As you’ve no doubt heard by now former Presidential Aide Sid Blumenthal yesterday agreed to drop his libel suit against Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report and also agreed to pay $2500 to one of Drudge’s lawyers, Manny Klausner, to reimburse him for travel expenses. The travel expenses were to attend a deposition conducted by Blumenthal’s lawyers — a deposition in which the person to be deposed ended up not showing up.

Now, as you probably already know, I am anything but a neutral observer of this whole case. And I don’t pretend to be unbiased.

Having said all that, however, I couldn’t help but respond to what Andrew Sullivan said about the denouement of this case on his site today, basically arguing that Blumenthal was wrong to ever file his suit in the first place.

As as journalist – especially as one that runs a vaguely-Drudge-like website – I’m not a fan of libel suits. Journalists are supposed to be against them as a rule. I always felt a bit conflicted even about this one. I shudder to think, for instance, of getting sued for millions of dollars because someone gives me a bad tip and I print it. Then again I don’t think I would post something so damaging with no evidence.

(Only my utter lack of any assets to lose gives me some small solace.)

But I have to say that I think Blumenthal really had no choice but to file this suit.

When someone says person X is guilty of beating his wife, do you believe them? Obviously, it depends on who’s being charged and who’s making the charge. But even if you figure it’s not true I think the undeniable reality is that after such a charge is made most of us figure, well … I maybe 5% believe it. Probably no, but who knows? Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And so forth.

Isn’t this true?

Even after Drudge took back the allegation and apologized, I think that still applies. Because you figure, well … maybe there was something to it, but he got sued and he didn’t have hard evidence to prove it, so he folded his cards.

I don’t know that there was any way for Blumenthal truly to clear his name beyond doggedly pursuing this case — a process which would of course allow Drudge’s attorneys to conduct extensive depositions and discovery, and find any evidence of abuse, if there was any to be found.

So that’s point number one.

There’s also a tendency I think to downplay, or forget, or make light of just how scurrilous and damaging a charge this was. As a liberal political journalist, and then as an appointee to the president who signed the Violence Against Women Act it’s just not too much to say that this charge would have destroyed Blumenthal, and made him a political untouchable. No question.

Obviously too, the charge itself must have caused intense anguish, and mortification, and embarrassment to Blumenthal, his wife, and the rest of his family — notwithstanding the fact that the charge wasn’t true. Imagine the awkward conversations with colleagues. Friends who might actually wonder if it’s true.

Yuck. It’s a mess.

Would it really have been so hard for Drudge to apologize for this? Yes, I know he took at it all back when it first happened. But what about a formal apology to settle the case and just make clear once and for all that there was nothing to it?

(Special Alert: TPM Exclusive Coming)

Actually, in early April the two parties were apparently negotiating just such a conclusion to the case — something which I don’t believe has yet been reported. Blumenthal’s lawyers proposed Drudge issue such an apology and make a small contribution to an organization dedicated to the issue of violence against women. The two sides negotiated with the judge and the judge drew up a letter for Drudge to sign.

Let me quote from the letter (a copy of which I have in my possession) dated April 12, 2001, written by the judge, John M. Facciola. In this section Facciola writes out a suggested letter of apology by Drudge to Blumenthal:

On August 12, 1997, I published in the Drudge Report a story which stated that Sidney Blumenthal had a spousal abuse past that has been effectively covered up. The Report quoted an influential, anonymous Republican who stated that there were court records of Blumenthal’s violence against his wife.

I now appreciate that the sources who provided me with this information were advancing a political agenda and that there is no information whatsoever to support their accusations. I am not aware of any information whatsoever that Mr. Blumenthal has ever struck his wife, and I was not aware of any such information before I published the statement on the Drudge Report, other than the assertions made by my sources. I acknowledge that no information has emerged since I published the story to substantiate what the sources told me.

I appreciate how the story could have caused Mr. and Mrs. Blumenthal anguish and distress. I sincerely regret it did so.

Drudge apparently tentatively agreed to such a settlement; Blumenthal’s side agreed. But then Drudge changed his mind and refused to sign.

And after all this, Drudge basically repeated the libel by implying on his website that Blumenthal had settled the suit because Drudge was about to depose some secret, damning witness.

Really, really low.

So, yeah, libel suits are dangerous things. And pretty scary things for the editors of Talking Points. But let’s see this whole thing in perspective.

P.S. Next up TPM gets back his sense of humor and gets back to the normal fare.

In one of his recent college classes, Al Gore apparently told his students that he had never spoken to Bob Woodward about a particular meeting between Bill Clinton and himself which appeared in Woodward’s book The Choice. Gore told the students that it was his understanding that Clinton hadn’t spoken to Woodward either.

The implication being of course that Woodward had reconstructed the conversation rather than basing it upon one of the participants’ first person accounts. According to one of students present, Gore “found it of concern that a prominent journalist would reconstruct a meal and a conversation.”

As the Times recounts the story, Woodward responded thus …

Mr. Woodward, however, said last week: “It is not fictional. He talked.”

Twice, the journalist said, he met with Mr. Gore for interviews in April 1996. Of Mr. Gore’s remarks to the class, Mr. Woodward said: “It is very sad. But it teaches you to never put away your Al Gore file.”

In other words, based on the accounts of Gore’s remarks as related by students present, Woodward said that Gore had talked to him, and Gore was lying.

Let’s assume that Gore did talk to him. Was Woodward within his rights to respond in this way? Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate for him to say that he stood by his account and that he was relying on a first person recollection — thus leaving the identity of that person unspoken, and preserving his confidence? This would cover his journalistic integrity and his responsibility to his sources.

