Sunday, November 27, 2005

Short Takes

I am writing from on the road. So, I'm just going to post some links with a few comments.

First of all, this piece, from The New York Times, on Judge Samuel Alito. If ever there was a nomination that Senate Democrats should filibuster - yes even if it does draw down the "nuclear option", this is the one. As most of my readers may remember, I urged caution on Justice Roberts' nomination. Although he was a Conservative, he was well-qualified, moderate in temperment and there just wasn't anything so beyond the mainstream that justified all out warfare. And he was replacing another judge who was just as conservative as he was.

That's not true with Sam Alito. He would be replacing a centrist who was often the swing vote on a divided court. Also, Alito's whole record - and unlike Roberts, he has a long paper trail - is one that has favored a corporate status quo over the interests of women and minorities. His decisions make it harder to prove discrimination and make it easier for schools, businesses and even the government to discriminate. He has voted for decisions that lessen the rights of ordinary employees and strengthened business privilege at their expense. And he has sided with police even when some of their activities have violated suspects' rights. And what's more, many of Alito's decisions have been overturned by higher courts, including the Supreme Court.

And now, it turns out that he was involved with an ultra-conservative alumni group at Princeton University, the Concerned Alumni, that openly opposed Princeton's affirmative action program while, at the same time, defending favored treatment of legacy students. Concerned Alumni also defended snobbish eating clubs and other Princeton institutions that encouraged snobbery and segregation.

Samuel Alito is not a man who should serve on the Supreme Court. Period. If the Democrats don't oppose him, it's going to be hard for them to convince anybody that they stand for anything. However, opposition cannot, just cannot simply be based on his position on Roe v. Wade. That's what the media wants to make it about. That's what Republicans hope the debate turns on. But it has to be based on an across the board opposition to all of this man's stands. And it must be a carefully laid out debate on why those views hurt ordinary people from all walks of life.

And while we're on the topic of policies that hurt people from all walks of life, let's get to why academic economists are so reluctant to serve the Bush Administration This article, also from the NY Times, describes how many of Academia's most respected and highly credentialed economists just don't want to be part of this administration. Although the article doesn't come out and say it directly, it could be for the same reason that many scientists are so reluctant to leave professorships at prestigious institutions to come work in Washington, DC. This administration practices junk science, junk intelligence and junk economics. It's never about the facts or about respecting what these disciplines can actually teach us. It's all about defending the ideology of the base. And that is impacting important policy decisions from addressing the problem of global warming to fixing Social Security for future generations (and no, the President's privatization plan wasn't a fix, it was gift to Wall Street)

Monday, November 21, 2005

What Did They Know and When Did They Know It?

Former Senator Bob Graham, who was chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has disputed the Bush Administration's claim that over 100 senators had the same intelligence as Bush did when the Senate voted to authorize him to go to war with Iraq.

Basically, Senator Graham calls Bush a liar in this essay from Sunday's Washington Post "Outlook" section.

Here's the money quote:

"As chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence during the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, and the run-up to the Iraq war, I probably had as much access to the intelligence on which the war was predicated as any other member of Congress.
I, too, presumed the president was being truthful -- until a series of events undercut that confidence.

In February 2002, after a briefing on the status of the war in Afghanistan, the commanding officer, Gen. Tommy Franks, told me the war was being compromised as specialized personnel and equipment were being shifted from Afghanistan to prepare for the war in Iraq -- a war more than a year away. Even at this early date, the White House was signaling that the threat posed by Saddam Hussein was of such urgency that it had priority over the crushing of al Qaeda.

In the early fall of 2002, a joint House-Senate intelligence inquiry committee, which I co-chaired, was in the final stages of its investigation of what happened before Sept. 11. As the unclassified final report of the inquiry documented, several failures of intelligence contributed to the tragedy. But as of October 2002, 13 months later, the administration was resisting initiating any substantial action to understand, much less fix, those problems.

