Opinions, Context & Ideas from the TPM Editors TPM Editor's Blog

I would be remiss

I would be remiss if I didn't quickly offer a hearty thank you to the three guest bloggers who generously took time to keep the commentary coming in my absence: Jon Chait, Harry Shearer and Ed Kilgore. A very sincere thank you to each of them. I hope you enjoyed their posts as much as I did. Remember that you can keep reading Jon in The New Republic, Harry in all sorts of different venues described here and Ed at NewDonkey.com.

One other short note. A number of folks have already written in to ask why I'm back already, why such a short honeymoon? Actually, we're taking our honeymoon in May. Thus my (relatively) early reappearance.

Despite being away for

Despite being away for several days, I've kept one eye on the Schiavo story. And a couple echoes or reminders keep coming into my head. One is the Elian Gonzales episode from 2000; another is Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities -- only now in a different locale, a different worldview or ideology aflame, and with a new lead character: Tom DeLay.

Another part of this story, which seems hard to miss, is the increasing frequency of one-off legislation -- laws intended to obstruct the normal course of law and explicitly intended to have no value as precedent. All of this, of course, is precisely inimical to the rule of law and puts legislatures and, in other cases, courts (Bush v. Gore) in the paradoxical position of overturning the law, albeit using the procedures of either creating or interpreting it.

And Tom DeLay, this is truly the last refuge for this man. The cable networks seem not quite to have caught on to the fact that almost every tentacle of the political machine this man has created is now careening toward federal or state indictments. So here he is wrapping himself in the cloth of this family tragedy, in an effort to whip up the most whippable of his supporters in his defense, and in so doing finding the hand of God working in this woman's hospice care and in his own exposure as one of the most corrupt congressional leaders in American history. Like I said, Bonfire of the Vanities.

The Bridegroom as the

The Bridegroom, as the last post indicates, is beginning to reconnect with terrestrial matters, but he's asked me to keep up the content for a few more hours. This gives me an opportunity to recommend an article by Matt Yglesias, which has finally been posted online by The American Prospect, about the roots of Democratic weakness on national security issues.

His basic thesis, which echoes the seminal New Democrat analysis by Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck back in 1989, The Politics of Evasion, is that the Democratic "security gap" is less a matter of policy differences than of a persistent belief that national security issues are "enemy turf" which Democrats should try to avoid or simply neutralize, while changing the subject back to more congenial domestic issues.

Yglesias argues strenuously that there is a robust and relatively united point of view on national security among wonks and shadow-cabinet experts (such as the Progressive Internationalism manifesto midwifed by the Progressive Policy Institute last year), which is more important than the increasingly-moot differences of opinion on the decision to invade Iraq. But this consensus Democratic wisdom never quite makes it into Democratic presidential or congressional campaigns.

Despite a reasonably broad consensus among left-of-center security hands about what should be done, the party’s political operatives are unable to turn that consensus into a compelling political narrative. Democrats are reluctant to address security issues except when forced to do so, and, as a result, they discover that when they are so forced, they aren’t very good at it. Political failure breeds further reluctance, which breeds further failure -- no one develops the relevant ability to spin security for partisan gain, and because no one can win on security, no one learns how to campaign on it.

The Kerry campaign, he suggests, was a prime example of this disconnect. Democrats had in 2004 a candidate with a strong national security record, supported by a strong personal biography, but in the end, he was perceived as weak on the very set of issues that made so many primary voters believe he was "electable." Why? Because he never had a real national security message, and his campaign made sure of that.

Polls showed that voters were concerned that things were going badly in Iraq, so Kerry talked about it. They showed that voters were concerned about America’s relations with its allies, so he talked about that. This approach may work well enough on domestic issues where the goodies -- tax credits, Social Security checks, new schools, lower insurance premiums -- are concrete and separable.

The best example of this disconnect was on the subject of nuclear terrorism, which, as Yglesias notes, has been an obsessive concern, and a common critique of Bush, shared by virtually all Democrats. Kerry's record on this issue was unimpeachable, consistent, and moreover, the centerpiece of his argument that unilateralism in foreign policy threatened our national security. But you didn't hear much about it on the campaign trail, because Kerry's political wizards didn't think it was a "voting issue."