Of course, this entirely leaves aside the possibility (which I’m more inclined to believe) that Gore is telling the truth. And that Woodward is tossing aside the rule book to cover his own ass.

Here’s a thought: After the last election many Democrats were, shall we say, rather unhappy with the electoral college. Of course, the college would be exceedingly difficult to abolish since it’s a boon to small states (whose votes get weighted more highly because of it) and you’d only need thirteen of those states to oppose it to block a constitutional amendment abolishing the college.

So, it’s not going to happen.

But the constitution doesn’t specify how the states allocate their electoral votes, just how many they have. The fact that all but two states hand out their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis is purely a matter of convention. Two states — Nebraska and Maine — already hand out their votes by congressional district. So, for instance, if you win the popular vote in Maine you get the two electors who are proxies for the state’s two Senators. But you’d have to win both of the state’s congressional districts to get the other two electors who are proxies for the state’s House members.

Got it?

Anyway, after November, some opponents of the electoral college thought this might be a way to sort of half-abolish the electoral college. To press the college, as it were, a little further down toward the popular vote. A Democrat might get completely blown out of the water in Texas, say. But he or she’d probably grab a few votes in areas where Dems were strong. And vice-versa for Republicans in New York or Pennsylvania.

There are all sorts of practical problems with getting all the states to go along. But it seemed like a good idea.

Anyway, it turns out it’s a lousy idea.

Here’s why.

A few weeks back I was interviewing conservative activist Grover Norquist for an article about conservative efforts to combat voter fraud. Like many conservatives, Norquist believes that inner-cities, particularly minority and immigrant neighborhoods, are hotbeds of voter fraud. I think this is an entirely fallacious argument, with little to no factual support. But let’s leave that aside for a moment.

Norquist has an ingenious idea: while most conservative anti-voter fraud activists want to do things like require picture IDs, abolish Motor Voter, crackdown on alleged voting by non-citizens, Norquist has a more elegant, root-and-branch approach.

He proposes changing electoral votes in precisely the way I described above. Oddly enough, he opts for what we might call a demand-side approach to the problem (this is humor for really advanced TPM readers.)

In Norquist’s view, this removes all the incentives to rack up huge majorities in the central cities with fraudulent votes since it doesn’t really matter if you win Michigan’s 14th district (Detroit) with a big turnout or a small turnout, with a big margin or a small one. You still just get the same one electoral vote.

As Norquist described it to me, this reform would end the incentive for vote fraud and “cauterize” these hotbeds of corruption and prevent the evil from spreading out into other untouched areas.

Now, let’s step back for a minute and look at what this means.

First of all this would be an unmitigated disaster for Democrats. Here’s why: Democrats routinely win states by losing many of the congressional districts by close margins and racking up huge margins in the big cities. That’s basically what happened this year in Pennsylvania where massive voter mobilizations among African-Americans and organized labor pulled the state out for Gore in Philadelphia. If you make the Norquist reform you not only change the winner, you also short-circuit the impetus for Democratic core voters to get to the polls.

The reason Dems pull elections out in the big cities isn’t, as Norquist and other right-wingers, would have it, that they practice massive vote fraud. It’s because their voters are heavily concentrated in the cities. Make the reform Norquist proposes and you instantly short-circuit all the gains Dems have made of late in get-out-the-vote efforts. And you also massively diminish the electoral strength of African-Americans and other minorities.

In other words, substitute the words ‘high minority voter turnout’ for ‘voter fraud’ and you get a pretty idea what the Norquist reform would accomplish.

Like I said, a real lousy idea.

Here’s a very interesting George Will column on the apparent craze to name everything under the sun after Ronald Reagan.

(Why’s Talking Points praising George Will? Hold on, hold on.)

The gist of the argument is that there really is no popular groundswell in favor of commemorating our 40th president. It’s really just a handful of Washington-based professional Republicans, conservative ideologues and Reagan-worshipers. And in thoroughly non-Reaganite fashion they’re using top-down, Washington-based big government to shove this all down everyone’s throats.

National Airport here in DC was recently renamed Reagan National Airport. And the latest instance of this hypocrisy is that Bob Barr, whacky right-wing congressman from Georgia, is threatening to withhold federal funds from our subway system, the Metro, unless all the subway signs and maps are reprint and reposted to say Reagan National Airport for the airport stop.

Anyway. A great hypocrisy. And a great point.

What’s even more interesting is that Talking Points’ one-time quasi- kinda sorta protege Nick Confessore wrote the same article in the New Republic EXACTLY A WEEK BEFORE WILL’s COLUMN APPEARED.

Only Nick actually did a lot of reporting — as opposed to cribbing his column from the work of a promising young opinion journalist.

(Yes, Will’s prose is more orotund and the moral is more delicately unfurled. But I say we’re really talking about the same basic point, the same basic article. You be the judge though. Here’s Nick’s piece. Here’s George’s.)

Now, truth be told, opinion journalists actually love having their material plagiarized by nationally syndicated newspaper columnists. But there’s a convention, a way it’s done and a way it’s not done. At some point in the column you write “as so-and-so recently wrote in such-and-such.” Then you’re cool. Rehash the whole column if you like. But if you don’t say that, well … that’s really not cool.

And Will, it seems, is really not cool.

I mean, George. You can’t cut Nick some slack? He’s just a sapling, man. Just starting out. You’ve gotta snag his material and not even throw him a bone? Look at that face! He’s just a kid! Look at that face. Look at that punim, as my grandma would say! Just a kid, I tell you. And you with the cushy nationally syndicated column gig can’t even give the little guy his props?

