coverage in the press thus far, the ramifications of Rove's involvement in the "outing" of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent would be enormous. We all know what can happen, after all, when some of the president's men are involved in a crime.

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Blame Bush: A lot of hot air at Gleneagles

The rhetoric was positive, albeit overshadowed by yesterday's London bombings, but I'm not so sure that much of substance will come out of the G8 summit meeting this week in Scotland. In his closing speech, Prime Minister Blair, who once again looks like the real war leader in the bunch, hailed the summit's alleged accomplishments: a commitment to end poverty in Africa through a doubling of aid by 2010, an expansion of free trade, further debt forgiveness, and efforts to combat AIDS; a plan to deal with climate change; and financial support for the Palestinian Authority once Israel withdraws from Gaza and the West Bank.

Sure, that all sounds promising -- but, well, then there was Bush's typical combination of ignorance and unilateralism to pull the rug out from the whole thing. And however much the U.S. may claim to be on board with the other seven industrial powers on these sensitive issues, in truth it isn't. For example, the commitment of increased aid to Africa will include "no new money" from the U.S. (I should add here that Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin has also resisted -- and rightly so, in my view -- promising "a defined proportion of [our] national [income] to aid to Africa," as advocated by Bono, Geldof, et al.) Furthermore, Bush apparently blocked Blair's efforts (reminiscent of their recent Washington meeting) to set "specific targets for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases," thereby preventing any real movement to deal with climate change.

Faryar Shirzad, Bush's deputy national security adviser, called the summit "a huge success". As a photo-op, maybe. As hollow rhetoric, sure. But in terms of substance? Uh, no. Geldof was right when he said that "time only will tell if this has been historic or not," but initial reflection suggests that it hasn't been, and won't be. And, for that, Bush deserves a good deal of the blame.*

* Yes, yes, I know. Yet more anti-Bush bias at The Reaction. Forgive me. I call 'em as I see 'em, and Bush's anti-environmentalism in particular irritates me immensely. But let me say that I don't necessarily care for the other leaders at the summit either. I generally support Martin, I have a good deal of respect for Blair, I don't mind Schroeder, and I don't know much about Koizumi, but I don't at all care for the arrogant Chirac and the corrupt Berlusconi, and the tyrannical Putin leaves me ambivalently disturbed.

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How 'bout some o' that old-time conservatism on the Supreme Court?

Thus far, all the talk has been about Gonzales and a group of conservative judges that includes Luttig, Roberts, Garza, McConnell, Wilkinson, Alito, and and Clement -- see here. But Slate's Emily Bazelon and David Newman have put together a list of alternatives to these "radical right-wing" candidates. For, they ask, "what if the president decided to look instead for a conservative in the traditional sense of the word, a distinguished jurist who believes in moderation, judicial restraint, and deference to Congress?"

As I've suggested before, judicial restraint is very much at the heart of Gonzales's "ideology" (along with moderation on such issues as abortion and affirmative action), which is precisely what distinguishes him from the leading contenders on his right. I've called him a moderate, relatively speaking (that is, in relation to those leading contenders on his right), but in fact true conservatism is very much characterized by restraint. And I, for one, would prefer Gonzales's authentic conservatism, in terms of judicial restraint, to the radicalism, in terms of judicial activism, that characterizes those leading contenders on his right. But if not Gonzales, here are the "traditional" conservatives mentioned by Bazelon and Newman:

  • Maureen Mahoney -- appellate litigator, Washington, D.C. (Latham & Watkins)
  • Reena Raggi -- U.S. Court of Appeals, 2nd Circuit
  • Deanell Tacha -- chief judge, U.S. Court of Appeals, 10th Circuit
  • Barrington Parker -- U.S. Court of Appeals, 2nd Circuit
  • Frank Easterbrook -- U.S. Court of Appeals, 7th Circuit
  • Richard Posner -- U.S. Court of Appeals, 7th Circuit
  • John Danforth -- former Republican senator from Missouri
  • Michael Boudin -- chief judge, U.S. Court of Appeals, 1st Circuit
  • John Walker -- chief judge, U.S. Court of Appeals, 2nd Circuit (and Bush's cousin)

No, Bush won't go with one of these distinguished options, but they're all respectable conservatives who would be sure to practise restraint on the Supreme Court. And, again, isn't that what true conservatives (rather than the radicals on the far right) really want?


Bruce Reed, Clinton's domestic policy advisor and current president of the DLC, writes about Bush and Gonzales at his Slate blog, The Has Been:

Give Alberto Gonzales credit—for the first time in Bush's presidency, right-wingers are genuinely nervous that the President might not do everything they want. Until now, the Bush White House made it easy: Send Karl Rove your shopping list, and wait for a reply e-mail with the number to track your order. While such first-class customer service has kept conservatives happy, it spoiled them as well. Now that they have a real fight on their hands, they don't know which buttons to push.

After all that care and feeding from the White House, conservative groups no doubt assume they have the power to cross names off Bush's list. In the end, perhaps they will. But their first salvo—an all-out attack on Gonzales—seems to be having the opposite effect. Bush has testily defended his friend two days in a row, and the White House had to tell the right to pipe down...

The right wing wants the White House to think that if Bush picks Gonzales, conservatives will take to the streets and weep like Parisians. But from a sheer political standpoint, the case for Gonzales isn't even a close call. No matter how much conservatives pout, Bush will do far more to expand the Republican party's reach by putting the first Latino on the court. Gonzales will probably be a much more reliable conservative than the right fears—and their attacks guarantee that the press and many Democrats will hail him as a moderate.

Like any president, Bush is interested in his legacy. Even if he packs the court with Ashcrofts, Luttigs, and Coulters, he can't count on them to secure his place in history. There's no guarantee Roe v. Wade would stay overturned for long, and an activist court might drive the Republican Party back into minority status. Appointing the first Latino Supreme Court justice is a legacy no one can take away.

Bush has done the right's bidding for so long, he may not know how to quit. But remember the first rule of interest-group politics: If you can't pander to the one you love, pander to the one you're with.

Excellent analysis.

