Monday, March 17, 2008

Joy in Mudville

Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president. -- Theodore Roosevelt

In this week's Sift:

A FISA Win in the House
For once the Democrats stood up to the administration's bullying.

Obama's Pastor Said What?
The flap over Rev. Jeremiah Wright's old sermons, and how it relates to the Obama's-a-Muslim smear.

The Spitzer Case
The mainstream media can cover a story 24/7 and still not ask the right question: Does this have something to do with firing all those U.S. attorneys?

Short Notes
Fallon's resignation, the final word on Saddam and al Qaida, the financial meltdown ... it was an eventful week. And let's not forget leprechaun movies.

Somehow, We Win One
Liberal bloggers -- Marcy Wheeler, Glenn Greenwald, Josh Marshall, and Jane Hamsher come to mind but there were many others -- have devoted a huge amount of time to the Congressional battle to revise FISA, and particularly whether or not the final bill would contain telecom immunity. For this reason: Not only would a telecom immunity provision prevent Americans from suing the telecom companies for violating their rights, but it would also complete the Bush administration cover-up; probably no neutral authority would ever rule on whether or not the warrantless wiretapping programs are legal. With very little help from the mainstream media, who for the most part were content to repeat administration talking points without fact-checking them, bloggers kept the issue alive. Throughout that process, I think we all expected to lose. As recently as March 7, Glenn was reporting the Democrats' capitulation to President Bush as all but a done deal.

Someday I hope to hear the inside story of how it happened, but I know this much: Friday the Democrats in the House stuck together well enough to overcome unanimous Republican opposition and pass a FISA revision that leaves out telecom immunity and includes a bipartisan commission to study the secret wiretapping programs. Nobody knows whether the Senate will agree, or whether President Bush will really go through with a veto that makes a mockery of so much of his previous rhetoric. (He'd be proving the point Ted Kennedy made in December: "If we take the president at his word, he's willing to let Americans die to protect the phone companies.") But for today at least, there is joy in Mudville. Pelosi et al didn't strike out this time. We won one.

Why is that significant? This bill represents the first time the House has stood up to the President's bullying. And I think they will start wondering why they didn't stand up a long time ago. For years, the administration has used the same tactic: Do exactly what we say or the terrorists will kill your children. If that doesn't work any more, all kinds of things might change. I'm hoping Democratic senators will envy the strong sound bites coming out of the House and will wish that they too could stop being wimps.

The House Democrats' spines may have been stiffened by several recent revelations of the administration's abuse of its spying powers: Five years ago Congress thought it killed the Total Information Awareness program, which had the government sweeping up vast quantities of information about ordinary Americans and data-mining it to look for suspicious patterns. Well, apparently the administration just did it anyway in secret. And we got a second report of a telecom company security breach going straight to the government: two whistle-blowers at two different telecom companies are telling similar stories. And apparently the FBI has been abusing its Patriot-Act powers. And President Bush's new executive order completely eviscerates the only internal watchdog in the executive branch. It all fed into one basic point: Maybe Congress should figure out what people did before giving them immunity for it. There's this new theory called "checks and balances" that we might try out for a while.

A NYT editorial has the right framing: "The president will continue to claim the country is in grave danger over this issue, but it is not. The real danger is for Mr. Bush. A good law — like the House bill — would allow Americans to finally see the breathtaking extent of his lawless behavior."

Obama's Pastor Said What?
I wasn't going to write about the campaign this week, figuring that the back-and-forth between Clinton and Obama is going to get pretty stale between now and the next primary April 22. But everyone I run into seems to want to talk about Obama's minister. So, vox populi, vox Dei I guess.

First, what is the issue? The essence of the attack is in a Wall Street Journal editorial from Friday: Speaking at Howard University in January, 2006, Rev. Jeremiah Wright made comments that the Journal characterized as "venomous and paranoid denunciations of this country." Those comments range from uncomfortable truths like "We bombed Cambodia, Iraq and Nicaragua, killing women and children" to conspiracy-theory stuff like "We started the AIDS virus." The story got going the previous day, when ABC News found another sermon -- this one from 2003, but at least it happened at Obama's church rather than hundreds of miles away -- in which Wright said "God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme." Whether that counts as an uncomfortable truth or a paranoid denunciation, I suppose, is in the eye of the beholder. I'll just say this: When conservative preachers denounce America for, say, permitting abortion or tolerating homosexuality -- it's not a big deal, is it?

Wright is the recently retired minister of Trinity United Church of Christ, where Obama is a member. Wright was also on the Obama campaign's African American Religious Leadership Committee. The title of Obama's book The Audacity of Hope comes from a Wright sermon. Obama responded to the controversy here, and Wright has resigned from his campaign.

That's the story. Now let's back up and ask the question: Why are we talking about this? Paraphrasing the Thomas Jefferson quote I gave a few weeks back, what Obama's pastor said two or five years ago "neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." Why is it an issue now?

