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I keep returning again

I keep returning again and again to this issue of the comical overstatement of the Republican victory last Tuesday. But let me just hit at least once on two of the silliest talking points of those pushing this argument.

First is the argument, voiced by Mr Cheney and others, that President Bush won with more popular votes than any president in history. A truly silly point. Yes, the president got more popular votes than any other candidate in history. He is followed by John Kerry. And Kerry is followed by Ronald Reagan and Al Gore, in that order.

The fact that the president got more popular votes than anybody in the past isn't a measure of the margin of his victory. It's a measure of population growth, which (unless he's more of a bounder than we know) he is not responsible for, and a high-turnout election, for which his unpopularity is as responsible as his popularity.

And please, no more of this nonsense about how the president's crushing victory is plainly shown by just how much red there is on the map.

As in this flourish from Robert J. Caldwell in the San Diego Union-Tribune ...

From California's border to the Atlantic coast and from Canada to Mexico, the political map of the United States is awash in Republican red. A once dominant Democratic Party is now largely confined to three enclaves: the Northeast, a thin fringe along the Pacific coast and the upper Midwest (where shrinking majorities put the Democrats' hold there increasingly at risk). Almost everything else is Republican.

I'm tempted to say that this hearkens back to that age-old debate between 'one man, one vote' and 'one acre, one vote', but I'll spare us all the agony because, as it happens, there actually was such a debate. Presumably it does not require mentioning that the relative absence of blue on the electoral maps for an election in which the blue-state candidate won 48% of the vote points to the fact that the blue areas are so heavily populated.

(Here is a map, for instance, in which geography is weighted to population size.)

Pointing out the foolishness of this mandate talk is important and has a purpose, just as those advancing it do so with a very specific goal.

I've been making the point mainly with derision and humor. But if you'd like to read a more serious-minded take on the subject, check out this instructive new piece on this topic by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson in The New Republic.

Maybe the most telling

Maybe the most telling shot across the bow of Arlen Specter came yesterday from a man who hasn't even been sworn in yet as a senator: Sen-elect John Thune, the man who will succeed Tom Daschle.

Here are Thune's comments from yesterday on This Week, as reprinted in the Frontrunner, when asked if he would support Specter for the Judiciary Committee Chairmanship ...

I think all that's going to be decided...next week when we get in for orientation and as the leadership begins to make committee assignments. There's some proposals about changing the rules to give the leaders more latitude when it comes to making those types of assignments. The seniority system in the Senate is something that's worked for a long time, but I do -- I am troubled by what Senator Specter said. And I think he quickly, as you noticed, came back and said that he had misspoke. ... My assumption is that, if he's going to be the person that's going to be set forward by the leadership, that we'll all support him. ... But I think it's going to depend upon an understanding from many of us, particularly new members, the freshmen who are coming in, who are concerned about the things that he said and were, many of us, elected, you know, because we spoke about the importance of judges and having judges on the bench who are going to be judges who interpret and apply the Constitution, the laws of the United States. So I suspect there's going to be -- there will be some questions asked by those of us who are coming in as freshmen who ran our campaigns and built around that very central theme that we need to have good judges on the bench.

The question now, I think, is less whether Specter will keep his chairmanship through this process as whether he'll hold on to any of his remaining <$NoAd$>dignity.

And it doesn't look too promising.

Heres a story that

Here's a story that pulls together a slew of questions we'll be watching closely over the next weeks and months.

Remember that just after his reelection, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) suggested that President Bush should be cautious in nominating doctrinaire pro-life judges after he becomes Judiciary Committee Chair next year. Specter is outspokenly pro-choice.

Soon after, however, Specter was volubly protesting his fealty to the president and insisting he'd give the go-ahead to more or less anybody the president nominated to the bench.

Evidently, in the interim, Specter got a call letting him know that if he wanted the Judiciary Committee Chairmanship, he'd better recant. And quickly. And so he did.

At this point, to use judicial jargon, the White House had already forced Specter to enter into a non-custodial relationship with his testicles. But now the ante is being upped.

James Dobson, one of the most powerful leaders of the religious right, now says he doesn't want Specter as Chairman no matter what. "He is a problem," said Dobson, "and he must be derailed."