I'm still going for Gonzales. Even if his confirmation would end up helping the Republican Party in the long-run, I think he'd be much better for America than any of the other leading candidates, all of whom seem to be anti-liberal (and un-conservative) radicals set to refashion America from the bench.

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A shield law for journalists, but how far?

Marc Schneider has written a couple of excellent responses to my recent post on the Miller-Cooper-Plame-(Rove?) saga, and I encourage you to check them out.

One thing we both agree on is that there needs to be a federal shield law that sets guidelines for a journalist's interaction with an anonymous source. But the question is, how far should such a shield law go? Should it protect journalists in all cases, essentially allowing them to determine how they use anonymous sources, or should it perhaps provide exemptions when, say, a felony has been committed (as may be the case here) or where the public interest would seem to outweigh the need to keep the identity of an anonymous source secret?

On these questions, I tend to side with the freedom of the press to use anonymous sources without fear of punishment, but I acknowledge that this is a sensitive issue that needs greater thought and that the case for a more limited shield law is a fairly strong one.

For now, I also encourage you to check out the Times's editorial on Judith Miller (one of its own reporters):
She is surrendering her liberty in defense of a greater liberty, granted to a free press by the founding fathers so
journalists can work on behalf of the public without fear of regulation or retaliation from any branch of government.

Some people - including, sadly, some of our colleagues in the news media - have mistakenly assumed that a reporter and a news organization place themselves above the law by rejecting a court order to testify. Nothing could be further from the truth. When another Times reporter, M. A. Farber, went to jail in 1978 rather than release his confidential notes, he declared, "I have no such right and I seek none."

By accepting her sentence, Ms. Miller bowed to the authority of the court. But she acted in the great tradition of civil disobedience that began with this nation's founding, which holds that the common good is best served in some instances by private citizens who are willing to defy a legal, but unjust or unwise, order...

Critics point out that even presidents must bow to the Supreme Court. But presidents are agents of the government, sworn to enforce the law. Journalists are private citizens, and Ms. Miller's actions are faithful to the Constitution. She is defending the right of Americans to get vital information from news organizations that need not fear government retaliation - an imperative defended by the 49 states that recognize a reporter's right to protect sources...

We do not see how a newspaper, magazine or television station can support a reporter's decision to protect confidential sources even if the potential price is lost liberty, and then hand over the notes or documents that make the reporter's sacrifice meaningless. The point of this struggle is to make sure that people with critical information can feel confident that if they speak to a reporter on the condition of anonymity, their identities will be protected. No journalist's promise will be worth much if the employer that stands behind him or her is prepared to undercut such a vow of secrecy.

Needless to say, the Times supports the (limited) use of anonymous sources. In the end, I'd like to know who told Miller what about Plame -- that is, who outed Plame as a CIA agent. Maybe it was Rove, maybe it wasn't, but it could very well have been some highly-placed White House official. I still think that Miller and the Times are right and that journalists shouldn't be forced to reveal their anonymous sources -- and I say this because, to me, the freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy. A little less freedom may not seem like much, especially when an anonymous source may very well be a felon, but we need to be very careful before we push over what could be the first domino...

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The vacuum in the center -- but then is bipartisanship possible?

I wanted to mention an interesting article on centrism and "the new bipartisanship" at TNR. Unfortunately, as is the case with Jonathan Chait's article on ideas and politics, it's only available by subscription, but I'll try to give you the gist of it here:

The author, Kal Raustiala, observes, by way of Norm Ornstein, that "political polarization is at a 50-year high in Congress," as "only 8 percent of the House can be considered centrist today, compared to 33 percent in 1955". The conventional wisdom, of course, is that this dearth of centrists in Congress has damaged (or even killed) bipartisanship and fostered a political climate of extremism, but Raustiala makes the case that bipartisanship isn't dead, it's just different. The new bipartisanship isn't centrist; rather, it's a union of the extremes of left and right along a circular (as opposed to linear) spectrum. For a terrible analogy (and I don't mean to pull a Durbin here), think Hitler and Stalin, two variants of totalitarian rule, setting aside their differences to find common ground against the democratic middle.

The primary example of this very-strange-bedfellow bipartisanship is the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which "sailed through Congress two years ago with unanimous bipartisan support" and was later signed into law by President Bush, but there have been numerous other examples:

The PREA is an important story, one in which an appalling problem is finally addressed by Congress. But it is also part of a trend. In recent months, for example, the unusual convergence of the religious right and environmentalists has received increasing attention. "Creation care" is the new phrase du jour for environmentally minded Christians who think there is a scriptural duty to protect the Earth and all its inhabitants. Christian conservatives have also aligned with the left to campaign against the international sex trafficking trade. Conservatives are increasingly in line with liberals on the need to aggressively challenge and prevent religious and racial persecution in places like Darfur. And perhaps most significantly, national security hawks and climate change advocates are suddenly on the same page with regard to fossil fuel consumption--since, in addition to creating greenhouse gases, American consumption of oil also enriches Saudi Arabia, birthplace of fifteen of the 9/11 hijackers.

Indeed, these examples "[illustrate] an important fact about bipartisanship in polarized times":

The absence of centrists in Congress certainly fosters conflict rather than cooperation on many, probably most, issues. But there are also issues where the most liberal Democrats and the most conservative Republicans can find common ground. To be sure, that politics makes strange bedfellows is not news. What is news is that the rising power of the religious right is leading to some unexpected victories for progressive causes. Deep political polarization makes traditional centrist bipartisanship treacherous. But, paradoxically, it can also produce unexpected cooperation between the core of the right and the core of the left. In other words, bipartisanship isn't dead; it has simply abandoned the political center for issues where it was once nowhere to be seen.

What do we think of this? There's no doubt that Raustiala is right that gerrymandering has pushed centrists out of Congress, polarizing the divide between left and right. The "Gang of 14" in the Senate may have temporarily staved off the nuclear option (and the victory of at least the right extreme), but that compromise was the exception, not the rule, and already it shows signs of falling apart.