At a meeting of the Senate intelligence committee on Sept. 5, 2002, CIA Director George Tenet was asked what the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) provided as the rationale for a preemptive war in Iraq. An NIE is the product of the entire intelligence community, and its most comprehensive assessment. I was stunned when Tenet said that no NIE had been requested by the White House and none had been prepared. Invoking our rarely used senatorial authority, I directed the completion of an NIE.

Tenet objected, saying that his people were too committed to other assignments to analyze Saddam Hussein's capabilities and will to use chemical, biological and possibly nuclear weapons. We insisted, and three weeks later the community produced a classified NIE.

There were troubling aspects to this 90-page document. While slanted toward the conclusion that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction stored or produced at 550 sites, it contained vigorous dissents on key parts of the information, especially by the departments of State and Energy. Particular skepticism was raised about aluminum tubes that were offered as evidence Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program. As to Hussein's will to use whatever weapons he might have, the estimate indicated he would not do so unless he was first attacked.

Under questioning, Tenet added that the information in the NIE had not been independently verified by an operative responsible to the United States. In fact, no such person was inside Iraq. Most of the alleged intelligence came from Iraqi exiles or third countries, all of which had an interest in the United States' removing Hussein, by force if necessary."

The thing about Bob Graham is that he once considered a run for president back in the 90s and was mentioned for vice president in 2000. The press at the time, and many voters, thought there was something strange and obsessive about the fact that he kept these extremely detailed diaries. I mean, he'd record what he ate for breakfast, what he said to his wife, Adele, and when. It made the public sort of queasy, became the object of jokes, and pretty much killed off Graham's presidential and vice presidential aspirations.

But the thing about those diaries and Bob Graham's obsessive nature is that if he claimed he had a conversation with Tommy Franks or asked George Tenet about something, it's bound to be absolutely accurate. Unless you're prepared to call him a liar, and Graham also has a spotless record of honesty. But you cannot accuse him of not remembering what happened. Because, everything Bob Graham ever did he recorded in those weird little diaries of his. And he's known for it. If Bob Graham said that Tommy Franks said the war effort in Afghanistan was being compromised back in February 2002, by God, he told it to Sen. Graham in February 2002. You can take that to the bank.

Bob Graham was also one of the few senators who did not vote to invade Iraq. In fact, he made a second brief run for the presidency largely just to oppose Bush's war effort. Although he doesn't go into this in the above article, he implied, during that brief run in 2004, that Iraq was not only not a security threat to us, but another country likely was. Citing the fact that he had access to classified material and therefore couldn't discuss it without compromising his security clearance and possibily going to jail, he refused to discuss the details or to name the country. But it was generally believed that he was referring to Saudi Arabia.

Given that several prominent Saudis, including the wife of Prince Bandahar, were caught red handed donating money to charities that were known as fronts for terrorist organizations and that so many of the hijackers and members of al Qaeda were Saudi citizens, this was not a leap. Also, much of the money that funded the Islamic religious schools around the world that served as recruitment centers for the terrorists came from Saudis as did the clerics who taught in those schools. In fact, even the religious ideology that fuels the terrorist cause comes from Wahhabiism, an extreme and puritanical brand of Islam founded and practiced almost exclusively in Saudi Arabia.

Yet in a breathtaking game of political three card monte, the Bush administration managed to divert us from going after Osama bin Laden or the Taliban in Afghanistan and kept our attention off the genuine threat of extremism and terrorism coming from Saudi Arabia. The truth is we will never win the war against terrorism until we go to its spiritual home, which is precisely Saudi Arabia. Something Bob Graham can't come out and say, but which he tried so hard make us aware of indirectly in the 2004 primaries. And something that we will never be able to do as long as all of our money, our men and women and our resources are going into Iraq, which was never a threat until we got there. Now it is one more danger. If we pull out now, yes it could well be overrun by terrorists who will launch attacks from there. But that wasn't the situation we went in there to fix. It's the one we created when there was no threat.

This is not the blame game. Many defenders of the Bush administration want you to think that rehashing the past is useless and that we've got to concentrate on what to do now. But that's bogus.

