The Media and the McClellan Book.

May 29, 2008

What is it about MCClellan’s book that is causing such a stir? It has not yet been released, but this week it has been a feature story. There is very little in the snips of information that is really news. People who read Paul O’Neil’s book or followed his interviews about it, know that at the first cabinet meeting nine months before 9/11 a map of Iraq was brought out and attack strategies were discussed. Most people in the cabinet seemed to know what was going on but no one explained it to O’Neil. We know that Cheney would tell Bush to stay on point at cabinet meetings. The utter confusion and in fighting that marked the beginning of the invasion of Iraq, as well as its occupation, has been written about at great length.

There are several lists and accounts of the statements by various administration spokespeople regarding the war and their conflicting and errant explanations for it. There is little about the administration’s handling of Katrina that is unknown. McClellan’s admonishment of the press for being so malleable is now well trod ground.

Nonetheless, the media acts like this book is a bombshell. This appears to be because of McClellan’s special relationship with the media, not so much the content of what he has to say. This is the guy who told them that the war was justified, who said no one in the White House was involved with any Plame leaks or coverup, who justified the response to Katrina.The media carried this to its readers, listeners and watchers without comment when much of the free world (as well as other parts) knew these statements to be fabrications.

The media’s treatment of this book as sensational puts the media’s obdurately uncritical presentation of what McClellan said in a better light than it deserves. This sensational treatment presupposes that what was going on was not obvious, that anyone would have believed what he said. The truth is that very few people with independent sources of information accepted the administration’s disjointed explanations of events.

To me the interesting thing about this memoir is the media’s self-justifying treatment of it, even when it points to the blinders that were on the media.


Global Warming Detractors Get Reduced Funding

May 29, 2008

This came from a spokesman for Exxon Mobile:

“We discontinued contributions to several public-policy research groups whose position on climate change could divert attention from the important discussion about how the world will secure the energy required for economic growth in an environmentally responsible manner.”

Without the support of oil companies, this position will lose much of whatever traction is still has.

According to the Dow Jones Newswire Exxon Mobil in 2007 donated about $13 million to “environmental” and “public policy research.” Over the last two years there has been a marked softening of Exxon Mobile’s once adamant position that global warming was a fantasy. This corresponds with the replacement of Lee Raymond, its CEO and chairman, by Rex Tillerson two years ago.


Riddle

May 28, 2008

What do Pakistan, United States, Russia, China, India, and Israel have in common? Each of them refused to sign theinternational humanitarian accord outlawing cluster bombs. Fortunately 111 other countries joined in the accord. These six countries are manufacturers of cluster bombs. Israel used cluster bombs most recently on a massive scale in its invasion of Lebanon. The U.S. used to describe itself as an international moral beacon. Don’t hear that much any more.


America’s Climate Security Act of 2007

May 28, 2008

For years the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works was the burial ground for legislation addressing among other things coal powered electricity generation. The U.S. has about a quarter of the world’s known supply of coal and coal is the primary source of electricity in this country. (Hydroelectric power is not as prominent elsewhere as in this region.) It is commonly said that reducing the emissions of coal used to generate electricity is vital to controlling greenhouse gas emissions here. Most seem to believe that this is the cornerstone to any effective policy. In December the committee, with a Democratic majority, passed America’s Climate Security Act of 2007 and it the bill will be debated in the Seante next week.

The Republicans are split on this bill. Larry Craig and other Republicans did all he could to prevent the bill from getting out of committee. The bill though is sponsored by Joe Lieberman and John Warner. (Warner is on the committee.)

The bill would impose emission limits on electric utility, transportation and manufacturing industries and includes financial incentives for reducing emissions, as well as assistance for zero and low carbon technologies. The bill creates carbon trading, the sort of thing that is talked about by Senator McCain in speeches. Senator McCain though has not endorsed the bill. When he was in the Northwest he talked vaguely about legislation that sounded kind of like this bill. Remember that a few years ago McCain had co-sponsored a bill with Lieberman on this topic. As 2008 approached though he seemed to fade from association with this legislation. Lieberman continued the fight and on the current bill Warner’s name appears in place of McCain.