Yet I don't think the center can be written off so easily, and these convenient marriages of the far left and the far right shouldn't necessarily be lauded as milestones of bipartisanship, or at least as examples of a sustainable bipartisanship that avoids the center entirely. That would be like seeing the "No" vote in France in the recent referendum on constitutional ratification was a victory for bipartisanship. Was it? No. It was a case of the far left and the far right, who hate each other, finding common cause against the middle -- each side totally self-interested, with bipartisanship of little concern in the long run.

Sure, I realize that there's more collegiality when, say, Sen. Brownback and Sen. Kennedy agree to set aside their other differences to pursue bipartisanship on a given issue, but I'm not sure that this neo-bipartisanship can hold except in those rare cases where left-wing self-interest meets right-wing self-interest. The common good may be served, in ad hoc fashion, when these two self-interests forge a temporary alliance, but, in the long run, the common good is best-served by a strong center that looks beyond narrow partisanship toward what is truly good for America.

With respect to American politics, I find myself more or less on the "left" of that "center" that stretches across the middle of the spectrum, and, as a self-described liberal, I certainly don't mean to suggest that liberals, for example, abandon their core principles for the sake of sheer pragmatism. However, I do think that liberals need to balance a commitment to core principles with the demands of a more pragmatic politics geared towards actual results. For Democrats, this means resisting the ideological left (those who have no interest in getting anything done) in order to seek compromise with independents and moderate Republicans willing to move beyond the rigidity of partisanship. This is not to suggest that they give in (or give up), nor that they entirely reject the left (which may be right on any number of issues and must, to a point, continue to inform and sustain Democratic politics), nor that compromise is always preferable to sticking up for core principles, especially if Republicans (as they have) refuse to compromise. It's rather to suggest that Democrats must be willing to work to the center, and for the sake of compromise, even as they continue to battle an arrogant Republican Party that has grown increasingly extremist. Either way, they'll either show their moderate bona fides to a skeptical American electorate and/or secure the center as the Republicans, pulled to the right by its base, abandon it altogether.

Regardless, the dearth of centrists in Congress can only be a bad omen of what is yet to come, and we'll get another glimpse of this with the upcoming nomination battle for the Supreme Court. If the Republicans insist on an extremist nominee, as seems to be the case, Democrats will have a great opportunity to move to the center and to speak for the vast majority of Americans who object to the politics of the far right. My optimism may be getting the better of me here, but it seems to me that Democrats will be able to benefit from the hijacking of the Republican Party by that far right -- but only if they're able to play their cards properly.

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Thursday, July 07, 2005

London: July 7, 2005

Obviously, our minds are on London today -- and not, alas, because of the Olympics. I woke up this morning, turned on the TV, and saw, in an initial state of groggy incredulity, what I think so many of us have dreaded seeing -- even as many of us were preparing for it, expecting it.

Terrorism is now a global phenomenon, but an attack in London is deeply personal to me, just as New York was (Madrid less so, despite how horrendous it was). I'm a Canadian living in Canada, but I also have British citizenship. My family -- my parents, my brother and his family, and my sister -- live over in England, not too far from London, and I've spent a lot of time there over the years. An e-mail from my mother this morning told me they were fine, but everyone asked, friends and colleagues alike, and I spent much of the day following the developing story on the internet, for that seemed far more important than anything else I had to do.

I don't have much to add here, however. Terrorists attacked, people died, and many others were injured. I think we need to let that sink in, and so I'll refrain here commenting on what any of it means or what ought to be done about it or whatever. Besides, there's already so much talk out in the blogosphere -- go see what they're all saying over at TPM Cafe, for example. I'll likely weigh in down the road, but I think it's more important right now to hold back, at least at The Reaction, until I have something to add to the conversation. Talking just for the sake of talking, posting just for the sake of posting, doesn't seem to make much sense, not when the more immediate story is one of loss and suffering.

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A journalist in jail... in America?

I haven't yet waded into the whole Miller-Cooper-Plame saga, except to address Karl Rove's possible role as leaker, but check out Kevin Drum's thoughtful take on what it's all about. His conclusion is right on the mark:

[T]here's at least one thing everyone should agree on: we need a federal shield law. I happen to think reporters need greater protection, and you might think they need less, but in either case we ought to spell it out instead of making reporters and courts guess. Let's argue it out in Congress and then pass something that makes it clear what counts as "journalism," what protection sources can expect, and exactly how far prosecutors can go. If there are exceptions for specific criminal acts, so be it.

But let's at least nail it down. There's no excuse not to.

Journalists may not be infallible, but they need certain protections to do their jobs properly. They do their jobs for us, after all, and however much they may be vilified by both the left and the right in today's blame-the-messenger political climate, it's hard to imagine how democracy could survive without them.

(For the latest on the story, see here.)

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Rockin' the vote (against Bush): Youth have their say

Ruy Teixeira at Donkey Rising examines Bush's approval ratings among youth, and they're even worse than his general ones in a recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll. The survey of 18- to 25-year olds shows an approval rating of just 42%. Other key numbers: "by 63-37, they feel the war in Iraq has not been worth the cost in US lives and dollars; by 65-33, they believe the Democrats, not the Republicans, do a better job representing the interests of young people;... and, last but not least, by 57-43, they think that Bush has not made us safer from terrorist attack."

Teixeira: "By these data, the Democrats should replicate their recent strong performance among young voters in 2006 and perhaps beyond." Let's hope so.

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Meet the polar bear, a victim of climate change

AMERICAblog links to this important article in the Post. It seems that "polar bears are facing unprecedented environmental stress that will cause their numbers to plummet":

In a closed meeting here late last month, 40 members of the polar bear specialist group of the World Conservation Union concluded that the imposing white carnivores -- the world's largest bear -- should now be classified as a "vulnerable" species based on a likely 30 percent decline in their worldwide population over the next 35 to 50 years. There are now 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears across the Arctic.

"The principal cause of this decline is climatic warming and its consequent negative affects on the sea ice habitat of polar bears," according to a statement released after the meeting...