Uncool, man. Very uncool.

I mean, come clean George. Give the kid his due. Or, at least, as Tim Noah would say, tell us you “disrespected the bing”.

P.S. Let’s be clear: I am not accusing Will of word for word plagiarizing. I’m saying that the first article appeared online a week before Will’s did in a magazine, The New Republic, which is extremely widely read in DC. And they make a very, very similar argument. And use many of the same examples. It’s certainly possible that this is just a coincidence. But I think the burden of proof is very much on Will.

P.P.S. So did Nick put you up to this? Eh … maybe.

Not everyone is fronting it on their websites, but the big news today is unquestionably the report that the economy grew at a rate of 2% in the first quarter. This means the basic assumptions on which we’ve been discussing things for the last three months or so were simply wrong.

Conventional wisdom held that the economy was essentially at zero growth. Maybe a few shades below or above, but basically at a standstill. Yet the economy seems to be coming along rather nicely and actually accelerated from the last quarter of 2000.

What’s less clear is which party this benefits.

Let me also say a few brief words about the Bob Kerrey story. I should preface what I say by telling you that I don’t much like Bob Kerrey for reasons which have nothing to do with this current issue. So I’ve been reluctant to say anything about it because of my own possible bias.

Having said that, I’m inclined not to believe Kerrey’s version of events. This isn’t because I think he’s a bad guy. Just if you use Ockham’s Razor that surmise makes better sense of the evidence than his version of events.

One reason is that Kerrey’s version events doesn’t seem to merit the level of pain, agony and guilt which he says he feels. Accidentally killing civilians is tragic and horrible but it happens constantly in war. Every bomber pilot undoubtedly killed hundreds or thousands of non-combatants (or at least many more than a dozen or two). What fits better with Kerrey’s anguish is a situation in which such a massacre of civilians had a certain rationale in the given situation (the idea is that they feared these civilians would warn Viet Cong in the area and help them ambush Kerrey’s troops when they were trying to make their escape) but was nonetheless horrific and wrong.

As the new phrase Tim Noah is peddling would have it, I suspect Kerrey is “disrespecting the bing.” And if not he’s, again per Noah, “pulling a McCain.”

I haven’t read all the news accounts in question, though I’ve seen the adoring press interviews with Kerrey, so I’m not inclined to say more than this. But a number of readers have asked me to comment. So there’s my answer.

Frankly, as someone who was petrified in 1990-91 that if the Gulf War dragged on he might get drafted, I’m not inclined to judge Kerrey too harshly on the basis of ambiguous facts from a situation in which I’ve obviously never found myself. But as to what happened, I suspect there’s at least much more to tell than Kerrey is letting on.

I don’t know how else to say this. But this apparently-deserved hit piece on Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison is really, really funny.

Apparently Hutchison is, as they say, not an easy boss. And much of the piece is the standard order ‘Senator makes staff pick up spouse’s dry-cleaning’ sort of stuff.

But some of it goes beyond even that normal sort of small-time abuse of official privileges.

Like this choice snippet …

Hutchison requires a staffer to show up at her doorstep each morning with bagels and coffee and wait without knocking until the door is opened. The senator usually is driven the two blocks to her congressional office when she emerges.

I mean, what is this? Ritual humiliation? Does she make them call her Mistress Kay?

I’m happy to report that TPM is about to be written up in a number of magazine articles that will be appearing in the next month or so. But man — or at least this man — does not live by buzz alone. So here’s my brief take on the politics of Bush’s environmental policy in today’s New York Post.

Yesterday I was pedaling away on a stationary bike at my gym watching C-SPAN (yes, watching C-SPAN while working out … GET OVER IT!) when I saw Tom Daschle telling a gaggle of reporters that Bob Torricelli had denied or disavowed (maybe recanted?) a press report that he would vote for a $1.4 trillion tax cut compromise.

I didn’t know quite what to make of that until I read the Washington Post this morning.

As regular readers will remember, a while back Talking Points speculated over why Torricelli was bucking his caucus on the tax front when he had legal troubles that would make you think he needed all the friends he could get.

Well, maybe Bob’s been reading Talking Points. Or maybe his legal troubles have just gotten a whole hell of a lot worse. Because according to the Post, Torch got up yesterday in the Senate Democratic caucus meeting, protested his innocence and basically begged his colleagues to stick by him.

Ouch!

What a fun moment that must have been.

Torricelli has never been very popular with his colleagues. He’s bucked the caucus on various fronts (though he did real good for them raising money last election cycle). Having to get down on his knees and beg like that must have been rough. (The Times, for what it’s worth, has Torch sounding more combative and less pitiful.)

Which brings us back to Torricelli’s suddenly seeming to find religion on the tax issue.

Hmmm.

I can just imagine the private meeting between Torch and Tom Daschle before the Caucus met, with the one-time maverick and high-flyer in need of help from the big man. Maybe it went down like in the opening scene from one of my favorite movies, with Daschle telling Torch …

We’ve known each other many years, but this is the first time you came to me for counsel, for help. I can’t remember the last time that you invited me to your house for a cup of coffee, even though my wife is godmother to your only child. But let’s be frank here: you never wanted my friendship. And uh, you were afraid to be in my debt.

Or maybe not.

Anyway, you get the idea.

I think the Dems have another vote locked up on the tax debate.

You should take it as a given that Talking Points is involved in more or less constant communication and negotiations with wags and wonks from across the political spectrum searching for ways to stick it to the folks currently running the show at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And along those lines, here’s a thought.