As has been quoted before, those who don't remember the past are doomed to recreate it. It is important to know what went wrong. And the main reason this administration doesn't want us to examine it is because if we do, we'll discover that it wasn't entirely an accidental misreading of botched intelligence but a concerted effort to go after Iraq and to make the facts fit. Paul O'Neill and Richard Clark both told us so in their books in 2004.

We've got to do more than just find a solution to the present problem in Iraq. We do have to know why it happened and who is culpable so that there will be no more Iraqs, just as for many years there were no new Vietnams. We didn't dare bungle into a country and a ten year commitment with no exit strategy because for years we had learned not to. We have to relearn that hard lesson again. So, yes we do need to examine what happened, how it happened and who knew what before it happened. It's called history. It can teach you something.

Friday, November 11, 2005

How The Good Guys Won In Virginia

This is the story I’ve been waiting to write for a month now.

As anybody who reads a newspaper knows, Virginia just elected its second consecutive Democratic governor. And this is one of the most reliably red states around. It handed Bush a 12-point victory state wide in 2004. In fact, the last time Virginia voted Democratic in a presidential election was back in Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide.

However, Virginians gave its present Democratic governor, Mark Warner, high marks for performance. He now enjoys a 70 percent approval rating. And he threw his support and prestige on the line for Tim Kaine, who just became governor-elect on Tuesday. I guess Mark had some political capital and he spent it.

But, here’s the real story in this election.

It’s that Jerry Kilgore, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, ran a series of negative attack ads put together by the same team that crafted and produced the Swift Boat ads against John Kerry, and this time their efforts failed. Not only did they fail, they produced a voter backlash against Kilgore.

The actual ads were visually stunning. The first one showed a young, pretty widow sitting on a stool in a stark setting, talking about her policeman husband, who was murdered in the line of duty. The widow, with her long blond hair and a tear rolling down her cheek, said that the person who took her husband’s life deserved the death penalty and she just didn’t trust Tim Kaine to administer it. Powerful stuff in a state that favors the death penalty and has some of the harshest laws on the books. Virginia carries out more executions than any other state except Texas.

A second ad with the same stark power depicted a father talking about his son and daughter-in-law being murdered and condemned Tim Kaine for working as the defense lawyer for the person accused of the murders. The father ended with a statement that Tim Kaine would even defend Adolph Hitler.

And that’s when the trouble started for Jerry Kilgore. Firstly, although the father who made the statement was himself Jewish, Jewish groups from the B’nai Brith Anti-Defamation League to local synagogue groups decried the Hitler statement. Kilgore defiantly stood by it, stating that it was the father’s own words not his. Still, the ad was condemned for trivializing Hitler’s genocide and for displaying insensitivity to Holocaust victims. You know, all the stuff Republicans complained about when Dick Durbin likened Abu Gharib to Hitler’s concentration camps. It seems that Republicans are so used to operating with a double standard, complaining when they are slandered but feeling free to do worse to their opponents, that it never occurred to them that they’d be called on it by people who said they couldn’t have it both ways and so they too should leave Hitler out of it.

But then it got worse. The newspapers weighed in with editorials faulting the second commercial. As the editorial boards pointed out in newspapers from all over the state, and of varying political stripes, Tim Kaine, in that particular case, was providing pro bono services which all lawyers are required to do. He was assigned this case to fulfill a professional obligation. The newspapers piled on Kilgore because, as an attorney general, nobody should know this better than him.

And then it got even worse. Within a day or two, Tim Kaine responded with his own ad. He looked into the camera, said, “I’m Tim Kaine and I approved this ad (all candidates in Virginia have to “stand by their ad” which is the name of the law requiring them to do so). Kaine further stated that he is indeed against the death penalty because of his religious convictions but, as governor, he would carry out death sentences because “that’s the law in Virginia.”

In this ad, Tim Kaine sat behind a desk and looked straight into the camera when he said these things. The thing of it is that it looked like he was looking you straight in the eye and talking to you from his heart. And it was the most effective ad he ran. It turned around the campaign.