And what is the U.S. doing about it? Or, more specifically, what is Bush doing about it? Well, nothing:

The panel's conclusions became public this week as President Bush traveled to a Group of Eight meeting in Scotland, where U.S. officials have lobbied to prevent any specific targets for reducing greenhouse gases from being included in the meeting's final communique. The United States is the only member of the G-8 that has refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which calls for reducing emissions that many scientists say are causing Earth to warm up.

Okay, it's not just Bush's fault, and it's not just an American problem. Needless to say, I want Canada to do more to address climate change, too. We know that those in Tuktoyaktuk are first-hand witnesses to climate change, and now we know that polar bears are actual victims of climate change. That's a sad enough story, especially to those of us who care deeply about other species on this planet, but don't think this is just about polar bears, or that somehow we stupid humans will get away with what we're doing without paying a severe price.

This is just the beginning.

And it'll only get worse unless we do something to reverse the environmental havoc we continue to wreak with reckless abandon and thoughtless complacency.

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A question of loyalty: The friendship of George W. Bush and Alberto Gonzales

There's something to be said for loyalty -- both Gonzales's to Bush and Bush's to Gonzales. I've previously questioned Gonzales's qualifications for the job of Supreme Court justice, given his long career of pro-Bush partisanship: "He sucked up to Bush in Texas," I wrote, "and he's spent the past four-plus years, both as White House counsel and now as attorney general, sucking up to him in Washington. Perhaps a seat on the Supreme Court would unleash his independence, but I wonder if his political partisanship wouldn't continue to taint his legal opinions." But today I cannot help but admire the obvious and sincere loyalty and friendship between the two men, whatever my reservations about both of them in their present capacities. Back in Denmark -- which I addressed a couple of posts ago -- Bush said this of Gonzales: "All of a sudden this fellow, who is a good public servant and a really fine person, is under fire. I don't like it at all."

Good for him. Seriously. No, The Reaction isn't generally all that friendly to Bush, or at least to his presidency, but he is obviously a better and more compassionate man than many in his party and within the conservative ranks. The right is out to take down Gonzales, but, in the end, I hope Bush has the courage to stand up to the rabid base of extremists that has taken credit for his victory last year, thinks that it runs his presidency, and is now demanding payback for its support.

Do what's right for America, Mr. President, not what the extremists want you to do. The two are not the same, no matter how hard they try to convince you otherwise.

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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

London 2012!!!

I feel for you, New York, I really do. Toronto lost out to Beijing not too long ago, and that's far worse than losing out to London. But at least Paris lost. Can you imagine the arrogant, self-congratulatory spectacle of a French Olympics? Besides, as an Englishman myself (dual-citizenship with Canada), and with much of my family living over in England, not too far from London, I cannot help but look forward with excitement to 2012.

See here for the story of yesterday's vote in Singapore.

See here for the reactions from Trafalgar Square. See here for some heartfelt, if excessive, anticipation of "the greatest celebration of life that London has seen, that Britain has seen, that the world has seen". See here for how Blair won it behind the scenes for London. See here for FAQs on the London Olympics.

See here for all the Parisian despair. And see here for more of Chirac's decline and fall into political oblivion -- "a King Lear ruling over a country that fears for its future," "a deeply unpopular, bungling politician who is eking out his 22 months to retirement" (boo-hoo).

Well done, London. Now let's see what you can do.

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In search of civility -- uh, yeah, good luck with that

On the surface, this looks promising, but is it?

In Copenhagen for a meeting with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen prior to the G8 meeting in Scotland, President Bush, as reported today in the Times, called for civility as the intensity over his upcoming nomination for the Supreme Court mounts:

I hope the United States Senate conducts themselves in a way that brings dignity to the process, and that the senators don't listen to the special interest groups, particularly those on the extremes that are trying to exploit this opportunity for not only their, what they might think is right, but also for their own fund-raising capabilities.

And he went on:

The Senate needs to conduct themselves in a dignified way and have a good, honest debate about the credentials of the person I put forward, no matter who he or she is, and then give the person an up or down vote.

And so this is a good opportunity for good public servants to exhibit a civil discourse on a very important matter, and not let these groups, these money raising groups, these special interest groups, these groups outside the process, dictate the rhetoric, the tone.

Sounds good, right? Who's against civility? (Oh, right, the extremes -- and they're going to make a lot of noise.)

But what was Bush really saying? Was he setting the stage for a Gonzales nomination, for which he would be attacked from the right? That is, was he warning his rabid base to back off and let him pick his relatively moderate attorney general? Or was he trying to lull his opponents into submission, and into the straight-jacket of civility, before nominating a fundamentally conservative judge and ramming him through the Senate, well, uncivilly? Or was it not a bit of both? After all, maybe he wants the right to back off, and refrain from aggravating the left, so that a conservative judge, one agreeable to the right, would pass more easily through the Senate's confirmation process. Who knows? Let's see what else Bush said:

First of all, as I said during both of my campaigns, there will be no litmus test. I'll pick people who, one, can do the job, people who are honest, people who are bright, and people who will strictly interpret the constitution and not use the bench to legislate from.

Okay, fine, no litmus test, but couldn't this mean that he doesn't want Democrats to question a pro-life nominee? If it looks like he is against litmus tests, then shouldn't Democrats also be against them? Ah, how tricky! He'll pretend that there's no litmus test so as to preempt a Democratic one. But, then, isn't there still a litmus test? After all, who is to decide what it means to interpret the constitution "strictly" and not to legislate from the bench? And just what are the meanings of constitutional interpretation and judicial legislation? Well, those are the big questions, but clearly it will be up to Bush to determine where a specific judge stands (or sits) on constitutional interpretation and judicial legislation before even nominating him or her, and then up to his allies in the Senate to ensure his or her confirmation.

In other words, Bush seems to be showing his good side and trying to set the tone of the debate before he either a) nominates Gonzales (or another acceptable moderate) and secures a quick and easy confirmation, or b) nominates a far less acceptable (to Democrats and their allies) conservative who would have to be rammed through the Senate over and against Democratic objections (and a possible filibuster, provoking the so-called nuclear option). Either way, it seems that he wants to take ideology (or judicial philosophy) out of it and to narrow the debate to character and experience.