The principal opponents of the bill seem to be the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Council for Capital Formation. Their opposition is adamant but their argument is tired and unimaginative, same old refrain that has proven to be false in the past. They say that jobs will be lost and that the price of electricity will soar. This is exactly what they said in opposition to legislation to curb acid rain but prices actually fell following the legislation without imposing hardship on the work force. They do not to offer a good explanation of why they were wrong then and right now.

A number of environmental groups oppose the bill because it is not as comprehensive as it could be and its standards are not terribly limiting. In fact part of the selling of this bill to industry was that if this isn’t passed something far more stringent might be imposed. Carbon trading is not universally embraced as an effective means of controlling the emissions and many groups balk at the support the bill will give the nuclear industry.In short it is a compromise designed to get through Congress. Senator Bernie Sanders tried mightily to amend the bill to give it more scope and spine but failed. The bill’s adovates say that the bill is a meaningful beginning to a pressing problem. It’s detractors say that it frames the issues for years to come in a manner favorable to industry.

Check out the Senate debate.

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It’s Time for Democrats to Start Counting Backwards

May 14, 2008

With Edward’s endorsement, which has much more symbolic value than real effect, it is time for Democrats to start the countdown to Obama’s nomination. We are long past adding up delegates to see who is going to get it. According to the Associated Press, Obama is 139 delegates short of the nomination. Oregon and each of the remaining primaries will lower that number. The super-delegates committed to Clinton, who defy the wishes of their constituents in states such as Washingtonby not committing to Obama, should take a close look at their commitments to their party and to their constituents. Undecided delegates should not be viewed as a political prize worth courting, but the cause of a significant problem.


Washington State Economic News

May 14, 2008

The week already there have been a few startling reports about the economy. The Associated Press reported that in the construction industry there was an unprecedented decline in starts. The biggest drop ever! It also reported that the salmon industry is being designated a disaster qualifying it for federal help. The Washington Center for Real Estate Research also reported that in Pierce, King and Snohomish Counties home sales (excluding new homes) were down by about one third over last year, a little above the national average. This suggests that the local insulation from the national trend that we have enjoyed may be ending. Finally, Realty-Trac reported that in April foreclosures are up 65%. Now one in 519 homes in the country is in foreclosure. Washington, which initially was not severely affected by this phenomenon, is now in the middle of the pack among the states.

That’s not all the sobering economic news but all I could stomach mentioning. It is not clear to me how Bush’s policies influenced the number of salmon swimming around (a joke), but these trouble spots are directly linked to the mortgage crisis and generally attributed to the financial community’s exploitation of the absence of regulation, particularly in the investment banking area. Some people more informed than me say that the country’s rampant deficit spending also plays a role, but precisely how I do not understand.

The rising local concern about the economy will play an important role in the November elections.


Reagan Democrats

May 14, 2008

Reagan Democrats or swing voters are described by the New York Times as white working class people who did not attend college. These are the people described in Thomas Frank’s best seller What’s the Matter with Kansas?  His book is a discussion of how this portion of the population, traditionally left leaning was won over by the right.  He says that it had to do with Republicans successfully characterizing Democrats as intellectual elitists and selling themselves as defenders of traditional values on issues such as abortion and gay rights.  In this way the people whose economic interests are not promoted by Republicans were brought into the fold.  This shift on an entire demographic from left to right is a huge accomplishment of the Republicans.

The upcoming election, like many others, is about winning over these voters.  This is Senator Clinton’s base and in substantial part accounted for her runaway win in West Virginia.  Securing this base has always been a primary part of Clinton’s strategy.  She accomplished this but lost the left as well as other constituents.  McCain has defined his base as Bush’s base, recognizing at the same time that this is a miserably unpopular president, so he must gather voters from the center to have a strong bid for the presidency.  So both Obama and McCain will inevitably rush to the center during the campaign.

The Democrats have many things going for them this time: a highly unpopular war, economic troubles, particularly severe now but present in both Bush terms.  While working people have experienced difficulties, the wealthiest people have enjoyed an unsurpassed (literally) bonanza, separating themselves by historic margins from a declining middle class.

