29 April 2009

Understaffing the New Administration

I'm not sure which is more striking: that 100 days into the new administration more than two thirds of senior offices in every cabinet department are still vacant, or that, apparently, that's the norm.

A look inside the numbers paints an even bleaker picture. Only 48 of 349 positions have cleared the final hurdle to begin work, Senate confirmation. It's been pointed out before, especially in relation to the staffing woes at Treasury during an economic crisis, but is there really any reason for the Senate to confirm 349 positions? Now more than ever, can we not make the case that the Assistant Secretary for Vocational and Adult Education at the Department of Education is not a remarkable or contentious position (at least not until the nomination goes to the Senate!)? See here for a full list.

Here's Gary Andres of Dutko Worldwide, a large consulting and lobbying firm, in a panel discussion last month at the Wilson Center:

It used to be that senators did not oppose presidential nominations on policy grounds because Members believed the president was entitled to have his own people carrying out his policies. The senators’ job was to determine whether the nominee was professionally qualified and ethically fit for the job. But all that has changed as senators and interest groups began grinding their political and policy axes at confirmation hearings.

Emphasis mine. I leave to the reader the possibility that, without all this premium grade political posturing (read "BS"), we could actually have a government system that is mostly staffed and ready to go after 100 days, as opposed to simply being ready to get ready to fight about being ready to serve the citizens of the country.

28 April 2009

EPA's Jackson Fumbles Free Enterprise Answer




Somebody get Lisa Jackson a cheat sheet. She did a fine job in her interview on NPR today, until Michele Norris asked about the role of government.

In a discussion about strategies to regulate greenhouse gases from cars (starts at the 2:42 mark on the interview), and about how to tie such regulations to economic viability, Jackson stated that "the president has said, and I couldn't agree more, that what this country needs is one single national road map that tells automakers, who are trying to become solvent again, what kind of car it is they need to be designing and building for the American people."

Whereupon NPR's Norris astutely asked: "Is that the role of the government, though? That doesn't sound like free enterprise."

"Well . . . it-it [exhale] . . . it is free enterprise in a way. Um, uh, y'know . . . first and foremost the free enterprise system has us where we are right this second, and so some would argue that the government has a much larger role than we might have when Henry Ford rolled the first cars off the assembly line."

Jackson went on to invoke the future of the auto industry and larger discussions that the president, Congress, and the EPA are having and will continue to have. So she saved herself, sort of. But I could hear Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly breathing heavily behind the tape as they get ready to tear into the clip in coming days.

Granted, I don't expect the head of the EPA to be an economic policy wonk. But I do expect her to capably field straightforward and predictable questions regarding the oft-thorny relationship between government regulation and free enterprise, especially when her own argument suggests that greenhouse gas regulation is good economic policy. In this interview, Jackson mentions the president and, for all practical purposes, speaks for the president. The only way to sell "big" government is to make sure policies work and to have your talking points in order and your bases covered. The easy way out would have been to tie government regulation to the government funds those troubled car companies are taking and to evoke a partnership toward progress in which free enterprise, frankly, becomes an afterthought.

22 April 2009

Carroll on University Executive Pay

I was pretty harsh on the Denver Post's Vincent Carroll a couple weeks ago. If there's one thing I definitely like to do it's to point out when a writer whose work I generally don't like says some things that I find myself strongly agreeing with.

So it was a treat yesterday to read Carroll on the subject of high salaries for public university executives.

I can appreciate that good administrators are akin to good CEOs, and that talent, vision, leadership, and performance deserve to be rewarded. Like Carroll, however, I find myself marveling at the rising compensation packages awarded to top-tier administrators even while state-funded universities impose hiring freezes, trim positions and course offerings, freeze faculty pay, and raise tuition. For background on this read here and here.

I'm not quite ready to take Carroll's numbers, courtesy of the Independence Institute, at face value without doing some math and checking other sources. But on the surface, Carroll asks the right questions and strikes the right tone. A little more of this and I'm going to find the Denver Post op-ed page a lot more likable.

Eugene Robinson on the Obama/Chavez Handshake

I generally like Eugene Robinson, and hats off to him for winning that Pulitzer. But yesterday's column advocating for theatrics from a traveling president leaves me dissatisfied. "Theatricality is one of the weapons in any leader's arsenal," Robinson writes, "and a well-timed glower or growl can have more impact than a sheaf of position papers."

When wingers and warmongerers chastise the president for shaking hands with Venezuela's little man, I get it. In a way, it keeps with a natural order we've come to expect in our politics. The predictable rant is that any sign of American openness is weakness. But when a voice of reason advocates a bit of superficial staging, I'm befuddled.

Eugene Robinson gets it just right when he characterizes Chavez and the essential relationship between our two countries.

Any idea that Chávez is some sort of threat to the United States is absurd. It's hard to see his fiery anti-American rhetoric as anything more than performance art, given that he has been scrupulously careful to avoid even the slightest disruption of the U.S.-Venezuela economic relationship.Venezuela owns Citgo, among other concerns, and is a reliable supplier of oil to the thirsty U.S. market.

Or, as Matt Yglesias put it yesterday:

For all the rhetorical heat generated by Chavez’s clashes with the American right, all he really wants from America is for Citgo to sell us oil and gas. And guess what? All we want from Venezuela is the ability to buy oil and gas.

So why would Robinson go on to argue that Obama should have been more rigid? Indeed, why argue that Obama should have recognized the slap Chavez intended--by presenting a tome on U.S. meddling in Latin America--and slap back? Because Robinson thinks he's speaking for moderates who like the new diplomatic worldview that Obama brings but still interpret the diplomatic landscape through the old paradigm, which, no matter how you slice it, hearkens back to the Cold War.

Guess what, folks. Chavez doesn't really intimidate the U.S. Nor should he. On the one side of the aisle, you've got a reactionary right that would seek to replay Cold War pageantry at every little opportunity. On the other side--I thought--you've got a moderate left that understands that Chavez doesn't intimidate the U.S. Why on earth should anyone, lest Eugene Robinson, see Obama's easy way in a crowded room as a faux pas?

Public perception is, largely, what the media molds of it. And if media outlets like the Washington Post and Pulitzer prize winners like Eugene Robinson were to deem Obama's stature in Trinidad as, say, a sign of imperturbable confidence, then that's what a majority of Americans would reliably repeat for the duration of a given spin cycle. Where are the commentators to remind us that America can afford to be big, that our chief diplomat can go ahead and indulge in some hand shaking and shoulder slapping and can accept a gift for the recycle bin without reeling like we've all got an insecurity complex? It could read "Obama didn't give Chavez a thing, not a single hint as to U.S. disposition toward Venezuela. The president smiled, enjoyed some token banter, and moved on."

I don't expect Newt Gingrich or Dick Cheney to play any other role than to make the hackneyed call for strength and force that plays well to the wide right and gets our country into trouble time and again. But I do expect, and desperately hope, that saner voices will also choose milder interpretations when the president makes non-news on the diplomatic front.

21 April 2009

Columbine Grads Return to Teach

Colorado is inundated this week with reminders about Columbine. This article about five of the student survivors is one of the most striking things I've seen. Ten years after the tragedy, those students still walk the halls of Columbine High every day . . . as teachers.

Army Standards Improve as More Americans Seek Work

Clearly good news coming out of a bad economy:

The Army last month stopped accepting felons and recent drug abusers into its ranks as the nation's economic downturn helped its recruiting, allowing it to reverse a decline in recruiting standards that had alarmed some officers.

Read the rest here.

18 April 2009

Meghan McCain to Log Cabin Republicans

If Meghan McCain can keep talking truth to power within her own party, then I've got a lot of hope for the next wave of Republican figureheads, leaders, and--watch out--activists. Last month McCain asked Ann Coulter to explain some things, then a week later she took the fight to Laura Ingraham. Now, HuffPo's Sam Stein captures McCain's comments this evening to the Log Cabin Republicans, and the substance of her critique is pretty damn good:

"There are those who think we can win the White House and Congress back by being 'more' conservative. Worse, there are those who think we can win by changing nothing at all about what our party has become. They just want to wait for the other side to be perceived as worse than us. I think we're seeing a war brewing in the Republican Party. But it is not between us and Democrats. It is not between us and liberals. It is between the future and the past."