I have a hard time believing that Specter will actually be turned aside while he is so loudly protesting his willingness to toe the party line. But it puts even more pressure on Specter to be a down-the-line supporter of every judicial nominee the president sends up to the Hill.

This raises two issues. First, how much room will remain for the moderate GOP senators and how much freedom will they have to deviate from the White House line which, predictably, is now moving even more decisively to the right. Second, how much de facto control will the White House and the president have over the internal governance of the senate under Bill Frist? Who chairs what committees? What rules get or don't get changed, etc.?

A couple days ago

A couple days ago, I wrote that I believe "Hillary Clinton never should and probably (hopefully) never will run for president." And a number of you have asked, why?

I have two basic reasons, one principled, another pragmatic.

Before we get to those, however, I should note that I wrote close to the same thing almost four years ago in an article in Slate about why the Hillary for President idea was fanciful verging on ridiculous. And, on top of that, I'm a fan of hers. I don't buy into any of the Hillary-bashing myths.

(At first, I believed that only journalists and Republicans were fueling the Hillary for Prez line. But eventually I learned that there were actually some Clinton insiders who believed and wanted it to happen.)

But back to the two reasons.

First, I don't like the idea of the presidency becoming the private preserve of a few chosen families. It's bad for democracy, even if a given individual might have much to recommend him or her as a candidate.

Since many are now talking up the possibility of Jeb Bush running for president in 2008, that opens up at least the theoretical possibility that one family could hold the White House for most of a 28 year period (1989-2017). Whether you're a Republican or Democrat, Bush-lover or Bush-hater, that can't be good for republican government in the United States.

(Much is made of the father-and-son presidencies of John (1797-1801) and John Quincy Adams (1825-29). Much less is made of the fact that they were, in effect, members of different political parties.)

As big a fan as I am of Bill Clinton, I'd be against another Clinton family presidency even if there weren't a Bush family. But given that we're now two President Bushes and counting, it makes it all the more important for Democrats to be clear on the principle at issue. A (Hillary) Clinton v. (Jeb) Bush grudge match in 2008 would be a sign of all sorts of sclerotic tendencies in American politics.

Now, to the second reason, the one I focused most on in that Jan. 2000 article in Slate. And that would be, 'Are you kidding?'

Let's be honest, Hillary Clinton is a deeply divisive figure. And if there's one thing Democrats have learned in this and the previous election it is the danger of going into a national election with a candidate who cannot even get a real hearing over a large swath of the country.

As I wrote in that Slate article ...

Gore won virtually all the Northeast, all the West Coast, and nearly all the Industrial Midwest, but failed to win any other state except New Mexico. What did him in in the rest of the country was cultural liberalism—support for gun control, abortion rights, and gay rights. This handicap was particularly evident in Appalachia—West Virginia, Tennessee, western Pennsylvania, and southeastern Ohio. And who is more identified with cultural liberalism, Al Gore or Hillary Clinton?

Nothing about 2004 changes that calculus at all, I think. But I would add only this slight gloss on that point.

My point here is not that Democrats need to ditch support for any of those three positions. Nor do I think that the lesson of 2004 is that Democrats need to 'move to the right' or restrict the next nomination cycle to guys born beneath the Mason-Dixon line.

But the electoral fault line running through the country is now quite clear. And, for Democrats, if winning the presidency is to be anything other than the political equivalent drawing an inside straight, the party needs to put a good half dozen more states into play next time around.

(I should say that this would apply even if Kerry had won Ohio and the election.)

The point is that on Hillary Clinton, the cement is already dry. On the cultural fault-line that has played such a clear role in the last two elections, perceptions of her are already set.

Nominating Hillary would simply mean that Democrats would be going into the election with one hand tied -- no chained -- behind their back. And as we've seen, they need at least two hands.

Also worth noting is

Also worth noting is this article in today's Post on Rove's strategy and victory. There's a lot in here that is simply the winning team's version of events -- clever gambits that would have seemed foolish had the result turned out differently. But they didn't turn out differently. And it's worth understanding why and how they believe they did it.

Grant President Bush his

Grant President Bush his due. He's the first president since his father to win the office with a majority of the popular vote. President Clinton, who ran twice in three-way races, came very close (49.2%) in 1996, but never did.

Yet I'm interested in collecting a list of the most ludicrous overstatements of the scope of the president's victory.