The likely Democratic candidate however has not been embraced by the swing voters.  This is a problem for the Democrats and the reason that the intense rivalry between Clinton and Obama is injurious to the party.  In attacking Obama Clinton was driving swing voters from him when the party needs to attract them to win.  In a sense her behind closed door arguments that he is not electable were fueled by the divisiveness of the campaign for candidacy.

McCain’s rush to the left to gain the center already seems a little desperate.  What else can explain a strategy to avoid absolutely all critical environmental votes in order to be able to campaign as an environmentalist.  Candidate’s position always are distorted in their need to capture the center, so Obama is likely to also make stretches.  He is already awakening to the vital importance of symbolism (an area in which the Clintons are extremely capable) and has begun wearing the flag on his lapel, which is now more or less a uniform item for candidates.


Resolving McCain’s Environmental Record

May 13, 2008

John McCain is campaigning on his environmental record. If you’ve heard or seen his ads, they rather boldly distance him from Bush, suggesting Bush is an unpopular extremist on the issue of global warming and that McCain is a centrist, but not an eco-freak. Many people see McCain’s position on the environment as the heart of McCain’s reputation as a maverick and it is certainly critical to getting the votes of the “Reagan Democrats” that he covets.

McCain’s ads seem to represent the prevailing view among journalists, including the Seattle P.I.’s Joel Connelly, who criticized the Sierra Club for ranking McCain as the worst congressperson on the environment and went on to extol to his leadership as an environmentalist. He seemed to attribute the Sierra Club’s evaluation of Senator McCain to some sort of undefined personal vendetta.

Mr. Connelly sites three areas in which Senator McCain has been a leader on environmental issues: a) voting against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; b) introducing legislation to cut greenhouse gas emissions; and c) co-writing a 3.5 million-acre statewide wilderness bill. These three things are illustrative of the difficulty claiming that McCain is an environmentalist.

First, Senator McCain has actually voted on both sides of the Alaska drilling issue, most recently he has been in favor of drilling. In 1995 and subsequent years he voted for drilling. The Republicans have made several attempts to get this through Congress. This year they attached it, as an amendment to a defense spending bill. This provided cover for voting for drilling. The party line was that we should not compromise our defense by voting against the measure, a false dichotomy. Senator McCain followed the party line and supported the bill as amended, saying that our defense was too important to sacrifice it for an Alaska wildlife refuge drilling ban. The Washington Post reports that environmentalists then went to two other Republican senators and found the necessary support to get the drilling authorization separated from the defense spending bill. In this way the prohibition against drilling in the refuge was maintained in spite of Senator McCain.

Senator McCain’s green house gas emission legislation is one of his chief platforms. His speech in Portland featured this legislation, so it is certainly worth discussing. He cosponsored the Climate Stewardship Act of 2003, which was defeated. It was a good faith effort to achieve bipartisan support of a global warming measure. It called for study of the phenomenon, development of a database and the regulation of emissions by the EPA. It was a highly flexible system with exemptions sold by auction. As such proposed legislation goes it is less onerous to industry than most of the other proposals, which is to be expected.

In 2005, after his proposed legislation failed, he seemed to swing leftward and called for flat-out mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

He has most recently swung to the right calling for no regulation but at the same time the institution of a system where permission to exceed prescribed levels (or environmental credits) is bartered. He obviously pushed his proposal somewhat rightward to appease his base but I am unclear about the details of his current thoughts on the subject. His website is no help here, but in his Portland speech he seemed to be somewhat hearkening back to the Climate Stewardship Act of 2003. What exactly is his “free market solution”? It sounds like something to appease both sides which isn’t necessarily bad, depending on the as yet unclear substance. The League of Conservation Voters had a similar response, commending the rhetoric but wonder what precisely he proposed.

A cornerstone of his policy is heavy subsidies to the nuclear energy industry with greatly increased reliance on this energy source. Obama seems equivocal about this but McCain as an ardent supporter of nuclear energy.