It sounds like there’s ample ground for a possible meeting of the minds between certain Dems (Dems, of the TPM variety at least) and the National Greatness Conservative / Reform / McCainite wing of the GOP on the tax cut front. Here’s the idea.

Many of these NGCs aren’t too crazy about the Bush tax cut. They’re not up in arms about it exactly. But they think it’s too regressive, that it should put more emphasis on middle income families.

How about a tax cut with a substantial payroll tax rebate plus a dramatically increased and refundable child tax credit? There’s very little in that which a progressive could disagree with — at least certain progressives. It’s also across the board — every gets the payroll tax rebate and everyone with kids gets the tax credit. And for the NGCs, well, they can just see the child tax credit as a school voucher. The thought has occurred to at least one of them.

Such a package would address much of what both groups say they believe in.

Now one problem is size. How big would it be? For my part I wouldn’t have a lot of trouble with the price tag being pretty high — say in the trillion dollar range, or perhaps even a touch higher? (Don’t quote me on that — I’m still thinking it over.) But the fiscal discipline issue is a very important one for the Democrats today. Not just for substantive reasons and for its political potency but also for the way it knits together different factions within the party, the way it allows them to have something to agree on to mask over other differences.

So that’s one problem.

Another problem is that Dems may fear that if they legitimized the idea of a tax cut on that scale they’d lose one of their major arguments against the Bush plan. And they might be right.

There’s also a problem on the NGC side of the equation.

The NGCs are very much like Scoop Jackson Democrats from the 1970s — a handful of brainy thinkers, an equal number of pithy writers, and exactly one elected politician. And even that one with a questionable future.

(In fact the NGCs aren’t just like Scoop Jackson Democrats. A few who are old enough actually were Scoop Jackson Democrats. But that’s another story.)

The relevant point is that it’s not really clear what troops they can put on the field — and so far even McCain has been a no-show in the tax debate.

Still, it’s an interesting possibility.

Once Talking Points is through writing this merciless piece on the alleged epidemic of voter fraud in the United States he’ll return to more frequent posts. But for the moment let me set the record straight on John Edwards.

In his online column today Wlady Pleszczynski, editor of American Spectator Online says I seem “prepared to attack [Edwards] as not reliably liberal enough, a rather strange way to think about a product of the Democratic Party’s potent trial lawyer wing.”

Now before proceeding let me say that there are, by definition, no bad links to Talking Points. Some are more accurate than others. But they’re all good and appreciated. Especially when they’re coupled with good buzz-inducing phrases like “rising liberal political writer.” Frankly, who cares about the ‘liberal political writer.’ But ‘rising’ is definitely on-message with the larger Talking Points PR strategy.

In any case, back to business.

I don’t think I’ve ever said Edwards isn’t reliably liberal enough. And if I did say it, I don’t think it’s true.

What I’m saying is this: Much of the Edwards mania is premised on the belief that Democratic presidential contenders have to come from states that seldom vote Democratic for president. Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia, etc. Or to put it more baldly, that they have to come from states that belonged to the Confederacy. For a number of reasons, which I’ll discuss in a later post, I don’t think that’s true.

I also think that Edwards took certain positions in his 1998 Senate campaign which won’t work well in national Democratic politics — particularly, if I remember correctly, supporting right-to-work laws.

And for reasons which again I’ll get to later I’m still not convinced Edwards is all he’s cracked up to be. Not unwilling to be convinced, just not convinced yet. But that’ll wait for another post.

Here is a very interesting article from the New York Times about states jumping into the breach and devising various ways to help seniors manage the rising cost of prescription drugs.

On the one hand this is a rather inspiring story of states devising pragmatic solutions to a pressing social problem. And there’s even a nice ‘laboratories of democracy’ angle to it — with different states using different devices and strategems to approach the problem.

But in the final analysis this is a story of failure, not success. For any number of reasons the provision of health care for seniors is inherently a matter for the federal government, not the state governments. The states are only getting into the act because Congress has failed to act.

Americans are fundamentally Americans, not Texans or Californians or New Yorkers. And as Crolian Progressives argued at the beginning of the last century there are certain problems that can’t be solved by the states, or private enterprise, or voluntary associations, but only by concerted national action.

Health care for seniors is indubitably one of those cases.

Now as long as we’re talking about national purpose and national action, I’m curious where those National Greatness Conservatives (who’ve got a touch of a Crolian streak in them) come down on this question. For a nation to be great, mustn’t it be great as a nation?

And as long as we’re talking about Evan Bayh, let’s also say a few words about John Edwards.

Like Evan Bayh, John Edwards is up for reelection in 2004. Yet unlike Bayh it’s quite clear that Edwards is very, very serious about running for president.

So what exactly does that mean?

One possibility, suggested by a friend of mine, is that Edwards really doesn’t have plans of serving more than one term in the Senate. Maybe he’ll run for president, maybe he won’t. But he won’t be a Senator in 2005.

On the face of it that’s hard to figure. Being a Senator is a really sweet job for a pol. Just ask John Kerry. And unless you want to become governor of your state, what the hell else are you going to do?

(Sure, you could sort of imagine Edwards playing the Cosby-esque paterfamilias on a network sitcom. But for the moment, let’s assume that’s not where his heart is.)

On the other hand, my friend raises another possibility. The kind of voting record that Edwards would want to put together to run for reelection in North Carolina is quite different from the kind he’d want to run in the Democratic presidential primaries.

In fact, ‘different’ may be too gentle. They may be incompatible. So that’s another argument for Edwards’ possibly not seeing himself as more than a one-term Senator.