People turned against Kilgore in droves, citing his negative ads. In poll after poll, moderates and independents told pollsters they thought Kilgore had unfairly attacked Tim Kaine for his religious beliefs. They also said they thought Kilgore was dishonest and would say anything to get elected. And even where they disagreed with Kaine, they found him likeable and honest.

Many pundits are now writing that negative ads did not work and that they turned off voters. But that’s only partly true.

As Bush and others have proved many times over, negative ads can work powerfully. They can deliver an election to a candidate. But if the candidate using a negative ad is discovered to have lied, it can backfire powerfully too and that’s what happened here.

Once voters discerned that Kilgore had distorted Kaine’s record, they never trusted him again.

Compare this to what happened to John Kerry when he was faced with the Swift Boat ads. The reason they worked so well was because Kerry never stood in front of the camera and looked his audience in the eye and called his accusers liars. He never said, "This is not true; here are my Bronze Star, my Medal of Honor, my Purple Heart, and my Silver Star. Here is my official record."

Of course, newspapers eventually pointed all this out. But if Kerry would have stood up with quiet dignity and told the truth and called the liars on their fabrications, the effect would have deflated the accusations like a defective balloon leaking hot air.

The public does not want negative and dishonest attack ads. But it will listen to them, believe them, and be influenced by them unless the victim of the ad stands up and defends himself. And the most powerful defense, as Tim Kaine taught us, is truth. He stood up, looked straight into the TV camera, told his story, and challenged Kilgore’s lies. And that is always how the good guys win elections.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Democrats Grow a Back Bone

Here's a delightful piece from the Washington Post. It seems that Harry Reid and the Democrats closed the Senate for about an hour or two today, invoking a rarely used Rule 21, to demand that Senate Republicans take some responsibility for governmental oversight by investigating the Adminsitration's use of intelligence in taking us into war with Iraq.

Read this account and enjoy. Listen, any time you can get a Republican mad at you and disrupt their power grabs in Congress, it's a good day.


Let the Debate Begin

This brief look at the highlights of some of Judge Samuel Alito's decisions, from today's Washington Post, presents a troubling picture. Firstly, Judge Alito's dissents from his colleagues on the 3rd Circuit of the Federal Appeals Court have always been to take the most conservative view (admittedly, the 3rd Circuit is probably the among the most liberal in the nation). In addition, the pattern of his opinions illustrates a legal mind that usually sides against the interests of ordinary men and women in ways that constrict their rights and narrow their lives. In decisions involving death penalty appeals, the Family Medical Leave Act, abortion rights, the right of religious minorities, Judge Alito usually sides with those who would limit civil liberties, the right to privacy, separation of church and state and even the right of those accused of crimes to a vigorous defense when their very lives are at stake.

And George Will opines in this Washington Post column that liberals are in an untenable position in trying to stop Alito's nomination. According Will, they will be unable to counter the conservative wing's principled argument in favor of a strict constructionist approach to interpreting law. Will seems think that the liberals' only arguments are that it's unfair to pick a conservative like Alito to replace a moderate like O'Connor or simply that they wouldn't like the outcome of his decisions. And Will is right that the arguments he cites would be specious debating points at that.

However, he fails to consider that there is a very good argument that the Democrats can make, based every bit as much on judicial principle as any conservative argument.

A credible dissent can be made that there are other approaches to interpretation of the law that have nothing to do with attaining a preferred political outcome at any cost of principle. Democrats and liberals can counter the conservatives by stating that the Constitution is a living document that is meant to be interpreted in light of 21st Century realities which our founding fathers might never have considered. Also, too strict an emphasis on a literal interpretation can actually constrict even the intended meaning of those founding fathers. For example, you can argue, as conservatives have tried, that there is no right to individual privacy, laudable as such a right might be, guaranteed in the Constitution because there is no specific language in that document stating it clearly. However, a cursory understanding of the our founding fathers, the historical context in which they operated, and their other writings would convince others, less literal minded, that the intention of a right to privacy is indeed presumred throughout the Constitution, especially in the Bill of Rights.