The president himself made a good start of it by calling his win a "broad nationwide victory."

So far the best I've come up with is from is from investment advice columnist Donald Luskin who says that President Bush won reelection in a "landslide."

Have any other good ones? Drop me a line and let me know.

One small silver lining

One small silver lining to last week's election result is that it will take away at least some of the election year paralysis over Iraq.

I think there was actually far less disagreement over the course of events in Iraq than election rhetoric would lead one to believe. Democrats grasped on to everything that was going wrong (and it wasn't hard to find things). And most Republicans did the opposite, since to criticize the conduct of the war, they felt, was to criticize the president on his way to a tight reelection contest.

I don't necessarily expect the administration's tune to change in any way. But I'll be watching congressional Republicans to see if and when they start changing their tunes and begin looking for ways to clean up the mess that's been created over there.

We'll probably also start to get a fuller and clearer accounting of various messes in the country that the White House managed to keep hushed up until after the election. Like this story in yesterday's Times about at least 4,000 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles from Iraq's pre-war arsenal that have apparently also gone missing.

Bill Clinton as Chairman

Bill Clinton as Chairman of the DNC? So says this LA Times editorial. To me it sounds like a great idea. And I say that as someone who believes Hillary Clinton never should and probably (hopefully) never will run for president.

Surveying the scene today

Surveying the scene today, one thing that occurs to me is that President Bush is remaking the government into something that is looking more and more like a parliamentary democracy. I don't mean in every specific, of course; the key feature of the Bush presidency is an extremely powerful executive that to a great degree coopts and controls his own congressional majorities.

But the similarities are important and worth understanding. The key elements are extremely tight party discipline (something political scientists have lamented the absence of for years) and a sharp diminishment of rivalries between the branches of government which used to cut against unified party control.

Party discipline is simple enough. President Bush's first term was replete with examples. And an instructive comparison is how much President Bush was able to accomplish with thin majorities in 2001-02 compared to what President Clinton was able to do with much more substantial majorities in 1993-94.

Today I'm struck by this most recent example with Arlen Specter.

Fresh from his successful senate reelection campaign, Specter (heir apparent to the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee) suggested he'd hold the line against anti-Roe v. Wade judges President Bush might appoint.

Then no more than a day later he beat a hasty and shamefaced retreat.

“Contrary to press accounts, I did not warn the President about anything and was very respectful of his Constitutional authority on the appointment of federal judges.

“As the record shows, I have supported every one of President Bush’s nominees in the Judiciary Committee and on the Senate floor. I have never and would never apply any litmus test on the abortion issue and, as the record shows, I have voted to confirm Chief Justice Rehnquist, Justice O’Connor, and Justice Kennedy and led the fight to confirm Justice Thomas.

“I have already sponsored a protocol calling for a Judiciary Committee hearing within thirty days of a nomination, a vote out of Committee thirty days later, and floor action thirty days after that. I am committed to such prompt action by the Committee on all of President Bush’s nominees.

“In light of the repeated filibusters by the Democrats in the last Senate session, I am concerned about a potential repetition of such filibusters. I expect to work well with President Bush in the judicial confirmation process in the years ahead.”

I assume the word came down from the White House to Sen. Specter that he simply wouldn't be Chairman if that were his attitude.

Then we have the incident we noted yesterday in which Sen. Frist may, at the president's say-so, change the cloture rules which require 60 votes to push through legislation.

Past presidents have usually had to deal with Majority Leaders who were much more solicitous of their chamber's independence and institutional prerogatives. But then again, President Bush all but appointed Frist to his post. So this should not surprise us.

There's even an element of parliamentarism in President Bush's post-election comments about his mandate and his right to expect others to fall in line behind views because he won a majority, even if a small one, at the ballot box.

It's fine to bemoan this. And there's much to bemoan. But Democrats also need to learn how to live with it, at least for the next four years. And that means realizing that for at least the next two years, the President can get passed almost anything he wants to. His congressional majorities are now sufficiently padded that he can even afford a few Republican defections. He simply doesn't need Democrats for anything.

And that means approaching most legislative battles not with an eye toward preventing passage or significantly altering legislation, but placing alternatives on the table that the party will be able use as contrasts to frame the next two elections. In other words, their only remaining viable alternative is to be an actual party of opposition.