Of course there’s one more reason you figure Edwards will definitely run. One of the reasons Evan Bayh likely won’t run is that he’s basically part of the same club as Joe Lieberman (and, for that matter, Al Gore — yes, I know they’re all mad at each other, but trust me it’s still the same club). They’re all New Dems. And there are all sorts of reasons why people don’t want more than one of them in the race.

A similar logic applies on the liberal side of the Democratic spectrum, though they’re less clubbish so there’s more of a chance that more than one of them would run.

But Edwards really isn’t in either of these camps (and of course that’s precisely the reason that a lot of folks are into him) and so there’s really not anyone else who could throw their hat in the ring and make Edwards drop out.

Next up, we’ll discuss what Talking Points thinks of a potential Edwards candidacy … Hint: It ain’t pretty.

Maybe Evan Bayh’s been reading Talking Points. I’m hearing that he may not be such a lock to run in 2004 after all.

As Talking Points has discussed earlier, Bayh has not done so well in the early positioning for 2004. But consider another point. Bayh is up in 2004 for Senate, his first shot at reelection.You can run for vice-president and senator at the same time, not president. Is he so committed to a run that he’ll risk his Senate seat? That’s hard to figure.

People with some knowledge of Bayh tell me they’d be surprised to see him challenge Al Gore, if Gore decided to make another run. They also tell me they’d be surprised to see him challenge Joe Lieberman if he decided to run.

Now who knows if the former Veep is going to run in 2004. But if he doesn’t, Joe Lieberman definitely will. So maybe Bayh’s just not going to run, period.

I’m normally content to leave carping and whining about popular culture to conservative hacks like Bill Bennet. But let’s make an exception.

Last night I caught a few minutes of Weakest Link, the new game show which NBC has imported from the United Kingdom. And I must say it was the ugliest, most wretched thing I think I’ve ever seen on American television.

If you haven’t seen it yet Weakest Link is a sort of hybrid of the Regis Millionaire show, Family Feud and Lord of the Flies. A group of contestants answer questions as a team and then at the end of each round they vote off the lamest member of the squad — a process engineered to foster hurt feelings, petty quarrels and general lameness.

This whole mess is presided over by Anne Robinson, a prim, starchy, offensive Englishwoman who asks the questions while berating the contestants with wooden taunts and denigrating comments.

This is apparently supposed to be entertaining. And perhaps it would be if Robinson were clever or original or witty and not such a dork herself. But her insults usually amount to the ‘you’re dumb’ variety and don’t get much more clever. Sort of Don Rickles without the comedic brilliance, if you get my drift.

Here you can visit the ‘brutal truths’ section of the show’s website and vote for which of her insults has the “most bite.” (The caption reads “Anne Robinson is notorious for delivering the Brutal Truth to the contestants before her.”)

Watching the show I kept thinking of some episode of Seinfeld when some dolt keeps insulting Jerry. But, sorry, I couldn’t quite place it.

In any case, who finds this crap entertaining?

I mean, let’s be honest. Without the charm, just what do the Brits have to offer anyway?

Alright, I apologize to the throngs of Talking Points readers who wrote in asking why almost forty-eight postless hours went by on the site. But even if that weren’t the case we’d still have to go on the air to issue a special Talking Points Schadenfreude Alert.

As you all know, Pat Robertson, one-time Pope of Christian Conservatism ain’t much of a fan of abortion. In fact, he considers it murder and a sin and an abomination and all the rest.

Unless of course it’s forced abortion in the interest of preserving racial purity. That’s something else entirely!

That’s what Robertson told Wolf Blitzer Monday night on CNN, as recounted here in this article in the Washington Post.

After telling Blitzer that forced abortion might be necessary to hold down China’s population, Robertson went on to explain:

It’s going to be a demographic catastrophe. When they’re having abortions, they’re picking the girl babies for the slaughter, and they’re allowing only the males to be born. And in another, say, 10 or 20 years, there’s going to be a critical shortage of wives. The young men won’t have any women to marry. So it will, in a sense, dilute the — what they consider — the racial purity of the Han Chinese. And that to them will be a great tragedy because then they will have to be importing wives from Indonesia and other countries in order to fill up the population.

Mike Kinsley once said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that a gaffe is when a politician inadvertently tells truth, or at least, speaks candidly. But this assumes that the pol says something that we all know to be true in some sense and not just the prefab malarkey that their handlers feed them.

But when Robertson speaks candidly, again and again, he says things so deeply crazy that it’s a wonder why he is still a figure in American public life. Remember of course that this same Pat Robertson who published a book which rehashed much of the vile craziness of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Lefties, being lefties, will often accuse their enemies of being ‘reactionary.’ And for them often this means simply being opposed to liberals — against government spending, in favor of big tax cuts, yada, yada, yada. In other words, being what you might simply call a ‘Republican.’

But this is hardly what the word means. ‘Reaction’ in this specific sense is a fairly complicated term. Websters defines it as “relating to, marked by, or favoring reaction; especially : ultraconservative in politics.”

Even that’s a rather thin definition, though. The word refers to a more specific anti-democratic impulse: a desire to turn back the broad Western trend toward democratic government and civic equality, often tied up with nostalgia for established militarized aristocracies, state churches, and so forth. This is why, say, Francisco Franco was a reactionary, as were, in a quite different way, some of the proto-fascist impulses in a European capital like Vienna at the turn of the last century — as described in this book.

In any case, one seldom really sees anything quite like this in American politics, though the term is often tossed around pretty freely.

Seldom, but not never.

Lately the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page really is starting to seem a little reactionary. Tim Noah had a whole series a little while back about a Journal editorial praising the virtues of the idle rich. And today there’s this really whacky column arguing that the problem with the British monarchy is that they’ve … well, that they’ve made their peace with the 20th century essentially.