But Yglesias doesn't blame the consulting class as the sole source of the problem: he also score party activists who simply aren't interested in national security.

New initiatives under way to train a new generation of progressive activists often offer civil liberties as a potential area of interest, but not national security or foreign policy. Of course civil liberties are important, but a strategy to ensure that the government doesn’t go too far in combating terrorism only makes sense as part of a strategy that will ensure that the government also goes far enough. Liberals may think it should go without saying that we, too, want to keep America safe, but in practice it doesn’t go without saying. A movement interested in preparing to defend the United States from its own security apparatus but not against terrorism is inviting the attack that it cares more about protecting terrorists than their victims. Worse, it deprives itself of the ability to cultivate people who will be able to articulate a progressive message on national security in the future.

Most provocatively, Yglesias suggests that the fundamental cause of the "politics of evasion" among Democrats on national security is this: we don't have any recognized constituency group that cares about it!

The upshot is that no one is charged with looking after a topic, like national security, that concerns everyone, rather than anyone in particular. There exists no major group in Washington that defines itself as both progressive and primarily concerned with the topics of foreign policy and security. Until this is changed, it will be hard for Democrats to engage with the subject as they must -- at every level, and not merely in presidential campaigns. It will also be all but impossible to build a broad, thematic case on security policy -- one that raises the way in which the right’s tax-cut jihad at home starves the government of resources needed to fight the real one around the world, and questions the fitness of a movement with an ambivalent view toward theocracy at home to combat it abroad -- rather than a laundry list of narrow, technocratic criticisms.

I rarely use the term "must-read," but I recommend Yglesias' piece to all Democrats, and especially to those Democrats who have been unhappy with the more abrasive argument of Peter Beinart about the urgency of making the Democratic Party's position on national security unambiguous. Matt is not endorsing--indeed, he is rejecting--any intra-party fight or "purge;" but he is arguing that Democratic antipathy to the whole subject of national security is making us all susceptible to the GOP claim that we ultimately just don't give a damn.

Take a look at

Take a look at this Media Matters report on CNN's skewed presentation of polling data about the Schiavo case.

It's a textbook example and, I suspect, no accident.

Late Update: As of early this evening, CNN has now revised the graph in question.

Having disrespected a David

Having disrespected a David Brooks column in a weekend post, I have to say that today's offering on the greater meaning of the ever-burgeoning Abramoff/Scanlon/Reed Casino Shakedown Scandal pretty much balances the weekly ledger in my book. Aside from writing a quick and acerbic summary of the scandal and its many ironies, Brooks does not shrink from the connection between the Republican Revolution of 1995 and its increasingly nauseating Thermidor. Indeed, Brooks says you can't understand one without the other:

Back in 1995, when Republicans took over Congress, a new cadre of daring and original thinkers arose. These bold innovators had a key insight: that you no longer had to choose between being an activist and a lobbyist. You could be both. You could harness the power of K Street to promote the goals of Goldwater, Reagan and Gingrich. And best of all, you could get rich while doing it!

So far most GOPers and conservative opinion-leaders are ignoring the whole mess, in part because it's not getting much play in the mainstream media other than in the Washington Post. But this story ain't going away, and soon enough we'll start hearing the splashing sound of Abramoff and Reed's fellow crewmen tossing them over the side with sad, damage-controlling comments about how ol' Jack and ol' Ralph lost their minds along with their principles.

Given his partisan loyalties, I'm glad to see that Brooks isn't buying it:

Abramoff's and Scanlon's Indian-gaming scandal will go down as the movement's crowning achievement, more shameless than anything the others would do, but still the culmination of the trends building since 1995. It perfectly embodied their creed and philosophy: "I'd love us to get our mitts on that moolah!!" as Abramoff wrote to Reed.

They made at least $66 million.

This is a major accomplishment. And remember: Abramoff didn't do it on his own.

It took a village. The sleazo-cons thought they could take over K Street to advance their agenda. As it transpired, K Street took over them.


Having checked out the

Having checked out the email queue, I've got two corrections to make to earlier posts about the Schiavo case.