Emphasis mine. There's a tendency to assume that unpopularity simply saddles each party at some point, usually as a backlash to the party in, or just out of, power. Dems were seen as weak and ineffective coming off the Carter years. Then the Republican Party enjoyed a wave of enthusiasm for Ronald Reagan's charm and appeal. George H.W. Bush couldn't sustain that enthusiasm ("Read my lips" didn't go over as well as "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!"), and the pendulum swung the other way. And no sooner did Bill Clinton get into the White House than Dems lost popularity and took a thumping in the midterms. A few years go by and it's George W's turn, and wash, rinse, repeat. Meghan McCain seems to be here to say to her party "Hey, wake up! There's something going on in the country, and we can't assume that it'll just be our turn again if we sit around and wait for the other guys to screw up."

When McCain says war is brewing in the Republican party between the future and the past, what she means is that the grand old gentlemen who run the Grand Old Party have failed to connect with the most important new force in American politics: 18-25 year olds. (I suspect it's more like 18-40 year olds, but that's really just a hunch.) Democrats, on the other hand, clearly have connected with that young crop.

Democrats have gotten a young president with a Blackberry into the Oval Office, and they've excited what looks to be two generations worth of voters who still have the bulk of their voting years ahead of them. We could argue about whether Democrats really did this, or whether it's just the power of Obama, but I suspect Howard Dean has been enjoying the resurgence and renewed effectiveness of the DNC he helped turn around. Meanwhile, there is no one Republican figure who can excite a clear majority of Republican voters nationwide. And Republican politics among the states has become a clear race to the bottom.

McCain's got something to say about that, by the way:

"Simply embracing technology isn't going to fix our problem," she said. "Republicans using Twitter and Facebook isn't going to miraculously make people think we're cool again. Breaking free from obsolete positions and providing real solutions that don't divide our nation further will. That's why some in our party are scared. They sense the world around them is changing and they are unable to take the risk to jump free of what's keeping our party down."

Emphasis mine. Now, this might all be a part of a book tour for the young McCain, but I'm hoping it's something more. An interesting thing has happened in American politics since Barack Obama arrived on scene. We've finally got the right combination of appeal, charisma, and intelligence at the forefront of a national dialogue, and a leader who genuinely seems to enjoy a thoughtful and respectful debate. A lot of Republicans have responded simply by raising the volume. Meghan McCain sounds like she's ready to raise the bar. Here's hoping she can bring quality ideas to match her tone, and that she won't be destroyed by her own party.

Iran Speaks Conflict: Understanding the Case of Roxana Saberi

NPR's Jacki Lyden spoke with Hadi Ghaemi of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. Ghaemi, an Iranian dissident who has spent the last 25 years in the United States, says Iran doesn't know how to respond to the new, open hand of the Obama administration, and that hard-line elements within the country have seized on the case of Roxana Saberi to sow conflict with the U.S.

Ghaemi has studied human rights and Iranian foreign policy since he left Iran. He says he's surprised by the ruling.

The verdict was much, much harsher than anything similar to it. The surprise here is that Roxana is neither an activist, she has not been involved in anything that could domestically be considered a threat to Iranian government, and for Iranian leadership to use her this way, it only sends the message that she has become the tool of Iranian foreign policy at the moment. Now what is the message and use of that tool is something that there are a couple of different possibilities.

Ghaemi thinks the appeals process presents a possible glimmer of hope, and that Iran actually could review the case very quickly and render a different decision via appeal. Certainly, this is what he hopes will happen. At the same time, however, Ghaemi considers Saberi very much a pawn in a broader--and more troubling--diplomatic picture, which outcome is none too clear.

She's being used by hard-line elements in Iran to torpedo, uh, possible improvements of relations with the United States. I think the Iranian leadership is very confused and insecure at the initiatives that President Obama has presented toward Iran. So I think by creating this crisis they do get the opportunity to perhaps make the U.S. policies return to more confrontational basis.

Ghaemi's assessment is hardly reassuring. But if his take on the internal politics is correct, then I'd go so far as to say that President Obama's approach to Iran is working. All the more reason NOT to adopt a tone of aggression (as advocated here) which would only play into what appears to be Iran's strategy of choice, haphazard as that strategy may be. If Iran's hard liners are hoping to provoke a hard-line U.S. response, then the last thing the administration should do--and the last thing Saberi needs--is to give that contingent what they want.

U.S. Journalists Still Detained in North Korea

NPR ran a story two days ago on the very quiet, ongoing detention of U.S. journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling, captured last month by the North Korean government. AP's Jean Lee discusses the high-stakes nature of the journalists' detention as Pyongyang looks for ways to increase leverage in global nuclear negotiations.

At 3 min, 39 seconds, the story gives a brief hint at the complex relationship between the reporters' detention, the frustrated nature of North Korea's efforts to develop nuclear weapons, and the frustrated nature of U.S. diplomatic options in North Korea. Well worth a quick listen, especially in light of Iran's conviction of U.S. journalist Roxana Saberi on charges of spying. At least on the surface, the two cases present similar dynamics, though any interactions with Iran are arguably more complicated. Either way, the State Department has its hands full.

Iranian Court Sentences Saberi to 8 Years for Spying

The New York Times tells us that American-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi has been convicted of spying in an Iranian court and sentenced to 8 years in prison.

Scott Lucas offers food for thought about what propels the case inside Iran. I'm neither informed enough nor imaginative enough to speculate as to what may happen next. Ed Morrissey calls on Obama to drop the folksy charm so far employed toward Iran and get heavy. Morressey's suggestions strike me as Iran's biggest hope. What would be a greater success than provoking empire to come assert ourselves in our most bellicose way?

Right now the Iranians don't have much to stand on but have successfully chipped the American image. I don't think America can stand back and do nothing. But that chip becomes a deep fracture if the U.S. makes empty demands. Our escalation right now will more or less give the Iranian leadership a platform from which to fight. Lucas speculates that, hopefully, the State Department is reaching out to friends who are connected to Iran's decision makers.

No doubt this all becomes political here at home. Silence is unacceptable in the 24-hour news cycle, even on a Saturday. Immediately, expect conservatives to lambaste the administration for doing nothing (no, I don't think the pundits will have learned from last week's pirate escapades) while progressives do much the same. Fortunately, I am encouraged that the administration is sufficiently above the spin on this. I have to believe that the president, his advisers, and the Secretary of State are smart enough to wait until they have the right hand to play. Here's hoping that there is such a thing. And that Roxana Saberi can afford to wait.

17 April 2009

Culvahouse on Palin: "She knocked those questions out of the park."

Andy Barr has a striking piece at Politico citing John McCain's lead vetter in the quest for a VP candidate.

A.B. Culvahouse, a powerful Washington lawyer and former counsel to President Reagan, told an audience of Republican lawyers that for McCain, selecting a vice president came down to three questions: Why do you want to be vice president? Are you prepared to use nuclear weapons? And the CIA has identified Osama bin Laden, but if you take the shot there will be multiple civilian casualties. Do you take the shot?

“She knocked those questions out of the park,” he said at an event held at the National Press Club by the Republican National Lawyers Association. “We came away impressed.”

I shudder to think what answers Palin gave to those three questions.

Okay, it's actually just the second question I'm having trouble with. The first one is fluff, the third one is superficially tough (as in, "Do you have the stones to make the hard call?"). But the second one? "Are you prepared to use nuclear weapons?" What's the correct answer to that question?

Barr's piece never gives a hint as to Palin's answers. But I'm left feeling so much more relieved that, at least for the time being, we don't have to consider a scenario that leaves either John McCain or Sarah Palin with the launch codes.

Same-sex Marriage and Don't Ask, Don't Tell (All in a Day)

TPM posts divergent pieces today on equality for gays. While Steve Schmidt prepares to drag the GOP kicking and screaming toward acceptance of gay marriage, Robert Gates throws cold water on high hopes regarding the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy under the Obama administration.

