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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

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.

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