First, as about twenty lawyers have informed me, Judge Whittemore did not "dismiss the Schiavo case," but simply denied a petition for a Temporary Restraining Order that would have reinserted Schaivo's feeding tube while the full case was being heard. But since denial of the TRO (which can be appealed) means the judge thinks there's little or no chance the Schindlers can prevail in the underlying case, it's a bad sign for them.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, I heard from a medical social worker who made it clear "Living Wills" won't necessarily control medical decisions in cases like Schiavo's. He suggested the far superior instrument is a Durable Power of Attorney for Medical Care, which not only indicates your wishes about live-support contingencies, but gives the person of your choice real control over medical decisions.

Well they went ahead

Well, they went ahead and did it: The Republican-controlled Georgia legislature has approved a congressional re-redistricting plan aimed at imperilling two Democratic incumbents and making a GOP incumbent safe.

Democratic observers have mixed assessments about the impact of the remap, which tosses freshman Rep. John Barrow's Athens home into an adjoining district and lowers the African-American and Democratic population of Rep. Jim Marshall's district significantly. Barrow has already made it clear he'll run in his "old" district, which remains Democratic-leaning, and Marshall (who might wind up running statewide anyway) has easily dispatched a strong and well-funded Republican challenger two elections in a row.

But Democrats will mount a legal challenge to the remap anyway, arguing that the dilution of the minority vote in Barrow's district and in that of Republican Rep. Phil Gingrey violates the Voting Rights Act.

More immediately, the Georgia action, on the heels of the much more egregious re-remap in Texas in 2003, is almost certain to let slip the dogs of war by making re-redistricting a viable option for either party when it obtains control of the legislature and governorship of a state after the regular decennial redistricting process. Indeed, Democrats have threatened retaliatory action in three states (Illinois, Louisiana and New Mexico) where they've gained total control since '01, though Illinois Dems have apparently decided otherwise and time's running out for a re-remap in Louisiana.

But the GOP Power Grabs will definitely give added impetus to ballot initiatives that would combine a new system for redistricing with an immediate reconsideration of the last round. There's already an initiative campaign underway in Florida, where '04 Senate nominee Betty Castor has lent her name and some serious cash to the effort. And I gather something similar is likely to happen in Ohio. Along with PA and MI, these two states witnessed the most successful GOP partisan gerrymanders of 2001. More famously, Arnold Schwarzenneger's proposed initiative in California would produce an immediate re-redistricting there as well, though the partisan implications are hard to predict (though engineeered by Democrats, the California map's main characteristic was incumbent protection).

In other words, we had all better get ourselves educated and interested in the murky law and politics of redistricting, and figure out a national model that makes sense. Like a lot of people, I'd prefer that we not lurch into this on a chaotic, state-by-state basis full of potential partisan mischief, but thanks to our Republican buddies, I don't think it's any longer possible to put this particular genie back in the bottle.

As you may have

As you may have already heard, the federal judge that Congress forced into the Terri Schiavo case has dismissed the Schindler family's case, after a hearing in which Judge James Whittemore made it clear the Schindlers had no arguments that hadn't been heard repeatedly during the previous seven years of litigation.

The Schindlers, of course, will appeal the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals, but the odds of a reversal there are slim, and I strongly doubt the U.S. Supreme Court will want to get into this one. So the question will remain: having framed the Schiavo case as "murder" and "barbarism" and "medical terrorism," does Tom DeLay now just say, "Well, the family had its day in court," and forget about it? Or will the culture-war implications of the case make it escalate?

Guess you can tell which way I think the wind will blow.

You probably havent heard

You probably haven't heard about it unless you live in or nearby the State of Maryland, but one of the more peculiar local political stories has been the exposure and firing of a Republican operative named Joe Steffen who was fanning, on the Freeper site no less, (completely unsubstantiated) rumors of extra-marital sexual activity by Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. Steffen is a long-time retainer for Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich, whom the very popular O'Malley is thinking about challenging in 2006. When O'Malley publicly exposed the smear effort, Ehrlich fired Steffen.

There's a big fat Style profile of Steffen and his career in today's Washington Post, and a good chunk of it deals not with his attempted sliming of O'Malley, but with his tours of duty of state agencies since Ehrlich's election, where he put a figurine of the Grim Reaper on his desk, let it be known that his nicknames were "Prince of Darkness" and "Doctor Death," and went happily about compiling lists of Democrats to fire.