Schmidt earned all my scorn as the architect of John McCain's 2008 campaign of bile. But this move makes me wonder if Schmidt learned something during the campaign; namely, that the big tent can't help Republicans if it's empty. Steve Benen asks how prominent Repubs will treat Schmidt for his breach with party etiquette. True, it may not be pretty. But Schmidt is on the right side of this one and, I believe, is reading the social change tea leaves correctly. He may get lambasted today, but if the GOP has any hope for a reemergence in the foreseeable future then they'll need guys like Schmidt, high-profile operatives who can move the party forward around some bigger truths. We'll see, of course, whether Schmidt truly is that guy. But I give him props for demonstrating reason at a time when, to be blunt, the Republican establishment seems to delight in shunning that particular quality.

DADT is a little harder to get my head around. It'd be one thing if administration figures framed the debate as "We have to be deliberate, we have to be smart, and our policy has to be sound." There's been some of that floating in the ether since March, when Gates made his "push that one down the road" comments on FOX. But TPM points out that Gates now goes so far as to invoke the conditional. "If we do it, it's very important that we do it right, and very carefully." My question is why does Gates invoke the conditional?

Obama and Gates may have different politics, but I think they're both smart, both thoughtful, and both very intentional. Also, I believe they both want what's good for the country. So why the hedging? Gates is Obama's guy on DADT policy, and yet he can't just come out and say "We're working on this, we're going to make this happen." Why? The NYT piece TPM refers to gives us Gates invoking Harry Truman: Truman signed the order to integrate the military in 1948, and still it took five years before it happened. Gates: “I’m not saying that’s a model for this, but I’m saying that I believe that this is something that needs to be done very, very carefully.’’

More Gates:

“To get people’s real feelings about it, you have to have almost a one-on-one private conversation,’’ Mr. Gates said. “I think it’s very difficult for people to speak in front of their peers about this issue.’’
Man, I just don't get it. Sure it's politically tricky. The idea of gays in the military always has been. But Gates sounds like he's giving cover here. Just as the GOP has to come around to same-sex marriage (if the party wants to survive), the military also has to quit discharging capable, talented, and effective soldiers who want to serve. This is not rocket science. So what's all this "if" crap?

16 April 2009

Mercator--er, Peters

I made a big, huge, whopping error in a post below, enough so that I'll draw attention in a whole new post just to try and make up for the foul. Sorry, and thanks for reading anyway!

Betsy Markey, Colorado Golden Child

Two things about this April 9 article on Betsy Markey. First, props to Markey for getting out early and raking in the bucks. It almost seems like she never quite stepped out of campaign mode, which Kevin Drum laments (generally) here.

Second, I don't buy the Post prerogative:

Markey is going to need a war chest to keep the seat she wrestled in November from three-term incumbent Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, a Republican.

She beat Musgrave by double digits, but some pundits expect a closer contest in 2010 because the seat traditionally has been safe for Republicans.
Yeah, okay, elections cost money. But "some pundits"? Who? Let's name names. Because this is smoke and bullshit, frankly, if you ask me. Markey, though newly minted, will enjoy the incumbent's advantage in 2010. And Musgrave lost because she represented the most toxic of Republican politicians in the 2008 landscape. Or, to simply look at it another way, Markey figured out how to win.

So before the Denver Post gets too cozy with "some pundits," let's just take a look at the new political landscape. I'm not saying the 4th is a safe Dem district by any stretch. But I have to wonder whose Kool-Aid the Post is drinking to hang Betsy Markey out on a limb so soon after the election.

That Election Map

UPDATE: Big, huge, whopping correction below regarding maps and projections. Sorry for the haste.
______

A while back I posted a map of the 2008 presidential election results:


That's the Newman map, a cartogram which projects the national vote based on state population, i.e. electoral votes, and not on state size, i.e. area.

While checking into a recent (and unrelated) post, I unearthed this nugget:


That's from Rush Limbaugh's site. To be sure, the latter map casts a decidedly different picture of the American electorate, county by county. It's enough to make one wonder whether Newman and Limbaugh were looking at the same country on the eve of the '08 election. But Newman accounted for this:

The areas of red and blue on the cartogram are now proportional to the actual numbers of electoral votes won by each candidate. Thus this map shows at a glance both which states went to which candidate and which candidate won more electoral college votes – something that you cannot tell easily from the normal election-night red and blue map.

But we can go further. We can do the same thing also with the county-level election results and the images are even more striking. Here is a map of US counties, again colored red and blue to indicate Republican and Democratic majorities respectively:




Now the effects we saw at the state level are even more pronounced: the red areas appear overwhelmingly in the majority, an appearance again at odds with the actual results of the election. Again, we can make a more helpful representation by using a cartogram. Here is what the cartogram looks like for the county-level election returns:



Okay, me again. Pretty striking. The cartogram clearly offers us a new way to look at elections, much in the way the Mercator Projection [Woops! Big correction here--Ed.] Peters Projection changes how we look at the U.S. in relation to the rest of the earth. Newman doesn't stop there, but goes on to account for "purple" parts of the country, thus taking the study even further in scale.



And the resulting cartogram?




Less red than ever. And pretty much no matter how you slice it, a clear majority of the country trended Democratic in the last election: 375 to 173.

Texas Secession = Obama Failure?

Seriously. It's a lot to swallow. But if you wanted to paint a modern president as a dramatic failure, can you think of a better way than by actually losing a state?

Cast in that light, all the Texas-secession talk starts to make sense . . . sort of.

"A Half-Century of 'Stupid Grammar Advice'"

UPDATE: Pullum provides (a whole lot) more here. To be honest, I am insufficiently suited to appraise it all.
_____

I was just sending an email to the grammarians in my life when I figured, what the hell, why not share with everyone?


[Dear Friends,]

Heard this on NPR today and thought of all of you grammarians in my life. Really an interesting look at the evolution--and convolution--of modern grammar rules. At 17 minutes you'll need more time than your average YouTube clip but less time than a bad sitcom to hear the interview in total. General verdict? Strunk and White were very good on style, but mangled the patterns of usage, absolutely. (Listen for a defense of the split infinitive!)

Hope all the writers, editors, and teachers out there are still as engaged as ever with the mechanics of our language.

Playing for Change and (RED)WIRE: "Stand By Me"

Via Andrew Hudson, this video really blows me away. I'm a softy and a sentimentalist, to be sure, but the goosebumps have not yet fallen.



Check out Playing for Change and (RED)WIRE for more about change through music.

More Pinnacol--er, or Rather Less

Mike Littwin nails the state's conundrum--now specifically the governor's--in his column today about budget woes and state seizures of funds that probably don't really belong to the state anyway.

"It is either a bad idea or a desperate idea, depending on whom you ask. Nobody really thinks it's a good idea, but the first rule of budgetary crises is that there are no good ideas."

That about sums it up. I wrote about the politicization of the Pinnacol plan here, and since that post, Denver has watched the issue spill into the streets. That same day, the state voted to seize the funds in question. Yesterday, lawmakers undid their work from earlier in the week by placing a hold on the bill's authorization. Today, the Denver Post reports, budget hashers are back to square one, and the politically untenable seizure of Pinnacol funds--which was at best a non-solution solution, since the funds were sure to be tied up in court too long to help the state's higher ed tab--is clearly not in the discussion.

I can't say I'm surprised to see the legislation fall through. Two things mattered a lot in all this. The first was that the funds for higher ed are needed urgently and immediately. Pinnacol got itself a bunch of lawyers and PR reps over the past week to make sure that, even if the state went ahead and voted to seize the money, the funds wouldn't actually be free any time this year. The second is that the money seized, $500 million, could only plug a hole in the higher ed budget for a single year. So not only is the seizure a politically toxic and extremely high profile gambit, but as solutions go, it sucks. The higher ed budget limps along for a year, but that's all.

To further complicate things for the state, Pinnacol's CEO Ken Ross has spoken publicly about ways Pinnacol may be able to "voluntarily help" the state by means of an "investment vehicle." Much as it may gall lawmakers to pay interest on monies believed to be in the state's coffers--right or wrong, we'd have to leave to the courts to decide--a well-constructed plan would almost certainly be a better fix for Colorado's universities, colleges, and community colleges than the slap-dash seizure. Instead of sapping the insurer for money this year, why not work with the insurer to put that surplus into play over the next five years? That, to my thinking, is the beginning of a sustainable solution.