He clearly disregards all the pseudoscience about there being no global warming and accepts the judgment of science on the subject. It appears as if he is struggling for a way to address the crisis without alienating his base, which consists in substantial part of industrialists and libertarian leaning people against regulation of any sort. This, coupled with his recent nearly perfect record of voting with the administration on environmental issues, makes it almost impossible to guess what he might actually do as president. The words have always been there but he does not seem to feel that this is a paramount issue, at least to the extent that his voting record is the measure.

This Climate Stewardship Bill was introduced during the period when he seems to have gained much of his “maverick” reputation, the first term of the Bush administration. In the second term (and the last year of the first) there was no significant deviation from the dictates of the administration. After 2003 he seems to have diminished his efforts with this legislation although it was twice again introduced.

Last I will mention the statewide wilderness bill. But first I’d like to call attention to a December 2006 article by Mr. Connelly in which he said that the McCain 2000 run at the nomination presented McCain as a moderate Republican, a person with whom Connelly had a great deal of sympathy (except in the area of foreign policy where where he was referred to as a over zealous militarist). Since then Mr. Connelly acknowledges that Senator McCain has reformulated himself as a lockstep administration proponent. Mr. Connelly’s view on McCain as an environmentalist seem to be based entirely his now discarded 2000 to 2003 manifestation. If you are willing to disregard particular periods of Senator McCain’s public service you can characterize him as almost anything. I’m trying to get some sort of overview.

Back to the wilderness bill. Senator McCain admired Mo Udall and his efforts to preserve the wilderness. He worked for bills championed by Udall in 1984 and 1990. He has voted for a number of wilderness bills and other environmental matters. This is a little misleading though as many of these bills, are free passes to get a higher environmental rating. For example Washington’s Wild Sky Wilderness bill, after getting scaled down and massaged, passed the Senate unanimously. Senator McCain’s environmental credits are chronicled at the Republicans for the Environmental Protection website. On the other hand Senator McCain would eliminate any ban on new roads in wilderness areas and, among other things has many times opposed significant bills for funding for wilderness areas and national parks. His environmental failings are chronicled on sites such as the Sierra Club.

The Sierra club of course rates him the worst there is in Congress on environmental issues. This is based on his recent voting record, or lack of a voting record. He has failed to vote on myriad environmental issues since beginning his campaign. He did this of course to avoid alienating interest groups,  to give him campaigning room. While not particularly commendable, this would somewhat level the playing field with Obama, who has a rather sparse voting record because of his junior status as a senator.

The League of Conservation Voters is an established collection of environmental groups, which endorsed McCain is the 2004 Arizona senatorial election. It confirms that in 2007 McCain ducked out of every single critical envornmental vote. There apparently were 15, which is a lot of ducking.  LVC also gave him a zero for that period which should help resove some of Mr. Connelly’s questions about the Sierra Club’s rating of him but the LCV gives him a lifetime rating of 26 which means little until compared with Obama’s 86.  LVC’s lifetime rating puts McCain relatively low among Republicans on environmental issues.

McCain’s strength seems to be his forthright calls to do something about global warming.  When many Republicans would not say a thing against a president who refused to accept very clear scientific conclusions, McCain stepped up and said the evidence was irrefutable.  He however did not establish a voting record that would separate him from mainstream Republican positions defined by the administration.

My sense of this is that his environmental sentiments are sincere but they are not terribly high among his priorities.  The issues on which he has an unwavering voting record are any legislation against abortion rights and any legislation favoring expansion of the military or its adventures.  There is very little deviation in these areas.  On environmental issues more often than not industrial interests seem to prevail.


McCain’s Foreign Policy: Maverick, Erratic or Machiavellian?

May 11, 2008

I just realized that I know very little of John McCain’s voting record. It’s easy to summarize what I’ve heard: he is an independent thinker, and a maverick. With regard to foreign policy I understand that this policy area is his strength, that he supports the military but compared to administration his military enthusiasm is tempered by concern for human rights and civilian lives. I thought that it would be useful to look at his voting record and thought that I’d do this in separate installments, each addressing one topic. Today I looked at Senator McCain’s voting record on foreign policy issues and found that my understanding did not appear to be accurate.

After two terms in congress McCain was elected to the Senate in 1986. In his first term he became involved in the savings and loan scandal as one of the “Keating Five.” The Senate Ethics Committee neither censured nor exonerated him but found that he engaged in “questionable conduct” that related to corruption charges involving the investigations. After that he seemed to focus on foreign policy and campaign finance reform in public speeches.