For anyone who has been through a partisan (or in some cases, intra-partisan) transition in a federal, state or local government agency, Steffen is a very familiar and unsavory type: The Commissar. That's the hatchet man sent in to root out heresy, find expendable members of the opposition party, and create the maximum number of fat jobs for the Party Faithful who are rolling off the winning campaign. The Commissar's tenure is invariably short, since he or she is not there to improve public policy, and there are many agencies to purge.

There are Democratic and Republican Commissars, but in my experience, the GOPers are the most numerous and vicious. Why? For the same reason that you tend to have more corruption in Republican administrations: when you don't much care about the positive uses of government, and you don't have the political guts to cut it back as much as you would like, then government becomes little more than a vast patronage operation. And if chaos in services ensues, hey, it's just more proof that government's bad to begin with, right?

In other words, this is an ideological more than a moral matter. The Post profile of Steffen includes a variety of testimonials that he wasn't that bad a guy, despite his nicknames, his undertaker's wardrobe, and his habit of never turning on the lights in his office. But that misses the point: Freepers like Steffen think it's good to disable government and harrass "bureaucrats," just as they probably think saving Maryland from an O'Malley administration justifies trying to wreck his marriage.

Whats worse The exploitation

What's worse? The exploitation of tragedy in the Terri Schiavo case, or the exploitation of triumph in the previous big media human interest story, Ashley Smith? (In case you somehow missed it, Smith was the young woman who managed to pacify and then escape serial murderer Brian Nichols in Atlanta, ultimately leading to his peaceful surrender).

The former is far worse, no doubt, since the exploiters have explicitly political goals and some very specific plans for each and every one of us.

But now The New Republic's Lee Siegel has broken the general taboo against publicly uttering what I heard many people privately saying at the height of the Smith furor: the media, and especially CNN, bought into the religious interpretation of Smith's courageous acts with an almost evangelical avidity. As you probably know, the part of the story that's led it to be described as some sort of theodicy (an illustration of the divine purpose in apparent evil) is the fact that Smith read Nichols a passage from The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren's evangelical self-help bestseller. She also discussed her own difficult life with Nichols, and cooked him pancakes with "real butter," but it's the Warren book that's getting the credit, almost as much as Smith's own level-headedness.

Now it's not terribly surprising Smith had a copy of Warren's book on hand; it is, after all, the largest selling hardcover book in publishing history, with 20 million copies sold so far (a figure that's sure to climb still higher on the wings of the Smith story). And I have little doubt that being in the presence of an accused rapist and multiple murderer--indeed, sitting with him as the television showed nonstop coverage of the manhunt for him--led Smith, like anyone else, to a preoccupation with Ultimate Things.

But the idea that Smith was simply the Handmaiden of the Lord--the instrument for Nichols' redemption, and for the ever-more-efficient disseminatinon of the Therapeutic Gospel according to Rick Warren--is a story line that's gaining a surprising amount of currency, even in mainstream media sources (I can only imagine what conservative Christian media are doing with it).

Siegel accuses CNN of using the Smith saga to improve its reputation and viewership among Christian evangelicals. I suspect its saturation coverage of the whole event had more to do with proximity than strategy; CNN invariably over-reports any story originating near its Atlanta studios.

As a Christian, I have a holy fear of this kind of story, because it is almost invariably exploited by those who want to sell a very particular type of Christianity in implied hostility to every other form of faith. Remember that previous alleged divine intervention in Georgia, the claims by one Nancy Fowler that she was receiving private messages from the Virgin Mary in a location near the suburban town of Conyers? Those messages invariably endorsed a particularly conservative Catholicism--so conservative, in fact, that the Church hierarchy largely disavowed them.

Those Christians who are rushing to take sectarian credit for Ashley Smith's courage are committing a whole host of spiritually dangerous and ethically questionable acts, among them the breezy dismissal of Brian Nichols' victims as collateral damage in the divine plan to get more readers for Reverend Rick. They need to get away from the cameras, and the cameras need to get away from this story, for good.