And to further complicate the budget issues at hand, the governor has flatly declared that $300 million in higher ed cuts this year is simply not an option. Not only would the cuts make bad times worse across the state's campuses, but said cuts would disqualify Colorado from receiving $760 million in federal stimulus funds. Sorta puts the gov over the barrel, to say the least. He stayed behind the scenes and tried his best to let the sausage makers do the dirty work, but as Littwin points out, this is Ritter's problem now.

One thing to keep an eye on as the state debate over the public-private nature of Pinnacol Assurance continues: only one of the two bills passed this week has stalled. The other bill, SB 281, continues to wend its way toward law. And that bill puts Pinnacol firmly back under the state's auspices. From today's Post:

Though the bill transferring money from Pinnacol's assets is off the table, Senate Bill 281, which puts Pinnacol clearly back under state control and requires a state audit of the quasi-governmental agency continues to move forward. The bill also would require a study to decide the future of Pinnacol, including whether the state should sell it off.
The Denver Business Journal has more on the details of and arguments surrounding SB 281.

Somehow, I suspect, negotiations toward that "voluntary help" and "investment vehicle" Ken Ross mentioned last Tuesday have not gotten any easier this week.

15 April 2009

OK GO

Yeah, alright. The wife's out of town and I'm watching . . . alt-rock on treadmills? Strangely mesmerized.

Yes or No: Susan Boyle

Say what you will. I am moved.

Gun Purchases May Get Easier in Colorado

As Colorado and the nation mark the 10-year anniversary of Columbine, state senators passed a bill yesterday to make buying guns easier at state gun shows. The bill goes to the House today.

At issue is the contentious matter of conceal and carry permits. Proponents of handgun rights argue that background checks are unnecessary for concealed-carry permit holders, whom the state government checks out before a permit is issued. Those permits are valid in CO for five years. Opponents of the measure argue that a lot can happen in five years. People get angry. People get sick. People use bad judgment. How many legally permitted conceal-and-carry gun owners have used their weapons to commit some crime or act of harassment?

The Denver Post's Bill Johnson pointed out last month that 130 concealed-carry permits were revoked in Colorado last year for "reasons such as 'arrest records,' 'discretion' and — goodness — 'restraining orders.'" Johnson, a gun owner, went on to criticize the proposed legislation.

Call me crazy, but I'm with Johnson. The chief complaint invoked against checks at gun shows is that background checks take too long. That seems, to me, a complaint that doesn't hold water. And as for redundant bureaucracy in government, I'm all for getting rid of it. But shouldn't we all be sort of comforted that buying a gun, of all things, might take longer than buying a Happy Meal?

14 April 2009

World Beat

Over the weekend, pirates provided plenty of fuel for neocons to call for a "coalition of the willing" to invade Somalia. Given that response, I can only guess as to the inevitable chatter points today regarding North Korea's departure from six-party talks and strongly worded statement indicating that the DPRK will resume nuclear development.

Meanwhile, I read precious little from the right regarding the closed-door trial in Iran of U.S.-Iranian citizen Roxana Saberi. Saberi, a prominent journalist whose work has appeared on NPR, the BBC, Fox News, and more, has been held in Tehran since January on charges of spying for the U.S. While I'm not eager to hear more clamor and criticism from the talking heads on how Saberi's incarceration makes Obama weak and America pitiful (see this vid from Kos, via Benen, for the worst of the worst from the right on the topic again of pirates), it would be nice if the plight of a U.S. reporter held under questionable circumstances would draw a little more attention and calls from the once-heralded "compassionate conservatives" for justice to win out.

On second thought, maybe the right's silence is golden. The less Saberi becomes a political chip in this country, the more chance she has of not being (further) played as one in Iran.

13 April 2009

Denver Post Against Pinnacol Plan

I wish I'd read this Denver Post editorial before writing my last post. The whole brewing partisan angle is pretty well expressed in the Post's opening lines:

Senate Democrats, for the second consecutive year, have passed a multibillion-dollar state budget that could well hinge on a positive court ruling.

We know it's extremely difficult to carve $700 million from a budget that contains little discretionary spending, but that's a terribly irresponsible way to govern.

The Senate late Thursday night passed a $17.9 billion budget that requires a $500 million raid on a quasi-public agency in order to avoid devastating cuts to higher education.

The piece goes on to paint the deal in a negative light. While I won't argue with the editors' negative opinion about the proposed legislation--I am not convinced of the overall value of seizing Pinnacol's assets to slap a band-aid on Colorado's higher-education woes for just a single year--I do feel strongly that the partisan narrative bears pointing out.

The Post editorial leaves out the fact that SB 273, one of two Pinnacol-related bills put forth by lawmakers, is sponsored by a pair of state Republicans, Sen. Al White of Hayden and Rep. Don Marostica of Loveland. Given that fact it seems a bit remarkable for the paper to frontload the conversation with "Senate Democrats . . . ."

Granted, Democrats make the majority in the Colorado senate, and Democrats may feel more compelled than many of their Republican counterparts to take any measure necessary to fund higher ed this year, but the Post seems to willfully ignore crucial information to understanding the issue. Democrats aren't simply steamrolling this through the assembly; Republicans are actively fighting amongst themselves over basic different interpretations of the law and how to solve sticky budgeting problems.

The paper's readers deserve at least a hint of the complex nature of the politics behind the proposed legislation. Even the Post editorial board would likely agree.

Colorado's Pinnacol Plan

The fight for control of $500 million of assets from Pinnacol Assurance is slowly but surely being framed as a partisan issue (see here and here), when in fact it is not so clearly partisan at all. For those not up on the debate: Can Colorado lawmakers dip into Pinnacol's $700 million surplus to support state universities, colleges, and community colleges this budget year? A pair of proposals to that effect have passed the state senate. In response, Pinnacol has lawyered (and PRed) up and is prepared to fight.

At issue is the confusing, public-private nature of Pinnacol Assurance. Channel 7 News has some good background here. The state of Colorado established the fund in 1915 to cover worker's compensation claims expected as a result of the state's passage of the Workers' Compensation Act. Pinnacol was seen as the "insurer of last resort" so that the state would not be saddled with the costs of workers' comp claims. Though Pinnacol's funds are privately owned, the Pinnacol board is appointed by the state and the company enjoys tax-exempt status. A group of lawmakers tasked with balancing the Colorado higher-ed budget sees Pinnacol assets as part of a pool of resources to be drawn into play.

Pinnacol has become the largest work-comp insurance agency in the state. The company argues compellingly that their surplus comes not from the state but from private employers, some 58,000 strong. Thus Pinnacol's funds very much represent private dollars and not state funds, no matter the state-sponsored nature of the firm nor the tax exemptions Pinnacol enjoys as a quasi-governmental institution.

Confused yet? There's more.

If we look at the bills actually submitted, Senate Bills 281 and 273, we'll see that the plans are sponsored by Democrat Brandon Shaffer and Republicans Al White and Don Marostica. The Colorado Independent has a rundown of some of the Republican in-fighting of recent days. While White and Marostica have angered their Republican colleagues, the Colorado Dems have also failed to present a united front on this issue. Sen. Dan Gibbs (Summit Co.) and Sen. Paula Sandoval (Denver) voted against their party.

Meanwhile, Attorney General John Suthers (R) has declared the proposed legislation unconstitutional, though it appears unlikely that Suthers will have the final word on the matter. (Some interesting legal insights here.) Also, former Republican governor Bill Owens came out with a strongly worded op-ed last week exhorting Governor Bill Ritter to veto any legislation that results from the current plan. It's worth pointing out that Ritter has remained cautious on the issue since before Owens spoke up and before Josh Penry framed the Pinnacol issue as a wedge in the race for governor's seat.