Democrats likely won't bite -- why shouldn't they examine a nominee's ideology, or his or her views on certain controversial issues, especially if he or she is well out of the mainstream and may be an activist of the right? -- but Bush is clearly trying to look like the good guy, securely positioned above the nastiness and bitterness of partisan politics, of which we are likely to see a great deal in the coming days and weeks.

Do you buy it? I don't. Not entirely.

I still think that Bush wants to nominate Gonzales and he may very well to trying to negotiate a compromise with the right -- perhaps in return for an uncompromisingly conservative replacement for Rehnquist and/or the elevation of Scalia to chief justice upon Rehnquist's retirement. For now, though, he's just trying to set himself up for victory, either way.

On the surface, it all looks quite promising, but, deeper down, we're being manipulated. As usual. It's called politics.

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Reaction to the blogs: SCOTUS-talk and the coming nomination battle

A few days ago, I introduced a new feature at The Reaction: "Reaction to the news," a brief overview of major items in the news. Well, here's another brand-new feature: "Reaction to the blogs," a brief overview of what some of my favourite blogs (and some good friends of The Reaction) have posted recently on a specific topic.

The blogosphere, as expected, is all over the upcoming nomination to replace O'Connor on the Supreme Court. I've already written about it (here, here, and here), and I'll no doubt write more in the days and weeks to come, especially after Bush's nominee is announced, but here are some good posts to check out, along with some of my comments:

The Moderate Voice (see here): Joe Gandelman offers an excellent run-down of what he sees as "a classic case of chickens coming home to roost... on all sides": "No matter who is nominated, how the nominee fares, and how many political bodies will be needed to confirm or halt the nominee, when the smoke has cleared -- and the political blood has been washed away -- the political landscape will be forever changed. And, likely, changed a great deal." He proceeds to "look at what's facing each side participating in or impacted by this drama," and his analysis of what how each side -- Democrats, Nader and Nader voters, social conservatives, Republicans, Bush, and "swing voters and centrists" -- is excellent.

The Carpetbagger Report (see here): Steve Benen comments on "the bitter dispute between conservative Republicans and far-right conservative Republicans over whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales belongs on the short list" to replace O'Connor. He's right. It's all quite "divisive and contentious," but I'm not sure that's it's all that surprising. These schisms have long threatened to divide the Republican Party, and, personally, I'm pleased to see Republicans go after each other like this. Maybe the moderates and sober conservatives among them will come to see what happens when you rely on an increasingly extremist base to secure electoral victory. Benen: "The dilemma seems to be over whose job it is to fill this vacancy. The White House is looking at the Constitution and believes it's Bush's choice. The far-right GOP base is looking at the election results and believes it's their choice." Bush may want Gonzales (as I do, given the options), but what is he to do? "If Bush does tap Gonzales, he'll be thumbing his nose at the Republican base for the first time, which will infuriate Dobson & Co., and could undermine the GOP coalition in advance of next year's election. If he doesn't, Bush, once again, will appear beholden to far-right activists who are driving the White House agenda."

Political Animal (see here): Kevin Drum plays the optimist, and he may be onto something: "If there's anything good that might come from the impending Supreme Court fight, it's the possibility that these folks [moderate conservatives in the Republican Party] might realize that times have changed: the Christian right is no longer just a bunch of marginalized yahoos who get nothing but lip service from cynical Republican leaders. That was arguably the case in the 80s, but it's not anymore. If progressive groups have any brains, they'll do their best to goad the Dobson/Falwell/Bauer faction into revealing their real natures on a national stage once and for all. The more publicity these guys get, the better it is for the liberal cause." Absolutely. Bush won in 2004 in part because Rove successfully engineered a two-tiered campaign directed at two distinct audiences: a public (above-the-radar) campaign to woo moderates and independents on Iraq and terrorism, and a private (below-the-radar) campaign to woo the evangelical base on social wedge issues like same-sex marriage. It's time the Republican Party accepted full responsibility for that base, and it's time the rest of America woke up to what's really going on inside the Republican Party.

The Left Coaster (see here): Steve Soto, one of the group-bloggers, discusses "what a Gonzales pick would mean": "I think a Gonzales pick now instead of a far right pick would be in reality be a tacit acknowledgement by Bush and Rove of their declining political capital, and would signal that Bush feels he has only one all-out battle left in the bank and has decided to use it for his buddy Gonzales and not to please his base." This is more or less the argument I made when I suggested, as a hopeful contrarian, that Bush would defy certain expectations and go with an acceptable "moderate" nominee to ensure swift confirmation in the Senate. Where I support Gonzales as the least bad of all the likely candidates, however, Soto makes a strong case against him. He argues that Democrats should at least "make Bush work for this one," but he predicts (as I do) a relatively easy pass through the Senate for a Gonzales nomination.

Stay tuned...

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The nature of politics: Ideas, elections, and the future of the Democratic Party

There's an exceptional piece by Jonathan Chait at TNR on ideas and politics. Unfortunately, it's only available online by subscription. If you don't have a subscription, be sure to go out and buy a copy of the July 11 issue. In the meantime, here's the gist of Chait's lengthy essay:

Ideas -- the idea of ideas, anyway -- have always held a lofty place in our political culture. But perhaps never before have they been imbued with such power as at this particular moment. Since last November, conservatives have been braying about their victory in the war of ideas, often with a whiff of Marxian assurance...

The notion that conservatives are winning politically because they are winning intellectually has a certain appeal, particularly for those in the political idea business. And the aspiration of liberals to sharpen their thinking is perfectly worthy. As analysis, though, it's all deeply misguided. The current ubiquity of such thinking owes itself to the fact that liberals and conservatives have a shared interest in promoting it. (Liberals in the spirit of exhortation and internal reform, conservatives in the spirit of self-congratulation.) But, more than that, it reflects a naïveté about the power of new ideas, one that is deeply rooted in long-standing misconceptions of how our politics operate.