Taking a more expansive view of interpretation of the law is both a legitimate and principledview that can be argued successfully.

And one thing I do agree with George Will about is that it is indeed time this country had that argument. Debating how we view the Constitution and how we interpret it, in light of the 21st Century, is long overdue. I join him in saying "let the debate begin."

We are not afraid of it.

Bring It On

The classic definition of chutzpah is the person who kills his parents and then throws himself on the mercy of the courts because he's an orphan.

But soon there'll be a new definition of chutzpah: the conservative Republican who derails Harriet Miers' Supreme Court nomination and then insists that the Democrats owe Bush's second nominee, Samuel Alito, an up or down vote and threatens them with the so-called nuclear option over it. Yeah, you gotta love 'em.

The Republicans have always been an interesting study in double standard politics. They're for states' rights, except when Oregon voted for an assisted suicide law. Then they wanted to federalize the issue to strike down the decision of Oregon voters. Likewise, they were for the rights of the state except when state judges upheld Michael Schiavo's right to terminate his wife's life support or when a state makes abortion easier. In other words, they're for states' rights until any individual state comes into conflict with their wacky rightwing social agenda. Just as they are for limiting government, except when it comes to a woman's right to choice or a gay couple's right to have the same legal protections as hetrosexual married people do. In fact, whenever it comes to an individual's right to privacy, the right suddenly discovers how valuable big government is. It's only their buddies in large corporations who need protection from big intrusive government, the better to price gouge and rack up obscene profits while underpaying workers and gutting pensions.

But the the conservatives' social agenda and their need to tell everybody else how to live their lives always trumps the Bill of Rights and the privacy of the individual.

Only not this time.

I don't think the Republicans can claim with a straight face that Democrats have an obligation to give Justice Alito an up or down vote. Not after the way they behaved when they felt that Harriet Miers was not ideologically pure enough for them.

To be sure, they stood on principle. And I applauded them for it.

But they also opened the door for others to do the same. And they simply can't close it again.

If Harriet Miers wasn't good enough for them because they weren't assured that she'd oppose a woman's right to choice (even though the White House did give assurances that she was pro-life), then Democrats have a right to push back and oppose a nominee who is anti-abortion. After all, senators are elected to represent their constitutents. They would be derelict in their duties if they didn't do that. And most of the Democrats in the Senate were elected because they were pro-choice.

In fact, most Americans still do support a woman's right to choose. And even among those who are ambivelent about on-demand abortion, a large majority would oppose restricting the right of a rape or incest victim or a woman whose life and health were at risk from obtaining an abortion. So it's perfectly fair to argue that Alito and his supporters are out of step with mainstream Americans.

Democrats have to make clear that this fight is not about the culture war. It's Republicans who are waging a culture war to force their religious values on everybody else. Democrats who oppose Alito are simply standing up for what they and most Americans believe. Democratic senators must cast themselves as fighting to defend the rights of the ordinary citizens they represent.

They have to point out that Justice Alito has already made rulings that most Americans wouldn't support. He has ruled that a woman seeking an abortion had to first get her husband's permission, a decision that was struck down by the Supreme Court. He also has ruled against the Family Leave Act, calling it unconsitutional. That too was overturned.

His rulings will affect not only a woman's right to choose but also the rights of workers, minorities, and those seeking justice in the courts from large corporations. He will have the power of life or death decisions in death penalty cases too. He is a hard right ideologue and if the Democrats do not oppose him, even with the filibuster, they are not doing their jobs.

As for the Republicans. Let them invoke the nuclear option. Meanwhile, let's remind people that these were the same people who took up special legislation to interfere with a grieving family's private end-of-life tragedy and intruded where they didn't belong and they are the same people who themselves derailed a Supreme Court nominee because they didn't find her ideologically pure enough. Let them have a temper tantrum that destroys the Senate's comity.

And then let the American people vote in 2006 on whether, like Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress that shut down the govenrment in 1994, this Republican Administration has gone to far in their extremism.