While Colorado Republicans attempt to paint the issue as a state seizure of private monies, it is also Colorado Republicans who, when faced with the budget shortfall, hit upon Pinnacol's assets as the answer. Skeptics argue that whatever the outcome of today's Senate vote, A) the funds will only tide the higher-ed budget over for a year, and B) lawsuits may tie the funds up for at least that long anyhow, thus rendering the legislation ineffective in the immediate term.

Whatever happens, watch for more of the same politicization to occur as Josh Penry continues to position for a run at the governor's office in 2010.

10 April 2009

Two Catholics Walk into a Television Studio . . .

No, it ain't a joke. Via TPM, Pat Buchanan and Lawrence O'Donnell squared off on Hardball last night, and as television infotainment goes, the debate makes for pretty good fare.

"It is an abomination, it is the greatest horror in my lifetime in this country, I think it is a dreadful scar on America."

What's got Pat Buchanan so fired up? AIG bonuses? Incompetence in VA hospitals? Mexican drug wars spilling over U.S. borders?

Hardly. Buchanan's hyperbole sums his reaction to Notre Dame's invite to the president to give the commencement address to the class of '09. No, I'm not kidding. The comment isn't even about abortion. These are Buchanan's words for the fact of the invite alone.

The remarks come pretty deep into the clip, at the 10:22 mark. While you wait for the money quote, though, you'll be treated to cascades of incandescent fireworks invoking abortion, the death penalty, free speech, the pope, Catholicism, and polls. And the best part of all, O'Donnell pretty much leaves Buchanan lost in the emptiness of his own rhetoric (though I thought O'Donnell could have lowered the heat to achieve better effect).

The gist of O'Donnell's argument comes in the form of a question. The Catholic Church opposes both the death penalty and abortion. Given that context, why was it okay for George W. Bush--who oversaw more executions than any president in U.S. history--to speak at Notre Dame but not okay for Obama--who supports a woman's right to choose--to do the same?

If these two guys are proxies for extreme fundamentalism vs. moderate pragmatism within the Catholic populace in the U.S., then watch for fundamentalism to become more and more marginalized by the likes of Lawrence O'Donnell. While Buchanan's ire and outrage will resonate with some viewers, the simple power of O'Donnell's logic and reason will reach even more.

Drum and Friedman: Fighting for the Ball

Kevin Drum waxes morosely over the self-defeating nature of the liberal agenda. Specifically, Drum condemns Tom Friedman's recent carbon tax musings as the death knell for an effective and comprehensive climate change policy any time in the next 30 years or so.

I like Kevin's writing and his politics. He's got a big brain and devotes much of that brainpower to general wonkishness. Furthermore, Kevin knows what he's talking about when he asserts that cap-and-trade "uses market mechanisms, has a proven track record with acid rain control, and raises money via auctions rather than taxes." I understand all that thanks only to writers like Drum who distill it for me. So when a Kevin Drum decries the call for a straight carbon tax from a Tom Friedman, I sit up and listen.

Thing is, I also found Friedman's column pretty compelling. I can't debate the pros and cons between cap-and-trade vs. carbon tax, but I think Friedman hits an important point and nails it: no matter what Dems propose, Republican opposition will call it a tax. "Since the opponents of cap-and-trade are going to pillory it as a tax anyway, why not go for the real thing — a simple, transparent, economy-wide carbon tax?"

Mustachioed ponderousity aside, Friedman's right. Dems and the White House are in a semantic bind over this. Call it cap-and-trade and be accused of playing hide the ball, or call it a tax and be accused of breaking campaign promises and raising taxes on the folks on Main Street. All this presents a thorny issue for legislators who by necessity must thread a very tight needle in order to control carbon emissions in our lifetimes (preferably sooner than later, contra George Will). Though any eventual legislation is about the policy, it's also about the politics. And in politics, the right words matter. A lot.

So what'll it be? With centrist Dems scrambling to distance themselves from anything that will make their own reelections harder (nowhere more evident than here in Colorado), climate change is one topic that might just prove that, though the Republican party is weakened in the public eye, its propaganda machine is still strong enough to scare away enough votes to pass anything effective, no matter what lawmakers call it in the end. We'll see.

09 April 2009

Quick Hit

A friend told me recently that she prefers my writing and analysis to the quick hits I sometimes take advantage of when I see an item that just demands a link but I'm too lazy or busy to write about. Michelle, I heard you. And thanks.

That said, this is truly unbelievable: Texas GOP Legislator Calls for Asian Americans to Adopt Simpler Names.

From Postpartisan to Most Partisan: Michael Gerson Makes Hay of Obama's Approval Ratings

The Washington Post hired Michael Gerson, presumably, to do what Michael Gerson does best. In today's op-ed, that's to make something out of nothing, and that something happens to be pretty big: Gerson attempts to reframe the mystique surrounding the new president. Instead of being the postpartisan candidate presented during campaign season, Gerson argues that Obama is the most partisan president--in recent* history.

Gerson's tack is two pronged. First, seize on a piece of evidence that reflects an ongoing trend in American politics, the stubborn and intractable calcification of political party affiliation allegiance--more on this awkward phrase in a second--and sharply wield said evidence. Second, leave out some important details.

The evidence in question is an article from the Pew Research Center based on a bit of recent polling. The Pew lede actually jumps the shark, as revealed by the final paragraph. First the alpha: "For all of his hopes about bipartisanship, Barack Obama has the most polarized early job approval ratings of any president in the past four decades."

Mighty. Bold. One can see the temptation to saddle this horse and ride, as Gerson does. But much more telling--and left out of Gerson's piece--is this nugget buried toward the very end, the omega: "The growing partisan divide in presidential approval ratings is part of a long-term trend."

Or call it a yin and a yang phenomenon. Whatever. The latter grab from the article balances and contextualizes the opening quote in a way that might just be essential to understanding Pew's data. It's not that Obama himself is the most polarizing president. The electorate, however, is at its most polarized in history when evaluating the 44th president's early success.

There's a subtle and absolute difference in the semantics here. On the one hand (Gerson's), Obama is a catalyzing figure. On the other, partisanship itself catalyzes the public to opine favorably. That trend is relatively new. Indeed, Pew's brief article explores the evolution of partisanship and early presidential approval ratings in recent decades.

Going back in time, partisanship was far less evident in the early job approval ratings for both Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon. In fact, a majority of Republicans (56%) approved of Carter's job performance in late March 1977, and a majority of Democrats (55%) approved of Nixon's performance at a comparable point in his first term.

So far, so good. Voters are willing to give a president of the opposite party the benefit of the doubt, at least in the early term. But over time, Pew goes on, this trend has receded from the landscape. Gerson alludes to this data without catching its significance. Pew includes a historical context by which we should understand Pew's findings, but Gerson glosses that over. Which brings me to the awkward and apt phrase "stubborn and intractable calcification of political party affiliation allegiance."

To unpack just a little, this is not to say that more Americans are more affiliated than ever. The opposite, I think, begins to look true when we consider some more of Pew's numbers. In findings out just last month, Pew sees the Republican party enjoying less support today than in either of the two previous election cycles, and less even than in Pew's 16 years of polling.

In 5,566 interviews with registered voters conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press during the first two months of 2008, 36% identify themselves as Democrats, and just 27% as Republicans.

The share of voters who call themselves Republicans has declined by six points since 2004, and represents, on an annualized basis, the lowest percentage of self-identified Republican voters in 16 years of polling by the Center.

The Democratic Party has also built a substantial edge among independent voters. Of the 37% who claim no party identification, 15% lean Democratic, 10% lean Republican, and 12% have no leaning either way.

Fewer voters identify with the Republican party today than at any point in the last 16 years. And this is where "affiliation allegiance" comes in, evidenced on both sides of the partisan divide. As the minority party, the Republican phenomenon is more stark today than its Dem counterpart. As the numbers of self-identified Republicans dwindle, the remaining loyalists become louder. Those left become more strident. As the big tent empties, the remaining voices echo in the void, and echo vociferously. This is the allegiance to which I refer: volume.

Consider the politics of failure. The GOP leadership has consigned itself to arguing about whether it's acceptable to root for the failure of the president, or just the president's policies, in a time of arguable economic catastrophe. This is not a party demonstrating reasonable debate but pure obstructionism. Gerson cites the recent budget vote as evidence of Obama's failure to get beyond partisanship, but ignores the fact that Republicans in Congress have committed themselves to an agenda of obstruction from day one. And the American public has taken note!