Chait essentially makes the case that, contrary to widespread misconception, "the plain fact is that liberals have plenty of new ideas... Indeed, devising earnest new ideas is the very thing liberals enjoy the most. If anything, the actual problem is just the opposite. Liberals have way too many new ideas and don't think seriously enough about prioritizing them. Liberal think tanks have plans for overhauling health care, slashing the deficit, creating progressive savings accounts, beefing up homeland security, and so on. The trouble is that it would be hard to do all these things at once." Both liberals and Democrats have "ideas," but here's the unavoidable problem in today's Washington: "They have no chance of being enacted as long as Republicans control the White House and Congress. The truth is that liberal ideas aren't getting any circulation because Democrats are out of power, not vice versa." (italics added) More:

Today, Democrats generally oppose change because "change" means doing things Bush's way. This puts Democrats in the dilemma of either supporting new policies that are almost invariably bad -- certainly from a liberal perspective -- or appearing wedded to the status quo...

It's one thing for Democrats to sketch out the sort of alternatives they would prefer if they ran Washington. But, as long as Republicans do run Washington -- and certainly as long as Bush sits in the Oval Office -- doing nothing is often going to be the best available scenario for liberals. Emphasizing the downside of bad change rather than the upside of positive change reflects political necessity, not intellectual failure.

And the pendulum will swing back: "When Democrats regain power, their ideas will again control the agenda, and Republicans will again find themselves devoted primarily to the task of resisting change."


The primacy of ideas is appealing to both parties -- to Republicans for the sake of self-congratulation, to Democrats for the sake of self-flagellation -- as well as to those of us who think about politics and who believe (or at least who want to believe) that there's more to politics than image, messaging, framing, and general manipulation. Yes, we intellectuals are particularly "prone to ideophilia". Here's Chait's conclusion:

This conception of U.S. politics [as driven by ideas] is especially compelling to intellectuals. It is a vision of a noble landscape in which philosopher kings hold sway. Each side has its visionaries, wonks, and pamphleteers, beavering away to see whose ideological manifestos, new syntheses, and ten-point plans will prove decisive in the next election. Writers and thinkers enjoy a heroic central role in shaping history: We--not grubby factors like attack ads or the state of the economy or the candidates' ease before the cameras--hold the future in our hands. Twenty years ago, Tom Wolfe appeared before a gathering of conservatives in Washington and declared that Marxism's appeal lay in its "implicit secret promise ... of handing power over to the intellectuals." The promise is not confined to Marxism. It seems to have seduced everybody.

Indeed it has. If ideas are important, then intellectuals are important, and then I'm important. If ideas aren't important, then why bother thinking about politics, why bother with The Reaction at all? So it goes. I want ideas to be important. And, true enough, Chait doesn't say that they're not. But his take on all the idea-talk in American politics today, with conservatives triumphantly heralding the victory of conservative ideas and liberals desperately searching for ideas to bring them back to power, reminds us that electoral success in the U.S. reflects more a confluence of complex factors than a simple battle of ideas that are presented to the electorate for approval and disapproval. Contrary to current Republican rhetoric, after all, 2004 was not a referendum on Bush's ideas: "There is plenty of evidence that the rise in Bush's stature after September 11, as well as John Kerry's ineptitude as a candidate, played a decisive role." The fact is, whether we like it or not, "things like personality, tactics, and outside circumstances" may be more important in terms of electoral success than a "compelling vision of the future".

Just over a month ago, I wrote a lengthy post on how the Democrats can win again. To a certain extent, Chait's analysis mirrors my own. Democrats have not been losing because they have no ideas or just old ideas or because the Republicans have somehow won the war of ideas. This is what Republicans would have us believe, for it confirms both their sense of self-righteousness and their lust for perpetual power. And this is what some Democrats (and liberals more generally) seem to accept almost without hesitation, so much have they themselves bought into the Republican line. Here's how I put it in my earlier post:

I think that the weaknesses of the Democratic Party have been wildly overplayed. Yes, Bush won two elections he shouldn't have, the Republicans now control both sides of Capitol Hill, and conservative appointees threaten to shift the entire federal judiciary to the right. But look at it this way: Bush barely won in 2000 -- indeed, he may not have won, but that's another problem entirely. He only won because everything broke his way: Gore was a lousy candidate; Nader took important votes away from Gore in key swing states; Bush effectively campaigned as a compassionate conservative, blurring the differences between him and Gore; a relatively peaceful and prosperous country was willing to take a chance on Bush after eight years of Clinton; and, well, there was Florida. If Florida had gone the way it should have, or if Nader had taken himself off the ballot in certain states, or if Bush hadn't campaigned as such a moderate, then Gore would have won. Then Gore would have guided the country through 9/11 and Afghanistan, the Democrats likely would have done well in 2002, the U.S. likely wouldn't be in Iraq, and Republicans would be having this very same conversation about how to refashion themselves in the face of a significant Democratic majority. As it is, Bush won, then capitalized on 9/11 for partisan purposes, leading to a solid Republican showing in 2002.

But -- here's the crucial point: Given all this -- the memories of 9/11, the threat of terrorism (which Bush, as president, was able to manipulate to his own benefit), and the bully pulpit in a time of war, not to mention mass mobilization of evangelical voters -- Bush barely won re-election last year. And although Kerry was a stronger candidate than Gore, he wasn't a great one and never quite managed to find his footing (too much nuance, not enough bluntness). It wasn't as close as 2000, but 2004 was hardly a rousing endorsement of a sitting president. Yes, Democrats can learn something from Karl Rove's campaign strategies and tactics, and Democrats would do well to reconnect to their own base in the same way, but how exactly did Democrats fail?

I'd still like that question answered, for I'm just not sure they have. And if they have failed, it's only because Republicans have more successfully manipulated the democratic process in their favour -- no, I don't mean vote-rigging, I mean practising the art of politics, which Republicans do very well. No matter the conventional wisdom, which is wrong, Democrats have not failed because they have no ideas and conservatives have not won the war of ideas (whatever that even means).