Over the past few weeks I've been talking about media narratives and how negative campaigns work. This is a good example of a general principle: A media narrative can justify an attack that otherwise would be out of bounds. In Obama's case, the narrative is that he's "unexamined". That permits an attacker to put him under an unprecedented level of scrutiny -- for balance, don't you see.

And this scrutiny really is unprecedented. Think about it: Do you even know John McCain's denomination? (I looked it up: Episcopalian.) I recall that the Clintons are Southern Baptists, but what's the name of their minister? Do you think ABC News knows what he or she was preaching in 2003? Mitt Romney faced questions about the doctrines of his religion (which he dodged, by the way, saying "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the savior of mankind" and nothing at all about his church's more controversial teachings or the Mormon history of polygamy and racism). But no one tried to make Romney responsible for his minister's political views.

The counter-argument, of course, is that Obama made Wright an issue by talking about him and about Trinity Church. But why did he have to do that? To counter the whispering campaign that he's a crypto-Muslim. The Wright flap, when you see it in context, is Round 2 of the Obama's-a-Muslim attack.

The secret-religion smear is not a new tactic. In Britain it goes back at least to Charles II, who was supposed to be a crypto-Catholic. A generation or two ago in this country, you might have heard rumors that Nelson Rockefeller or Franklin Roosevelt was secretly a Jew -- and not just in the worships-on-Saturday or wears-a-yarmulka sense, or even in the stereotypic cheap-money-grubber sense, but in the full racist Elders-of-Zion-conspirator sense. That's what Obama's up against -- a whispering campaign that he's running as some kind of Manchurian Candidate for al Qaida. Occasionally a piece of that campaign surfaces, as it did a week ago when a Republican congressman said al Qaida "would be dancing in the streets" if Obama were elected.

A secret-religion smear is hard to counter, partly because you risk offending the group that you're being associated with. (Picture a Roosevelt saying, "No, damn it, I'm not a Jew!") All you can do, really, is call attention to your genuine religion, your genuine church, and your genuine minister. And that makes you vulnerable to the next attack. (Cartoon parody here.)

Rikyrah on Open Left provides a black perspective on the Wright controversy: "The members of Trinity are not unlike the professional African-Americans in your office. The same middle-class, upper middle-class folks that you work you really believe that THOSE folks leave the office and turn into the second coming of Angela Davis and Huey P. Newton on Sunday morning?"

Spitzer Coverage: 24/7 and Still Missing the Point
Since last Monday, when the story broke that New York Governor Eliot Spitzer was caught paying thousands of dollars an hour for prostitutes, the news networks have been doing wall-to-wall coverage. As usual, though, they've mainly covered the sensational aspects of the story, and mostly they're just using Spitzer as an excuse to have lurid conversations about sex: How does a high-class prostitution scheme work? What does Spitzer's prostitute look like, and what's her life story? What drives a man like Spitzer to take such risks? (Lust? Just a guess.) What do you get from a $5,000 hooker that you can't get from a $100 hooker? (My favorite response was from WaPo columnist Harold Myerson: "I've given serious thought to this over the past day, and I'm not sure that I've even had a sexual fantasy that, if actualized, would be worth $5,500 an hour." If only more pundits would give serious thought to the issues of the day. Well done, Harold.) Why are wives to blame when their husbands go to prostitutes? (Seriously, I saw Dr. Laura do this riff on Hannity and Colmes Wednesday night. Men from coast to coast are filing that tactic for future use: "It's all your fault, Honey. Aren't you ashamed?") And so on. See the 23/6 parody. Or better yet, what Stephen Colbert had to say.

Most of the blogs I read are interested in another set of questions entirely. First, nobody's claiming Spitzer is innocent, but how did this investigation happen, exactly? We know it was federal, so we have a Republican Justice Department nailing a Democratic state governor. Was politics a factor? Philip Carter at Intel Dump, a lawyer whose opinion I respect on many issues, thinks not. I hope he's right. It's a shame we have to ask questions like this, but the whole point of the U. S. attorney scandal was to make the Department of Justice more of a political weapon and less of a ... Department of Justice. As Kagro X on Daily Kos wrote (pre-Spitzer, in reference to the case of Alabama Governor Don Siegelman): "Nobody indicted by the Bush-Cheney DOJ can possibly help but wonder whether they're being targeted by the White House political machine."

TPM has put together a chronology of events. In a separate post, TPM's David Kurtz looks at the timing: The federal wiretaps start in January, and accumulate "more than enough to bust all four employees and numerous johns." But they wait until they have something on Spitzer, then close the investigation. Usually the target of a prostitution investigation is business itself, not the customers. Was it different here? And how did Spitzer's name leak to the media so fast? Scott Horton at Harper's says: "All of these facts are consistent with a process which is not the investigation of a crime, but rather an attempt to target and build a case against an individual."