Where's John Wayne in this Republican party? "I didn't vote for him, but he's my president and I hope he does a good job." That's Wayne in response to the election of JFK in 1960. We're not hearing such highbrow sentiment these days. Instead we get Rush Limbaugh calling for failure, and the Republican leadership falling over itself to justify the same sentiment.

In that context, it's easier to understand how Gerson can write "It is a sad, unnecessary shame that Barack Obama, the candidate of unity, has so quickly become another source of division." The writer uses superficial data corresponding to approval ratings to illustrate how divisive a President Obama is to this country. But Gerson leaves out the relevant context to understand that data, and so becomes merely one more strident voice in a big, empty tent.

*Added after publication--Ed.

08 April 2009

"ILVTOFU"

Saw this on the news last night and again in the paper this morning. What's the big deal? The desired license plate clearly conveys "I Love to Fuck You." What will the radical left sell us next? The Euro-sticker "VGN" is supposed to proclaim a devotion to veganism?







Yeah, right.

Defense Spending UP from $513B to $534B--Tell Your Friends

That's right, defense spending in fiscal year 2010 is scheduled to INCREASE by 4%. Here's the actual pitch (.pdf, but only 3 pages and quite readable) from the government. The increase, to my thinking, is a good* thing as long as it's done right. The White House and the defense secretary seem to actually be in quite good communication so far and of like minds about where to increase and where to trim spending along the "spectrum" of needs, all while ensuring that the U.S. defense budget actually is up to the task of meeting all the nation's defense needs.

Given that coordination and clarity, it is repellent to me that the message heard nationwide is "Obama cuts defense budget." TPM offered a great rundown of this phenomenon in the media yesterday. To be sure, even, I think the TPM post was too critical of the media coverage. It's fair game to use the word "cut" and variations thereof in a discussion about budget rejiggering. Yes, some programs see cuts--see here for a comprehensive list. But TPM's chief complaint--and Steve Benen hits on this again today regarding the Republican (and "conservaDem") response to the defense budget--is that the narrative reaction is designed to put Gates and the White House in the hot seat on a hot button topic, and, most of all, to fight for a continued unchecked flow of contract dollars into the congressional districts that have enjoyed unprecedented defense spending since 2001.

So tell your friends: no one has cut the defense budget, period. Defense spending in the U.S. is scheduled to rise in the coming year. Spencer Ackerman wrote about this in February, and the numbers published this week are only a little off the early mark: higher than the $527B first anticipated, lower than the $537B Ackerman cites. And Ackerman's main observation, that conservatives will cry foul unless the Obama defense budget looks exactly like the Bush wishlist defense budget (at $584B in 2010), appears to be playing out right now.

*On further thought, maybe not "good," per se, but not necessarily bad, either. Word choice could probably be better. The point is, targeted increases are good compared to the all comers welcome and no offer declined approach of the previous years.

07 April 2009

Obama, State Secrets, and Torture Memos: What If?

Yesterday I wrote that I hoped Obama would stand up to Senate Republicans seeking to delay confirmations in exchange for a commitment to bury Bush-era torture memos. In short, I wrote, exposing the America's dirty little secrets on this particular subject is a good thing to fight for. On further consideration, I actually think it's a great thing to fight for. Yes, the documents could be damaging, especially where American credibility is concerned. And yes, such documents could become effective recruitment materials for organizations that seek to do America harm. That said, is there anything in those memos that really shouldn't become public knowledge? The whole world knows that America sanctioned torture and inhumane treatment during the Bush administration. Abu Ghraib, anyone? And if we needed more, well, the Red Cross gave it to us yesterday.

For the Obama administration, this should be a freebie. Release the torture memos, confirm the worst, acknowledge that mistakes were made, and then promise that the new guard will honor commitments to human rights, the Geneva Convention, and moral rectitude.

But what if it's not that simple? For example: A) Very powerful elements may want to suppress the torture memos for what they reveal about the past president, vice president, and other high-level administrators. And B) Very powerful elements may want to suppress the torture memos for what they reveal about presidential powers, more generally.

What if Obama or the legal minds that protect the office of the president do not want to release the memos? That's certainly the case with Obama's continuation of Bush-era "state secrets" arguments surrounding warrantless wiretapping.

Now, Obama himself may not wish for such surveillance to continue against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil. Similarly, he may not want to keep torture memos concealed for the sake of being able to torture. But at the same time, might it be in the interest of the office of the president to suppress all that data for the simple matter of retaining maximum mobility? After all, any reductions in presidential powers would set precedents that could be applied in other, unforeseen situations. What legal or strategic adviser to the office will encourage the president to sacrifice these tools or to tie his hands in the future? And how much does Obama really want to argue about such things?

06 April 2009

Senate Republicans Take Appointees* Hostage, Demand Ransom

Kevin Drum links to a report that Senate Republicans are holding Obama appointees hostage in exchange for burial of Bush-era torture memos. Drum:

These memos must be real time bombs. So much material has been released already, both officially and otherwise, that I've long assumed we already knew everything the Bush administraton had done — in broad terms, anyway. But apparently not. If these memos just confirmed our use of things like stress positions and black sites, it's hard to imagine they'd prompt such ferocious opposition. There must be some truly new — and truly gruesome — disclosures in them.
Jeebus. Emphasis mine. (With apologies to Kevin for simply stealing his links.)

I'm of two minds about this. Obviously, it's despicable politics. But that' s pretty redundant, right? So it comes down to politics versus ethics. I don't want to see good nominees sacrificed as pawns in an epic chess match. At the same time, I do want to see Obama take a stand on this. This guy, as both a candidate and a president, has proven that he can take his message to the people. And congressional Republicans start from a disadvantage--call it a popularity gap. If Obama were to stand up and say "I promised transparency, and I intend to fulfill that promise to the American people," then I think the Senate Repubs are in a bind.

Of course, Republicans can make the White House absolutely miserable and tie up confirmations that should have been completed ages ago. But then again, they've been doing that since day one, right? I'd link, but there are too many examples. Just search "senate confirmation delays" and see what comes up. Clinton, Holder, Lynn, Hill, Goolsbee, Rouse, Holdren, Duckworth, and I'm missing several. I mean, come on. Republicans in the Senate have made clear that they are not interested in working with this president. They've shown a record, bad-faith willingness to obstruct. Republicans have not been this unpopular in a very long time, if ever, and the GOP strategy seems to be to double down. So why not take them on? This is big, torture memos. This might just be the good fight.

*Correction: An early version of this post mistakenly identified "cabinet-level appointees," when in fact these are simply legal appointees but not members of the president's cabinet.

Finding a Balance in Israel

UPDATE: As if to answer my question (see final paragraph, "Or is that just toothless and not savvy?"), Matthew Yglesias responds (albeit to another blogger and on another subject, but the lesson may apply):

These are important shifts and this is audacious policy. Frankly, you’ve got to worry that it may be too audacious. The defense budget looks the way it looks because that’s how the key players in congress want it to look, and I don’t really know what Robert Gates or Barack Obama can do about that.
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Yglesias is keeping an eye on rising tension and rhetoric coming out of the new Israeli government, and he wonders out loud about possibilities that the U.S. could/should start putting some distance (which the hard line government is almost certainly begging for but doesn't actually mean, because whole shitpiles of money and arms are involved) between our government and theirs.

Barring that distance, Matt's next question is whether the U.S. isn't entitled/expected to exercise a hand in Israeli affairs, considering how consistently and deliberately Israel has always "fought for a very close special relationship [with] the United States." One could argue that that relationship deserves/demands a certain amount of steering as well from the Americans, especially where American interests beyond Israel are complicated by American interests within Israel.

But Yglesias goes on:
On the other hand, a lot of people in the United States seem to feel that it’s wrong, as a matter of principle, for the United States to actually use its leverage over Israeli policy. So it’s quite possible that, in practice, the Israeli government could tell Obama that they don’t care what he thinks and manage to continue to get whatever they want out of congress.