America may be more or less conservative now than it was back before the recent Republican rise -- and certainly the theory of The Right Nation is a compelling one -- but I would still argue, with Chait, that there is more to politics than ideas, and it's precisely with respect to that "more" that Republicans have done so well. They know how to play the game and they know how to win. Democrats need to continue to think about ideas and to offer compelling alternatives to Republican ideas (or whatever passes for Republican ideas), but their success in 2006, 2008, and beyond will depend in large part on non-intellectual factors. I know that's tough for intellectuals to hear, but, if you want my advice, take solace in Plato's Republic. Therein lies the truth about political things -- and a careful reading of that seminal work of political philosophy reveals that there's no philosopher-king to save the day. As we stargaze, and lose ourselves in the wonder of ideas, political life rages on without us, and in spite of us...

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Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Where have all the bisexuals gone?

You know, it's come to my attention that there isn't nearly enough sex at The Reaction. And, after all, doesn't sex sell? Don't we need more of it here?

No, no, not to worry, I'm not about to move away from politics, but here, for your amusement and/or edification and/or personal reflection is an interesting article on bisexuality that I came across today while surfing through the Times. It seems that a study conducted by psychologists in Toronto and Chicago has found that true bisexuality might be nothing more than a myth, indeed, that those men who define themselves as bisexual are actually homosexual: "In the new study, a team of psychologists directly measured genital arousal patterns in response to images of men and women. The psychologists found that men who identified themselves as bisexual were in fact exclusively aroused by either one sex or the other, usually by other men."

Does the study mean anything? Maybe, maybe not. First, only men were tested, and "bisexuality appears easier to demonstrate in the female sex. A study published last November by the same team of Canadian and American researchers, for example, found that most women who said they were bisexual showed arousal to men and to women." Second, "other researchers -- and some self-identified bisexuals -- say that the technique used in the study to measure genital arousal is too crude to capture the richness -- erotic sensations, affection, admiration -- that constitutes sexual attraction."

So there you go. Make of it what you will.

I've long thought that we're all somehow bisexual to varying degrees. In this sense, sexual orientation is more of a continuum from heterosexuality to homosexuality than a set of distinct inclinations, with our place on that continuum determined (and moved around) by the complex and ever-shifting interaction of nature and nurture. I suppose, then, that I agree with those "other researchers". Genital arousal may mean something, but it surely can't explain it all.

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Karl Rove = Deep Throat (re: Valerie Plame)

From AmbivaBlog (see here), via Common Sense Desk, originally from Lawrence O'Donnell at The Huffington Post (see here): It seems that the outer of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent (remember that scandal?) was none other than... Karl Rove.

O'Donnell has apparently known about this for months, but he finally broke the story on last Friday's McLaughlin Group. See the full Newsweek story (by Michael Isikoff) here. I recently wrote about Rove's anti-liberal speech to the New York Conservative Party (see here and here), but this, if true, is obviously a much more serious matter than deflecting attention away from collapsing presidential approval ratings with rabble-rousing partisan rhetoric. As The Mighty Middle points out (see here), Rove, now Bush's Deputy Chief of Staff, may be able to use "executive privilege" to avoid giving testimony that could finger his boss.

Bush's critics have long been waiting -- some patiently, some not -- for a smoking gun. (For some, the Downing Street Memo is an obvious one.) I'm not sure where this story will go, but it's certainly one to follow through the dog days of summer...

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War of the Worlds: The review

This is the first film review at The Reaction, but that has largely to do with the fact that I just don't see as many first-run movies as I used to. Back in my college days, I was the film critic for The Tufts Daily, and, if I had to do it all over again, well, maybe I'd give cinema a shot. For now, a short review of the new Spielberg-Cruise blockbuster.

On a one-to-four star-scale: *

That's one star. Thumb down, way down, in other words. War of the Worlds is arguably Spielberg's worst movie -- yes, worse than Hook, worse than The Lost World. The story is a familiar one, and I won't do plot summary here. Suffice it to say that there are barely any redeeming qualities. The dialogue is contrived, the acting is forced, and the plot, such as there is one, makes little sense. Cruise plays his typical character: outwardly hyper-masculine, but vulnerable, the all-American protagonist with just enough flaws to make him human and believable. But it's all too obvious here. He's a bad parent, and his relationships with his two children, played by the annoying Justin Chatwin and the truly insufferable Dakota Fanning, in the face of apocalypse by alien invasion are ridiculously overdone.

And nothing much about that invasion makes much sense. Are they vaporizing the humans? Eating them? Using them to fertilize the earth? All in all, the story is simply unpleasant, with none of the magic that Spielberg typically brings to even his most mainstream movies. Minority Report, for example, may have its problems, not least its tacked-on ending, but there's a wide-eyed brilliance to it that sets it apart from so much of what Hollywood has to offer, year after uncreative year. War of the Worlds, for its part, is pure action, perhaps, interspersed with those inane familial interactions and a badly drawn-out encounter with a loopy Tim Robbins, but the action consists simply of impractical alien tripods mowing down countless victims and everyone else running for their lives and occasionally killing one another. And the ending? Perhaps the worst ending to any movie in recent memory, a completely unfathomable tying of the loose ends that is meant, I suppose, to redeem Cruise's flawed character. Oh, and don't even ask how the aliens are finally defeated. You really don't want to know. Even the so-so ending of Signs, a vastly superior film, is easier to take.

War of the Worlds is a laughable, groan-inducing effort from America's premier mainstream filmmaker. Hard to believe, indeed, that this man made Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., The Color Purple, Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, and Minority Report, even Amistad and Catch Me If You Can. Hard to believe, too, that so many critics have hailed it as a masterpiece (or at least as a near-masterpiece). Metacritic, which aggregates reviews from around North America, gives it a fairly good 72 (out of 100). At least Roger Ebert, usually one of Spielberg's biggest boosters, was calm enough to give it a paltry two stars and a definitive thumbs down, but Slate's David Edelstein called it "a sci-fi masterpiece" (see here) and the Times's A.O. Scott called Spielberg "a master of pure action filmmaking" (see here). Scott may be right, but War of the Worlds is proof that he doesn't always have it.