The best response to the Sophie “scandal”–for that is how the tabloids dub it–would be for the queen to withdraw her family from the throng. A popular embrace is fatal. The monarchy does not, and should not, reflect the latest opinion poll. Instead, as a source of authority, it must cultivate afresh a sense of suspicion–a suspicion, this time, of the people.

Yikes!

Is this some new obscurantist thread in American conservatism? Or has Robert Bartley just gone over the edge?

As you’re probably aware, Republicans commonly make the case for their tax cut plan by arguing it is simply wrong that people should give more than a third of their income to the federal government. They point to the highest tax rate of 39.5% and say that even for the very, very wealthy paying more than a third is simply wrong.

Now as a matter of fiscal policy and morality that may or may not be the case.

But critics of this dishonest argument know that very, very few people ever pay more than a third of their income to the federal government — even including the extremely wealthy, and even including those who fall in that highest bracket.

And as luck would have it today we get a splendidly apt demonstration of this fact.

Today we find that George W. Bush and Laura Bush had a combined, adjusted gross income of $894,880. On this they paid the federal government $240,342.

Now Talking Points twice got Ds in high school math classes (long story!). But doesn’t this mean president Bush paid significantly less than a third of his income to the federal government even though he’s in the stratospheric zone of the income scale and even under the presumably confiscatory Clinton tax code?

Is anyone else noting this rather obvious point.

P.S. The Cheneys do seem to have paid more than a third of their incomes in taxes — this on roughly $36 million they cleared last year by cashing in stocks and stock options from his old employer. So, okay, mega-plutocrats do occasionally pay more than a third when they cash in all their stocks.

As you’re probably aware, Republicans commonly make the case for their tax cut plan by arguing it is simply wrong that people should give more than a third of their income to the federal government. They point to the highest tax rate of 39.5% and say that even for the very, very wealthy paying more than a third is simply wrong.

Now as a matter of fiscal policy and morality that may or may not be the case.

But critics of this dishonest argument know that very, very few people ever pay more than a third of their income to the federal government — even including the extremely wealthy, and even including those who fall in that highest bracket.

And as luck would have it today we get a splendidly apt demonstration of this fact.

Today we find that George W. Bush and Laura Bush had a combined, adjusted gross income of $894,880. On this they paid the federal government $240,342.

Now Talking Points twice got Ds in high school math classes (long story!). But doesn’t this mean president Bush paid significantly less than a third of his income to the federal government even though he’s in the stratospheric zone of the income scale and even under the presumably confiscatory Clinton tax code?

Is anyone else noting this rather obvious point.

P.S. The Cheneys do seem to have paid more than a third of their incomes in taxes — this on roughly $36 million they cleared last year by cashing in stocks and stock options from his old employer. So, okay, mega-plutocrats do occasionally pay more than a third when they cash in all their stocks.

If you’re thinking that Democrats on the Hill are feeling emboldened of late, you’re right. As the AP reported on April 7th, Geoff Garin, a well-known Dem pollster, and Paul Begala met with a group of Dem Senators and basically assured them that — given the political situation, poll-numbers, etc. — they had little to fear from confronting the president on a wide-range of issues — particularly on the Budget/tax/Social Security front.

I don’t think this was mentioned in the original AP story, but apparently this was some sort of message group that Dick Durbin (Democrat of Illinois and a possible 2004 dark horse) has put together.

In any case, one person who was at the meeting tells me that the Senators seemed more focused, angry, and ready to fight than at any time in recent memory, which is nice to hear.

Let’s look a little more closely, though, at the ‘internals’ of the polls which were discussed.

Every marquee public poll routinely asks some version of this question: Does politician X care about/understand the problems people like you face?

Pollsters would undoubtedly come up with some more elegant, technically appropriate phrasing. But you get the idea.

In any case, Bill Clinton always scored very, very well on this question. Even when his job approval ratings (and certainly his personal approval ratings) weren’t so hot, this number remained strong.

This is a measurement of what we might call the politics of empathy, social science’s measurement of “I feel your pain,” etc. I’ve always thought, as many others have as well I suspect, that this was the secret ground of Clinton’s political resilience, his ability to bounce back from so many apparently fatal blows.

The late 1990s produced a quite false political truism which held that so long as the economy was growing at more than 4% annual GDP the president could snort coke, deflower cheerleaders, behave poorly at state dinners and still keep his job approval rating over 60%.

As a Clinton diehard, I’m not above conceding that Bill put this theory to the test a few times. But the thesis is simply false. The state of the economy is very important to a president’s approval rating, but not decisive. The politics of empathy were equally vital to Clinton’s political survival.

Which brings us back to the current occupant of the Oval Office. One of the numbers which got a lot of attention at the meeting noted above was this from the recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll: by a measure of about 2 to 1 Americans believe George W. Bush cares more about corporate interests than the people’s interest. That’s basically a proxy for the “feel your pain” question noted earlier.

This is a sign of a deep underlying vulnerability. If the public perception that Clinton understood and cared about ordinary people’s problems buoyed him through turbulent political waters, the lack of such a perception for Bush should make his popularity fragile when times get tough.

I am really not a fan of Bill Gertz. Make that REALLY not a fan. Gertz, the defense writer for the Washington Times, has long been a mouthpiece for the more hysterical and over-the-top China hawks in Washington, DC. In a sense, I guess that’s unfair: Gertz IS one of the most hysterical and over-the-top China hawks in Washington, DC.