Even if there was no political abuse, JB on Balkinization reflects on the larger trends at work: "Whether you like or fear the National Surveillance state, it is not a utopia or dystopia of the future; it is already here. It is the way we will govern and be governed in the years ahead. Spitzer's crime is his own; the techniques of surveillance, collation and analysis that caught him are ours and they will be applied to all of us." See the paragraph on Total Information Awareness in the FISA article above.

Next question: What ever happened to David Vitter, the Republican senator involved in the D. C. Madam case? Oh, that's right, he's still in the Senate, eight months after his scandal broke in July. Same crime, completely different result. If Spitzer hadn't resigned, Republicans were ready to start impeachment proceedings within 48 hours. But Louisiana's Democratic governor would appoint a successor if Vitter resigned, so Republicans are fine with him serving out his term. In fact, Vitter's Republican colleagues gave him a standing ovation after he apologized to them in a private session. After Larry Craig (who also remains in the Senate) and Mark Foley, Republicans were probably just happy Vitter wasn't gay.

A few blogs segued into another obvious question: Why exactly is prostitution illegal? My favorite answer to this question came from a guy I knew whose light-induced migraines kept him housebound. The government turned down his disability application, explaining that he could still work as a telemarketer. At that very instant, he says, he changed his mind about legalizing prostitution.

Short Notes
Admiral William Fallon resigned not long after a flattering piece on him in Esquire highlighted his differences with the administration. He was commander of CENTCOM, which oversees both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Early speculation saw his resignation as a step towards an attack on Iran, which Fallon opposed. But later speculation focused on Fallon's hope to draw down forces in Iraq below what they were before the Surge.

The Defense Department has completed its study of 600,000 captured documents from the Saddam Hussein regime, and it has found "no direct operational link" between Hussein and al Qaida. Apparently out of sheer petulance, the Pentagon will not post the report on its web site. But it's not classified, and reporters who ask for it can get copies. So you can find the report on the ABC News web site.

A gay-bashing Oklahoma state legislator got caught on tape: "I honestly think it's the biggest threat our nation has, even more than terrorism or Islam, which I think is a big threat." I wonder if she's heard that Obama is a Muslim. But at least he's not gay, as far as I know.

Wes Clark on torture: "Today, in the struggle to finish off the extremists plotting against us, it won't be torture and fear that win the day for America. Far from it. Nations that torture end up despised and defeated. No, to win we'll have to live up to the values we profess, the belief in human rights, equal justice, fair trials, and the rule of law. These ideals are potent weapons. They will give us allies, friends, information, and security—but only if we live them." Meanwhile, William Safire provides a surprisingly frank report on the history of the term waterboarding.

I thought I was going to have to write my own primer on the financial meltdown that claimed the Bear-Stearns investment bank as a casualty today. But Jared Bernstein did it for me. It's gotten to the point where even a solid Wall Street guy like Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson wishes for more regulation. Maybe the best explanation of the financial chaos is still the Bird and Fortune comedy routine I mentioned in December: "... and then it's extraordinary what happens. Somehow this package of dodgy debts stops being a package of dodgy debts and becomes a structured investment vehicle." What could possibly go wrong with that?

The administration has won its battle to keep undeserving children from getting healthcare. After failing to override two vetoes, Democrats in Congress are giving up their attempt to expand the SCHIP program -- at least until reinforcements arrive in 2009.

This Sift needs some comic video to close on. So:


Anonymous said...

Re: Rev. Wright - Every American has the right to listen to and befriend whomever they choose, even if they sometimes disagree with that person's opinions.

Philocrites said...

Although McCain is listed officially as an Episcopalian, earlier in the primaries he stated that he's a Baptist. He and his wife are apparently members of a Southern Baptist church in Arizona.

Hillary Clinton is a United Methodist, although I can't find a mention of any current congregational affiliations -- but she is also a longtime participant in a conservative Washington prayer group known as The Fellowship.

Doug Muder said...

Thanks to Philocrites for the correction.

Wikipedia lists Bill Clinton as Baptist, matching what I remember from his campaigns. I just assumed Bill and Hillary had the same religion. Bad guess -- I wonder why that never comes up as an issue.

Interestingly, I just checked Gore's Wikipedia entry, and they list him as "Baptist, formerly Southern Baptist". It makes me curious about their listing of Bill Clinton as "Baptist".

I wonder if sources conflict about McCain because he used to be Episcopalian. I wonder if anyone ever asked him why he switched.

Anyway, this is one of those rare cases where my own ignorance proves my point. You can follow politics pretty closely and not know Clinton or McCain's denomination. But we know the name of Obama's minister (or minister emeritus now, I guess) and can quote from his sermons. And he's the unexamined candidate.