The best thing to come out of War of the Worlds may be Frank Rich's latest Sunday column in the Times, which links the movie back to President Bush's Fort Bragg speech of last week:
Mr. Spielberg's movie illuminates... how Mr. Bush has flubbed the basic storytelling essential to sustain public support for his Iraq adventure. The president has made a tic of hammering in melodramatic movie tropes: good vs. evil, you're with us or you're with the terrorists, "wanted dead or alive," "bring 'em on," "mission accomplished." When you relay a narrative in that style, the audience expects you to stick to the conventions of the genre; the story can end only with the cavalry charging in to win the big final battle. That's how Mr. Spielberg deploys his platoons, "Saving Private Ryan"-style, in "War of the Worlds." By contrast, Mr. Bush never marshaled the number of troops needed to guarantee Iraq's security and protect its borders; he has now defined "mission accomplished" down from concrete victory to the inchoate spreading of democracy. To start off sounding like Patton and end up parroting Woodrow Wilson is tantamount to ambushing an audience at a John Wayne movie with a final reel by Frank Capra...

The president has no one to blame but himself. The color-coded terror alerts, the repeated John Ashcroft press conferences announcing imminent Armageddon during election season, the endless exploitation of 9/11 have all taken their numbing toll. Fear itself is the emotional card Mr. Bush chose to overplay, and when he plays it now, he is the boy who cried wolf. That's why a film director engaging in utter fantasy can arouse more anxiety about a possible attack on America than our actual commander in chief hitting us with the supposed truth.

Well, no, War of the Worlds actually arouses more discontent at the sheer stupidity of it all than "anxiety about a possible attack on America," but otherwise Rich is, as usual, provocatively astute.

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Monday, July 04, 2005

Independence Day

To all my American readers -- and to all of you who, like me, love America and only want to see her prosper -- have a happy and safe Fourth of July.

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What to make of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

He's a fundamentalist, yes, and he may or may not have been involved in the 1979 hostage-taking of Americans in Tehran, but Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's surprise victory in the recent Iranian presidential election -- as Kevin Drum reminds us, from an L.A. Times piece by Reza Aslan -- had more to do with the economy, and his own populist agenda, than with religion or anti-Americanism. Aslan:
Despite the shrill rhetoric coming from Washington, where officials are now wasting their time trying to determine whether the incoming Iranian president was or was not a radical student hostage taker 26 years ago, Ahmadinejad did not win because of widespread fraud or because reform-minded voters boycotted the elections (though both played small roles). He won because most Iranians, especially younger voters... who are the natural constituency of the reform movement, saw him as the only candidate willing to talk about what nearly everyone in Iran — regardless of class, degree of piety or political affiliation — is most concerned about: massive inflation, high unemployment and soaring housing prices...

While [former President Hashemi] Rafsanjani and the other half-dozen or so presidential candidates stumbled over each other with promises of social reform and rapprochement with the West, Ahmadinejad promised to stop corruption in the government, distribute aid to the outlying provinces, promote healthcare, raise the minimum wage and help the young with home and business loans. Amid all the talk of head scarves and pop music from the front-runners, Ahmadinejad's message had enormous appeal not just for Iran's poor, but also for the country's youth, many of whom were attracted to Rafsanjani's promises of reform but who ultimately voted with their pocketbooks for Ahmadinejad.

In fact, the crumbling economy — perhaps even more than the mass arrests and political repression — is to blame for Iranian's widespread disenchantment with the reform movement. After all, when nearly a third of the population is unemployed and about 40% live below the poverty line, it is nearly impossible to focus on social reform.

These days, Kansans may focus more on "values" than on their own pocketbooks -- which is why so many of them went for Bush even as they struggled with a sagging economy -- Iranians turned away from social reformers and moderate Westernizers like Rafsanjani and embraced what they saw as their only hope for economic revival. (See also the Times report here.) As the Times editorial on the election put it, "Ahmadinejad... offered a populist economic platform that implicitly challenged the cronyism and corruption of more than a quarter-century of clerical rule". Will he succeed? The Times rightly argues that it will be extraordinarily difficult for him to overcome "the ruling establishment".

Abbas Milani, also writing in the Times, goes further: Ahmadinejad's victory was masterminded by "a cabal of conservative mullahs and Revolutionary Guards who have absconded to ivory towers with their dogma and greed for power". Indeed, "[l]ast week's presidential election is only the most recent example of the tactical wisdom and strategic foolishness of Iran's ruling mullahs". Ahmadinejad's anti-Americanism is, needless to say, a huge problem, not least as the West tries to work out a solution to the problem of Iran's nuclear ambitions, but Iran's economic crisis, in Milani's (neo-liberal) view, requires free markets and investor confidence, not knee-jerk populism:
Ahmadinejad's presidency will force a crisis not only in Iran's political establishment but also, and even more important, in its economy. Only a huge infusion of capital and expertise, along with open markets, can even begin to address the country's economic problems, which include high unemployment, a rapidly increasing labor force, cronyism and endemic corruption.

Such an infusion requires, more than anything, security and the rule of law. It requires a fairly elected president who inspires the confidence of investors and governments around the world. Instead, through a dubious election, Iran's kingmakers propelled a man into the presidency who has publicly opined that the stock market is a form of gambling with no place in a genuine Islamic society.

I tend to agree with Milani here. Iran is a vibrant country with a rich culture and promising prospects for socio-political reform and rapprochement with the West. But we need to work to those strengths and to encourage Iran's participation in the community of nations. Instead of pointing a gun (or an arsenal of cruise missiles) at them, which only strengthens their resolve to go it alone, we should be working to open up their markets and to contribute to a sustainable economic revival.

Rather than relying on facile labels, we need to understand where Ahmadinejad is coming from and how he was able to come out of nowhere to win the Iranian presidency. He may not have the right answers to Iran's economic troubles, but his victory at least allows us to ask the right questions.

(See also the many posts on the election at Brooding Persian, one of the best Iranian blogs out there -- and one that links back to The Reaction in its blogroll.)

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