Having said all this, though, he’s actually been one of the more interesting people to read of late. Like him or not, he’s got impeccable sources among the more Sino-phobic members of the defense and intelligence communities. And these are the people — in many cases — whose role has been augmented by the change in administrations.

Here’s the update from Gertz’s own site on the administration’s post-crisis response to the China. So long as you keep the biases of the writer in mind, there’s still a lot of interesting information to be had.

Sometimes someone says something and you say (or I say), “Hey, I wanna make fun of that person.”

And then you say, “You know, on second thought, I don’t even want to talk about it.”

Then, on third thought, “I don’t even want to think about it.”

I’m going to have some more to say later on the whole China issue. But for the moment can we all just agree that the Weekly Standard’s David Brooks has come up with the uckiest metaphor to describe the recent turn in Sino-American relations?

Here’s Brooks describing our ‘position’ last night on The Newshour:

Well, the President responded in an honest way, and maybe he was right to tail back. You know, when you’re being pawed by a dirty old man and he’s got something you need, maybe you just have to sit and take it, but the – the mistake would be to treat this as a discreet event which, you know, we’ve got a result and so let’s be happy.

Satire? Ohhhhh the possibilities are endless…

P.S. You got something against David Brooks? No, not in the least. But how could I pass that one up?

I’m always up for a new art form since my tastes are so varied and such. And that’s one of the reasons I’m so into the most dynamic new American art form to come along in some time: merginalia.

Never heard of it? The unsubtle way of explaining this would be to say it’s when you go out of business, tank, go belly up, etc., and spin it to make it sound like you’re actually merging with another company or entering into some sort of corporate alliance. The Mona Lisa of the genre of course is the recent ‘merger’ of Inside.com with Brill’s Content.

But there are many other examples and there was another entry today. The new deal struck between Amazon and Borders Books. The headline at CNBC.com says “Amazon, Borders join forces.”

But if you read this article from the Washington Post it’s pretty clear the headline might have been written “Borders Bites the Dust, Avoids Utter Ignominy By Getting One Page at Amazon.com with Borders Logo at the Top.”

Now the question is, what company tanks next? And what’s their merginalia going to sound like? And why didn’t Pets.com get with the program and ‘merge’ with Hanes socks division?

P.S. Late Update. Now we know who’s next: Kozmo.com. As of this afternoon. But apparently they couldn’t even get a mercy ‘buyer.’ So they can’t even attempt a merginalia.

P.P.S. Aren’t you going to come up with a way to swing this merginalia concept into a slam on David Horowitz? Still workin’ on that.

Well I don’t want to go too far off message here. But I just need to say that I don’t have too many complaints with how the Bush White House has managed to resolve this China stand-off. I think they flubbed it at first. And there are things that should have been done differently along the way (repeatedly saying this could damage relations was a touch feeble).

But all that said, I give the president reasonable marks. I’m no expert on the Chinese language obviously. But from a brief perusal of the papers it would seem we expressed a measure of apology without in any way admitting responsibility or wrongdoing. (The follow-on to this will be the key.)

The more important point, however, is that (to me at least) one of the measures of national power and greatness is the ability to suffer the insecurities and feebleness of weaker powers with a measure of grace. Pace my friend Michael Lind, but indulging someone else — in the right circumstances — is often a sign of power, not weakness.

Sort of like with David Horowitz. His flipping out over the Daily Princetonian’s calling him a racist isn’t a sign of power or prestige, only a sign that he’s pitiful and insecure. Or like when he flew off the handle because of a small comment about him in like the fifth or sixth article I ever wrote.

Anyway, you get the idea.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’ve got to go write a memo for some friends on the Hill about how to bash President Bush for humiliating the nation in the China hostage debacle.

Boy, am I ever proud of my Alma Mater. Or rather my Alma Mater’s campus daily, The Daily Princetonian.

As you may have heard, The Prince was one of the campus papers that agreed to run David Horowitz’s laughably amateurish anti-reparations for slavery ad. But they wisely went ahead and ran it with an editorial blasting Horowitz as a self-promoting cretin.

Horowitz has now turned around and refused to pay The Prince for running the ad because he says they slandered him.

(At the end of what is actually a pretty mild editorial The Prince said it was giving the ad money to the local chapter of the Urban League so as not to “profit from Horowitz’s racism.”)

Now what makes me so proud about this isn’t that they ran the ad or gave away the money or anything like that. It’s that the folks at The Prince have managed to give Horowitz quite enough rope to hang himself. And, boy, has he ever taken the bait.

Now even defenders like the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page and Andrew Sullivan are lining up to say what a complete ass Horowitz is making of himself.

Bottom line: if your whole racket is taking a stand on free speech rights you are in a very, very weak position trying to break a contract on the basis of someone else’s offensive speech.

(I mean, come on, David. Just open up the *$%&#@% checkbook and give these kids some of Richard Scaife’s money already.)

Yet Horowitz’s actions really aren’t so much offensive or brazen as they are comic. And that gets us back to a point that has been too little made in this whole brouhaha. Horowitz isn’t really so much a racial provocateur as he is a sort of freelance imbecile, a flesh and blood cartoon.

(If you want an example, take a peek at the hilarious letter he wrote to Andrew Sullivan. It’s a classic.)

If you haven’t actually read his “ten reasons” why reparations are a bad idea you really should. They’re less offensive than they are pitiful. Sure, several of the points are tendentious to the point of falsehood (see 1, 6, 9 & 10). But what’s more striking is that they’re written with the sophistication of an over-eager high school student. It’s not even fact-checked: item #6 refers to the “slave system that was ended over 150 years ago.” (This, presumably, is a reference to that little-known ‘other’ emancipation that occurred in 1851?)