In 1990 he and Republican Senator William Cohen had a press conference at which they proposed a significant reduction in defense spending. He proposed a $50 billion reduction by 1995 and a 2% to 4% annual reduction thereafter. He acknowledged that there was no consensus in favor of this position, either Republican or Democrat, and the Defense Secretary Cheney opposed close congressional oversight of the defense budget. This certainly qualifies as a maverick position and it is useful to note that it occured during the Senator investigation of the Keating Five, as its novelty attracted attention and the sentiment of reduced defense spending, as they said at the press conference, was held by the majority of Americans.

Seven months later President Bush announced preparation for the Gulf War and Senator McCain was asked for his comments. He applauded the president’s speech but said that he favored more patience, presumably to explore a nonmilitary solution. When asked about the projected cost of $15 billion, he said that absolutely this should be shared in substantial part by Japan and Germany. He did not explain precisely why they together should pay most of the cost, but he was quite clear that we should not bear this financial burden. This position kept him at least within explanation distance of his call for cutting the defense budget while keeping him in line with his party on the Gulf War.

During the Clinton administration he extolled all of the military action taken by the Reagan and Bush administrations — never mentioning (as far a I could tell) Regan’s Beirut pullout (which seems to have been a key historical event in the eyes of jihadists) nor the Iran Contra debacle. At the same time he became a sharp critic of Clinton’s use of the military. The criticism that he repeated in a number of speeches was that Clinton failed to articulate a clear policy regarding the use of the military; Clinton did not define precisely when military involvement was appropriate, leaving the use of the military somewhat haphazard.

This seems like a fair criticism of Clinton, but it seems quite partisan in light of his praise of Reagan’s use of the military, and it seems disingenuous in light of our country’s stark need for an honest explanation of our current situation. It seems to me that each one of these statements could be applied with a great deal more force today, but Senator McCain seems to have entirely abandoned this approach, as he abandoned reducing the defense budget.  In fact his position now is the opposite of what he advocated during Clinton’s administration.  He has no problem with an open ended war in Iraq, he does not advocate the need for a clear policy and articulation of national interest in this military action.  Precisely how does he distinguish the Mideast’s need for our military from the need in the Balkans a few years ago?
Anyway McCain in 1998 seems to have been spoiling for a run at the nomination when he made a presidential sounding speech about foreign policy. This was perhaps intended to be the sort of thing that he had been criticizing Clinton for having failed to do. In this speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

McCain posits that the core of American foreign policy is that “universal human values exist and must be reflected in the way government and people relate to one another.” He went on to say that the first principle is to solidify relationships with countries and international institutions that embody our values, such as the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Marshal Plan and NATO. While acknowledging that Bosnia engaged our values but said that it promoted our national interests only to a limited degree. He criticized our intervention there as being open-ended. He criticized the Clinton administration for not having a clear strategy on Iraq.

He picked the Iraq theme up on a floor speech in 1998. There he said that Iraq’s violations of U.N. resolutions could not be tolerated. “The time to talk may be over.” This is a little bit odd as Israel has violated more resolution than Iraq. The U.N. resolution argument seems like a justification for whatever you want to do, as it turned out to be in Iraq. In this speech McCain said that the elimination of Saddam Hussein was all that was needed to establish long term stability in the country. (I have heard him say recently that he did not ever take this position, but there it is.)

It seems to me that there has been a gap between what Senator McCain says and how he votes. (I by no means think that this is peculiar to him, but it is important to know how his voting record deviates from his talk and reputation.)

McCain spoke out prominently against torture when the topic came up in Congress a couple of years ago. This of course related to the central tenet of his 1998 foreign policy speech. In 2006, he neglected to vote against a bill to stop funding to the U.N. Human Rights Council. That same year he declined to support legislation emphasizing the country’s commitment to the Geneva Conventions. This of course made his talks against torture seem hollow.