I'd take Matt's post a step further. What if, instead of assuming that the Obama administration will toe the line and maintain the status quo with regard to Israel, the pendulum actually were to creep the other way? Conventional wisdom has it that no serious American politician would ever actually suggest that Israel should be on its own. And I'm not advocating that here. But if the U.S. has taken a step forward on issues of truth, justice, and human rights in our recent election, then Israel appears to have done the opposite in theirs. For the Obama administration to hold up now to international scrutiny on big (read "moral") questions, our relationship with an immoderate Israel will be a huge tell.

The U.S. doesn't have to leave Israel cold to send clear messages both within and beyond Israel's borders. A little bit of diplomatic repositioning could put the White House in a unique position in American/Israeli history. Our love, Obama could make clear, is not unconditional, and our patience is not indefinite. Neither of these are new sentiments, of course, but the world stage has arguably changed, and the impact of subtle recalibrations will echo loudly despite all the static coming out of the region. If Israel chooses the hard line in Gaza, then that may be Israel's choice, but the U.S. doesn't have to support it. A fractional reduction in spending on Israel, for example, would make clear that the U.S. will still support an ally without condoning extreme governmental action. It would also send a message to moderate Arab nations who now question how close they each care to become with the Obama administration.

Obama has positioned himself as a deft inclusionist (an "includer," perhaps, after eight years with the "decider"?) coming out of the G20 summit. It's a new world, and America needs a new Arab buy-in for Mideast coalition building to be successful. And Israel isn't making it easy this week for the U.S. to be a best friend. So to take Yglesias one step farther, is Obama the leader who could let Israel go, just a little, and survive the well-organized backlash?

FYI, I'm admittedly fuzzy on how much foreign policy depends on Congress. The White House could engineer a little bit of hocus in all this only to see a heavily-lobbied Hill maintain the status quo. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though, either. Congressional inertia may be the very mechanism that allows America to say one thing (through the White House and State Department) while doing another. Or is that just toothless and not savvy? Like I said earlier, I'm not much of a judge for the nuances of all this.

Of Rescue Plans, Loopholes, and Pessimism

UPDATE: TPM has more on the WaPo article and divergent responses from within the administration.
_____

Pat Garofalo identifies just one of the reasons why, I think, a guy like Paul Krugman has so little faith in the current bank rescue plan. When failed banks that have broken the public trust can continue to openly manipulate the rules designed to neutralize so-called toxic assets, reestablish capital, and restart credit, then yes, I think, the rescue plan is insufficient to solve the problem.

What's more, if the administration really believes it has no choice but to allow this kind of chicanery in order to get the banks to play along at all, then I become increasingly pessimistic about the safety of the taxpayer investment. If the WaPo reporting is correct, and if the rescue plan succeeds to the degree that the economy stabilizes and begins to rebound, families on the brink can stay in their homes, and individuals and small businesses that should get credit do, then the administration may be able to breathe a sigh of relief for having dodged a bullet. At that point, an overall positive outlook may obscure the foul nature of these deals that the White House seems all too willing to make. But if circumstances don't wash like that, then I may share a Krugmanic pessimism about Obama's ability to finesse a disillusioned political landscape for more patience and money should the need arise.

Obama's Advisors at FOX

Shorter Mark Joseph: Obama should channel Reagan to scare North Korea straight. Oh, and hotheaded response to the rocket launch is preferable to thoughtfulness weakness.

Retelling an Arab Narrative

My sense for the nuances in any discussion about Israel and Palestine does not run very deep. Once the conversation gets past "Palestinian terrorists cannot be allowed to fire rockets across the border and kill Israeli civilians," and "Israel has created and continues to exacerbate a deep humanitarian crisis in Gaza," the rest is pretty much lost on me. So when I read this Haaretz interview over the weekend, which I think articulates some of the nuances in a particularly clear way, I felt it worth slowing down and taking careful notice.

James Zogby is the founder of the Arab American Institute (and also the brother of American pollster John Zogby). In the interview, Zogby praises Obama, George Mitchell, and the Clinton years. He characterizes the recent Bush years as a disaster. And he talks sense about everything from Iran to the new Israeli government to Arab public relations during the Gaza offensive. I can't actually assess whether Zogby's observations are sound or if his ideas will pay out in the long run. But to speak sensibly about an insensible situation is to earn my attention.

The interview is brief, exciting, and, I daresay, inspiring. So if you've got ten minutes and want to understand why, perhaps, Iran doesn't actually give a rip about Israel, why we should be optimistic that an extremist Israeli hardliner will sit down to talk with Hamas, and why a retold Arab narrative should be compelling to the world, then read the interview.

04 April 2009

If Ward Churchill is Repellent, then Vincent Carroll is Odious

UPDATE: Perhaps I should qualify my headline, because I don't know either man. How about "If Ward Churchill's 'Little Eichmanns' is Repellent, the Vincent Carroll's 'Mea Culpa' is Odious"? That'd be more diplomatic, I think. Carry on.
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Let me clarify a little. Ward Churchill, the newly vindicated CU professor of ethnic studies, presents a repellent personality. But I'll stand up time and again to support first amendment rights and the particular independence we expect our educators to enjoy in their classrooms. Truth be told, Churchill's case was never about what he actually said in the classroom. It was about a little-known (at the time) and highly off-putting essay that, never mind its intentionally provocative language, presents a kernel of truth. 9/11 was in part a retaliation against and consequence of the wrongs that America is perceived to promote across the world.

Churchill is more vehement than I am about this topic, but I will simply say that global perceptions of American wrongdoing (one might say "the evidence of American empire") are not unfounded.

Here's the phrase that tipped the scales for the Rush Limbaugh/Governor Bill Owens crowd: "If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I'd really be interested in hearing about it."

By "little Eichmanns" Churchill refers to the victims of the 9/11 World Trade Center attack. He calls them thus because, as willing cogs in a machine that oppresses and exploits and commits genocide, as Churchill argues, they (we) are enablers of atrocities.

The essay is not to my liking, and Churchill's bombast, scorn, and ridicule are not to my liking. And I'm not prepared to touch Churchill's assertions that the U.S. waged a war of genocide against Iraqi children. But when he says that certain chickens came home to roost on 9/11, his writing is not completely unfounded, nor inappropriate to a discussion of what 9/11 means for Americans and the world.

The essay was written in 2001 and largely ignored, probably because the writing is not very good, the tone inappropriate to civil discourse, and the radical views too transparently radical to be taken seriously by those in our culture who decide what views get taken seriously. But a protester at a talk Churchill gave in Florida in 2004 flagged the essay and challenged Churchill's integrity as a presenter. And right-wing talk radio picked up the story, and soon that story was broadcast as evidence of a culture-war battle that good Americans must win.

The affair that followed was not about intervention against a teacher's practices for the sake of a safer society, as Vincent Carroll's smug and repugnant "Mea Culpa" column, printed today, would interpret. It was simple, polarizing, fear-mongering, ideological, partisan politics, and the resulting university investigation showed the froth and lather of McCarthyism. Ward Churchill was presented by the right as the face of American pushback against the War on Terror. He was everything that was wrong with Americans who questioned George Bush and questioned the war. And, as we learned this week from Churchill's trial, the impetus for a university witch hunt against Churchill reached back to the highest office in the state. For more about that I'll kick it over to Mike Littwin, whose writing on the case has been spot on.

But this post is not about Littwin, and it's not even really about Churchill. Vincent Carroll's column today presents exactly why America's thinking conservatives are so dismal about the prospects for conservative ideology on the national stage. Carroll has been a vociferous voice in the Colorado media in all the tumult and boil of the Churchill case. And today he is a cheerleader for the former Governor, whose alleged squeeze play against CU (scroll down to "UPDATE: 3:12 p.m.") should be further investigated. Carroll's support for the governor, however, depends on a skewering of the actual conflict here, and is neither plausible nor sustainable.

Carroll's column would convince us that the governor acted appropriately to help remove a dangerous and morally unfit teacher from the classroom:

If a prison warden professed indifference toward sexual abuse within his facility, or a college football coach was caught distributing racist or neo-Nazi propaganda, I assumed that elected officials should stand up and object — that they should climb upon a soapbox, if necessary, and start waving their arms.

