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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.

This weekend WaPos David

This weekend WaPo's David Broder did a column hyping Rep. Clay Shaw's "idea" of throwing in the towel on Social Security privatization and just borrowing a few trillion bucks to create "add-on" accounts, which in a different form were once proposed by Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

But today the LA Times' Ron Brownstein rains pretty hard on add-ons as any sort of "face-saving" compromise.

Clinton and Gore backed the idea when the federal budget enjoyed a huge surplus; now, with the government again so deeply in the red, skeptics are asking whether subsidizing more retirement saving should be a higher priority than expanding access to healthcare or reducing the deficit itself.

And GOPers, despite their growing interest in a way out of the Social Security cul de sac where Bush has taken them, like "add-on" accounts even less:

Almost all congressional conservatives view such accounts as a new entitlement that would expand the welfare state; that's the view among Bush's top economic advisors as well. And that conflicts with a key, if rarely articulated, conservative goal in this debate: shrinking the size of government and encouraging Americans to rely more on the market, and less on public programs, for economic security.

"I don't think you solve a problem with an old entitlement by creating a new entitlement," says one senior administration official.

Thus, says Brownstein:

Add-on accounts may look like a reasonable midpoint between the two sides in this struggle. But in a polarized capital where the only constant is conflict, it increasingly appears that add-ons don't add up for either party.

Sure looks that way to me. A theoretically possible "deal" on add-on accounts would have to depend on a barely imaginable deal about the overall shape and direction of the federal government and the tax code. Borrowing a few trillion smackers to "save face" for the GOP may be less damaging that borrowing many trillions to screw up Social Security forever, but it's deficits and debt, not retirement security, that's today's unmistakable "crisis."

The Schiavo emergency in

The Schiavo "emergency" in Washington is temporarily over with the passage of a private bill giving Terri Schiavo's parents a hearing before a federal judge. But if that judge doesn't do what the Schindlers and their hyper-politicized backers want, then the protests and demands for ever-more-drastic intervention will start right back up again, aimed no doubt at plenary legislation banning any terminations of life support absent explicit instructions from the person in question. And at that point, Congressional Republicans will be hardly be in a position to say no.

And even if Schiavo's particular case somehow gets out of the news, the precedent has now been set, as Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) pointed out today: "Every aggrieved party in any similar litigation now will go to Congress, come to Congress and ask us to make a series of decisions. This is a terribly difficult decision which we are, institutionally, totally incompetent to make."

One thing is for sure: this case will boost the execution of Living Wills into the stratosphere. After this weekend, each of us must decide if we want to control what happens to us if we wind up like Terri Schiavo. Otherwise, Tom DeLay will decide it for us.

If I were a

If I were a congressional Republican, or a supporter of the Schindler family's efforts to obtain federal intervention in the Terri Schiavo case, I'd be more than a little troubled by the high profile being assumed by the infamous anti-abortion extremist, Randall Terry. Terry accompanied Mary Schindler to a press appearance earlier today, and is also organizing an effort to get Jeb Bush and Florida legislators to visit Terri Schiavo.

One of the distinctive traits of Randall Terry is that he's been very honest in the past about his contempt for the political opportunism of Republicans who have found limited common cause with him in similarly "symbolic" cases. Here's how the conservative U.S. Newswire summarized Terry's views on "partial-birth" abortion in 2003: "Randall Terry, Founder of Operation Rescue says, 'Partial-Birth Abortion Ban is a Political Scam but a Public Relations Goldmine.'" The press release from Terry heavily quoted in the article blasted the "partial-birth" ban as illogical, hypocritical, and essentially meaningless, but went on to laud the issue for its "educational" potential.

Gee, could it be that Terry thinks of the Schiavo case, and its Washington advocates, similarly?

Just wondering.

Speaking of gambling with

Speaking of gambling with Social Security, there is an extremely odd and interesting New York Times piece by Damien Cave out today about Bush's failure to get young'uns psyched about privatizing SocSec. There are several Onion-quality passages in this article--including the suggestion that Bush needs some Youth Celebrities (maybe hip-hop artists?) to give his sort-of-plan the requisite sex appeal. But here's the money quote:

To compete, the White House might want to up the ante. Robert J. Shiller, the Yale economist and author of "Irrational Exuberance," an examination of the 1990's boom, said that for this generation, the investment options Mr. Bush's plan will probably offer - low-risk bonds and stock-index funds - are "pretty dull," especially compared to the freedom people have when they invest online or with their 401(k) plans.

Young workers, he said, are likely to see the plans as paternalistic, designed by and for their parents. The White House, Mr. Shiller said, might consider offering economic transformation, in the form of more money to invest, or more options.

"Young people today are captivated by poker," Mr. Shiller said. "All this excitement that the president wants young people to feel can only happen when they are playing the game."

From what I know of Schiller's views on Bush's plan, I suspect his tongue was planted so firmly in his cheek during the interview with Cave that he must have spoken in a muffled lisp. But if Rove and his spinmeisters take this idea seriously, they must now find a way to counteract all the Safe 'n' Sound talk about Social Security privatiziation that they've aimed at seniors and near-seniors. According to Cave's analysis, Bush needs to make his proposal sound dangerous and exciting. Gamble on your future! Get control of those payroll taxes now! Screw security! Who wants to get old, anyway? And who cares if insecurity will trouble your sleep? You can sleep when you're dead.