In 2001 and 2003 he opposed tax cuts saying that they were unwarranted with increases in spending, as he talked in the 2000 primaries. He famously said in 2003 that it was immoral to cut taxes while at war.  This voting followed his defeat by Bush in the 2000 primaries and is at least by many attributed to some hostility over the campaign tactics that he complained about during the debates, particularly South Carolina. It appears to me though to be consistent with what he was saying during the primaries. Since then if has been uniformly in favor of all tax cuts and claims that our increases in defense spending over the last eight years must be significantly increased next year and in years afterwards.

In recent years he has supported every Iraq-related legislation backed by the administration. I include in this category his consistent refusal over the years of this administration to support veterans: in 2001 he voted against increasing medical care, favored legislation in 2004 to increase the tax burden on veterans, 2006 saw him again opposing increased medical benefits and funding for Department of Veteran Affairs. With respect to the troops he has opposed funding for equipment for the National Guard in 2003, for safety equipment for Iraq and last year voted against legislation assuring rest time between deployments. He has voted against all legislation recommending reduction of forces.

I cannot explain all these different positions but it seems to me that they all have one thing in common, political expedience.


Cheap Political Tricks with Voting Rights.

May 9, 2008

Conservatism is a rich and distinguished political tradition. To me it is a shame to see it sullied by people serving up ill informed opinion garnished with fear and scandalous accusation. This blocks informed discussion and sacrifices mutual respect for some ill conceived short term political end.

Take the recent Supreme Court decision Crawford v. Marion County Election Board,. This involved a 2005 Indiana law that required registered voters to present a state or federal issued piece of identification before voting. There was a legislative concern about voter fraud but no documented instances of it , at least on any scale sufficient to cause concern. This devise was intended to thwart one person voting for another registered voter, sometimes called “in-person voter fraud.”. There was no documentation showing any sort of systemic problem or even any instance of it in Indiana. Nonetheless it is a legitimate governmental concern that the votes be cast by registered voters.

It was an unusual case in that there was no evidence of fraud and the plaintiff did not present a witness who would not be able to vote. So the arguments on both sides were purely legal. The state argued that the law was within the scope of legitimate legislative function, that it was not a deterrent to voting, and that it was nothing like a poll tax. The challengers said that while the purpose sounded legitimate the law would reduce the participation in voting without a corresponding benefit to the state, citing a long line of decisions protecting voting rights from legislated obstructions.

This got a lot of attention because of the politicization of U.S. Attorneys’ offices and the scandal that followed. The U.S. Attorneys were getting a lot of pressure from the White House to prosecute claims against people involved in voting registration drives. The nationally Republican Party also favored the state identification requirement of the sort enacted in Indiana. This case, although argued after the controversy had ceased grabbing daily headlines, fed into that political tempest.

The Supreme Court’s decision was not easily arrived at. There were roughly 40 amicus briefs filed by non-parties with an interest in the outcome. The Court could not generate a single opinion but published an opinion, a concurring opinion (which agreed with the opinion but on differnt grounds) and two separate written dissents. But the Indiana law was upheld on a 6-3 vote.

It leaves me breathless to read that some people jump from this decision to condemnation of ACORN, an acronym for Association for Community Organizations for Reform Now. Campbell v. Marion County they call a voting fraud case when there was no evidence of voting fraud and then they identify ACORN as a leading voting fraud perpetrator, when it has never been associated with voting fraud. In Missouri and Washington this activist group was associated with false registration of voters and never with a fraudulent vote being made. It operates around the country registering poor people. It supplements its volunteer workers by paying people according to the number of voters they register.

It has registered roughly a million and a half people over the last few years. In Missouri it found that 4 people had falsely registered voters and notified the election board so that the fraud could be reversed before the election. In Washington it did not discover the fraud because the false registration sheets were produced by the workers just before the deadline for registration. The seven people who did this were prosecuted. In a press release the Sheriff’s Office said that this was a fraud committed on ACORN to get money for registering voters. ACORN was said to have been negligent in supervising these people and it paid a $25,000 fine. The faulty registrations did not result in a false vote as the fraud was done to get ACORN’s money, not to influence an election.

It is contemptible to try to impugn Obama by associating him with this perfectly legitimate organization and suggest that this association is somehow a criminal.