Oh boy. What Carroll would have us forget is that Churchill's incendiary comment did not transpire in a classroom. Indeed, Carroll can't even provide evidence of Churchill's lack of fitness for the classroom.

And what if Churchill had made his "little Eichmanns" remark in the classroom? America is a country that still enjoys a freedom much of the world goes without. Our teachers and students are permitted, encouraged even, to disagree with our government leaders and mainstream ideologies. We live in a culture that promotes and protects free speech in the classroom. In fact, tenure is designed to free the teacher from the specter of political retribution that--at the department level, the university level, the local level and even the national level--can lead to self-censorship. It is this exactly which tenure promotes: that a teacher may challenge students to think hard in the name of scholarship, even when we as a general public find that challenge distasteful.

To be sure, this can be taken too far. But Ward Churchill, radical and unlikable as he may be, wasn't removed for taking his classroom comments too far. In fact, CU argued, Churchill was fired for plagiarism. And while evidence of questionable integrity and scholarship arose, the jury didn't see it CU's way. They saw reactionism, they saw politics, they saw punitive retribution against an unpopular faculty member who, let's face it, wrote and probably said some pretty unwonted things throughout his career. But the jury did not see a dangerous and morally unfit teacher who would present a risk to students.

Vincent Carroll, back up. When you know of the prison warden who won't address abuses in his facility, when you catch the college football coach distributing hate propaganda to players, please use your column to motivate the government to intervene. We count on your prominent voice for just that purpose. But do not deliberately misrepresent the Ward Churchill affair for ideological and political gain. That's bad public practice, bad faith, and odious to boot.


03 April 2009

The Cover Story That Wasn't





Fresh from the allergist's waiting room, I'm still thinking about this week's Newsweek cover story on Paul Krugman, "Obama's Nobel Headache." What I had hoped would be an insightful slice-and-dice of the philosophical divide between The Nobel Laureate and The New Administration turned out to be an interesting but mostly fluffy sketch of Krugman the man. Totally interesting, like I said--think US Weekly for political swooners--but completely useless in getting beyond the superficial. Krugman believes the stock market as we've known it is a "dead man walking," while Obama appears to act (yes, I choose those words carefully) from the belief that, love it or hate it, the market is still the only battery with enough juice to run the pacemaker once the administration lets go.

The article relegates Krugman to the status of rebel boy genius with the slightly wounded ego. In other words, if I read Evan Thomas correctly, part of Krugman's direction now is fueled as much by a contrarian streak as by adherence to fundamental economic beliefs. The Thomas reduction is too bad, because it misses a bigger point. Paul Krugman could be among the administration's strongest economic allies were there a push from within to get beyond the status quo on Wall Street. Indeed, Krugman even lauded, albeit quietly, Obama's plans for regulation. But one of Krugman's biggest beefs with the current tack is that it perpetuates a busted system.

I'm not the only one who thinks Thomas missed an opportunity. Joan Walsh takes her turn here, painting Thomas as "smug." She also points out that Krugman doesn't simply broadly oppose Obama (as a contrarian might). And she's right. "There’s so much to like about where Obama is going — health care, transparency in government, ending the war in Iraq. And the stimulus bill is OK, though not big enough." That's not Walsh, that's Krugman on February 26.

Easy enough, right? Krugman thinks Obama is, broadly, on the right track. Based on a generalization that Krugman thinks Obama is wrong (in case you can't read the text on the thumbnail above, the type next to Krugman's mug reads "Obama is wrong"), Thomas simply chooses to present Krugman as the face of the progressive movement. And that's where any real conversation slips away.

Krugman's very next sentence in the blog post above reads, "But on the question of fixing the banks, many of us are feeling a growing sense of despair." See how finite the disagreement is? On the question of fixing the banks. That's a good enough point from which to track the divergences between the politico-economics of a Paul Krugman vs. the politico-economics of an Obama/Geithner/Summers triumverate. And Krugman expands on that "growing sense of despair" here, here, here, here, and here. I'll stop, but you get the idea. If you read the posts, they all tackle the disagreement over sound banking policy. And they all avoid the specifically vague rhetoric of sour contrarianism.

A prominent economist disagrees with a popular president's treasury secretary over the politics and execution of banking policy. Normally, only the geekiest of the geeks and wonkiest of the wonks would even be listening. So why make more out of it than it is? Possibly because using Krugman to pit progressives against the president sells magazines?

Keeping Sight of "Don't Ask Don't Tell"

I heard that Robert Gates had gone on FOX News last weekend and pushed a promised revision of the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy "down the road a little bit." Here's more Gates: "The president and I feel like we've got a lot on our plates right now," and, "It continues to be the law and any change in policy would require a change in the law . . . We will follow the law, whatever it is."

By "would require a change in the law" I take it Gates means that DADT revision/repeal would necessarily involve Congress, and that's where things get hairy. CNN offers that

Obama said he would work to end the policy, but because it is dictated by federal law, he can not end it unilaterally.

Congress must pass legislation overturning the policy, which was put into place at the beginning of the Clinton administration. Former President Bill Clinton tried to overturn the "don't ask, don't tell" policy when he took office in 1993, but he was strenuously opposed by the military leadership.

That's in direct contrast to the perception that Obama can simply issue an executive order:
By executive order, however, (and I believe I'm on solid legal ground here), Obama could indeed, at the stroke of a pen, allow "gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military." And he should include that order among his reversals of Bush's "controversial security policies."

Because this is a security issue -- one that has been medievally delayed for 16 ridiculous years -- and that's precisely how Obama can frame it. It simply dwells among the utterly absurd that a person's open sexual orientation should dictate whether he or she can grip a rifle or translate Arabic in uniform.

That blogger goes on:
Furthermore, this -- not gay marriage -- is the issue on which Obama can call in his rather immense Rick Warren chit. The legal definition of marriage is a state issue, not a White House concern (other than, perhaps, one of "moral suasion"), but the proper fulfillment of Obama's national security obligations demands an end to the don't ask-don't tell nonsense that has interfered with those obligations for far too long.

Now, that's an interesting point, but moot since it appears Obama can't simply consign DADT to the dark ages at the stroke of a pen. While I rather like the notion that Obama might conscript Rick Warren to help endorse long overdue change, all that misses the point. DADT is no longer truly a culture war issue, and therefore Rick Warren is superfluous to the conversation.

When Gates told FOX News that DADT would have to wait, I was a little shocked, if not simply for the speed with which this administration has moved to reverse many of Bush 43's policies. Guantanamo, stem cells, labor, environment, the lasting scope of executive privilege, the global gag rule . . . I'm certainly missing some.

To be fair, while the commitment to end DADT was clear and decisive, it did not include a timeline. And so we should be patient, to a point. It's still the first 100 days, after all. If this change happens in 2009, that'd probably be enough. Not for the men and women our strapped military continues to lose as a result of bad policy, but there is a reasonable expectation for how quickly things can be finessed through Congress. And Republicans have already demonstrated their determined commitment to pure obstructionism.

Obama is almost certainly concerned to avoid Bill Clinton's 1993 mistakes on this, and will move with it when his team can definitely arm him with an upper hand. All the same, we're talking about much-needed translators, engineers, intelligence specialists, and health care providers in addition to general infantry. It's cavalier and self-defeating to believe we can continue to put such people out of work.

Remember also that Obama campaigned on being able to do more than one thing at a time. And to detractors who say he's trying to do too much, he more or less smiles and keeps on multitasking. This is why we elected him, remember? With all this in mind, and then some, Matt Yglesias calls the full plate excuse weak sauce. And I agree. As Steve Benen put it:
Do we want to discharge capable U.S. servicemen and women in the midst of two wars, based on nothing but their sexual orientation, or is military readiness a higher priority than some misguided culture war?
The gay community and ousted military are well organized on this one, but it's in all of our interests to keep an eye and to keep pressure on the administration to tackle this issue soon. I know the Joint Chiefs are busy, but maybe now that Congress has passed the budget we can get the key military policy makers together with our elected officials to shore up this crucial piece of national security policy.