As the folks at The Prince did a good job showing, the proper response to Horowitz isn’t offense but laughter.

Why does anyone take this guy seriously?

Well, as you must now know SlatePoints AG was just a ruse. The real reason the Slate.com link is there down on the left is that Slate has just started a new feature called Mezine Central, a portal (as the web jargon would have it) to what they call “the best in political weblogs.”

The best includes Kausfiles.com, AndrewSullivan.com, Virginia Postrel’s site vpostrel.com, and of course the grand-daddy of all political blogs Talking Points!

Actually, I think I may be the youngest of the bloggers who made the cut. And why is that important, you ask? I haven’t the slightest $%&#*#@ idea.

Anyway, part of the deal was that we each put a link to slate.com somewhere prominent on our sites. And that’s the answer to the mystery of the Slate.com link.

If you’re interested in the broader issues involved in America’s policy toward China and East Asia then, by all means, read this article by John Judis, my friend and former partner in writing the Below the Beltway column for the American Prospect.

The essence of John’s argument is that liberals should get over the presumption that support for Taiwan vis-a-vis China is necessarily rooted in some reactionary form of McCarthyite Cold War militarism. And not just verbal support, but selling the Taiwanese the weaponry they need to defend themselves against Chinese threats of forced reunification.

About a year ago I wrote another Below the Beltway column which made something of a contrary argument — making the case against the wacky right-wing hysterics who want to roil up East Asia with a new Cold War. My point was that a very ill-begotten sort of American domestic politics was threatening to sow havoc in East Asia. I don’t think my piece is necessarily opposed to John’s. But I would say also that in the intervening year I’ve somewhat shifted my position more toward his.

Now, having said that, I do think there’s one part of the equation to which he gives too little attention. We should be willing to sell arms to the Taiwanese to help them defend themselves. We should probably also be willing to help defend thems directly should China seek to invade the island.

But as any sane person will realize, this second scenario is one we want to avoid at almost any cost.

We want to make clear our committment to defend Taiwan enough to prevent Chinese aggression but not so much as to encourage Taiwanese recklessness or efforts to secure formal independence. And that latter danger is much more than a theoretical possibility — as a number of events in the late 1990s demonstrated.

So, yes, sell the Taiwanese the weapons they need to mount a credible defense. But also realize the dangers of making our support for Taiwan too fulsome.

More on this later.

Alright, we’ve been getting questions for a while about why there’s a link down there on the left to Slate.com. Now at last we can tell you.

Here’s the deal: as you know, these have been difficult times for online content providers. NBC just pulled the plug on NBC Internet — their lame online division with the commercials featuring that svelte, fetching brunnette. And little more than a week ago Inside.com, one of the most buzzworthy web ventures out there, pulled the plug on itself and ‘merged’ with Brill’s Content.

Well, even ventures with deep-pockets behind them can’t ignore the gusting winds roiling the online sea. So tomorrow we’re going to be announcing the merger of Slate.com and Talking Points Memo.

Now for the moment, we’d really rather not comment on any rumors you may have heard about this actually being a buy-out of one company by the other. As will be clear when we do the role-out tomorrow afternoon this is a true merger, as signified by the new merged company’s name: SlatePoints AG.

(The AG stems from some German financing we brought in to help float the deal. We’ll also be dropping the “.com” suffix from the new company name — on the reasoning that that’s just way to 1990s for 2001 and sort of has the whiff of death about it, given the NASDAQ crash, and so forth.)

Anyway, you’ll still get all the same great content from the new combined venture. Tim Noah’s Chatterbox column is slated to be renamed “Talking Points, Jr.” as of May 1st. But Kinsley and I still have to have a sit-down with Tim and iron that out. Aside from that, most of the existing features and columns will likely continue as they are.

P.S. So what’s the Slate.com link really doing there? Well, something cool; but not nearly as cool as SlatePoints AG. I’ll toss up a post with the real score later this evening.

By all means read this excellent analysis in the Washington Post of the mix of internal Chinese politics and geo-politics at play in the current spy plane stand-off. The piece is particularly good in describing the unenviable position of Chinese President Jiang Zemin and the downside for the United States if this crisis leaves him weakened.

As far as fiscal policy goes, you really don’t need Talking Points so long as you keep up with with Paul Krugman’s ‘Reckonings’ column on The New York Times‘ Oped Page.

Sunday’s installment provides an important reality check for anybody who’s getting too excited about the rebuke the Senate gave the president last week — slicing his $1.6 trillion tax cut to $1.2 trillion.

Unlike many of my friends, I’m quite happy to give Tom Daschle & Company real credit for succeeding at the art of the possible. Accomplishing even this was a major feat — given that the filibuster is not available for tax and budget bills. And keeping all but one Democrat on board involved exceptional legislative skill on Daschle’s part.

But, look, the real problem is that they only have fifty votes. And unless and until they get a few Republicans to work with them, there’s just not that much they can do.

So, a great effort. But their power is just very limited. And as Krugman points out even a $1.2 tax cut — organized along Bush’s lines — is still a disaster.

What’s so important about Krugman’s piece today is his willingness to state the obvious in unambiguous terms: the Bush tax cut package is premised on a bundle of lies, half-truths, and evasions. There is really no other candid way to put it. The cuts which go to the average family are paltry. The cuts it provides for the very wealthy are great. The danger it poses to the future solvency of Social Security and Medicare is profound. And if you’re thinking about a prescription drug benefit under Medicare any time soon, well, you can just forget it.

Read the article. You’ll be glad you did.