Monday, August 4, 2008

Recalling the People

Though written constitutions may be violated in moments of passion or delusion, yet they furnish a text to which those who are watchful may again rally and recall the people. -- Thomas Jefferson, letter to Joseph Priestley, 1802. (Jefferson, who was president at the time he wrote this, was referring to the unconstitutional Alien and Sedition Acts of the Adams administraton.)

In This Week's Sift:
  • The Rule of Law Struggles to Re-assert Itself. A variety of just-below-the-radar developments in a wide range of Bush administration scandals.
  • Election notes. McCain goes hard negative. McCain 2000 vs. McCain 2008. A badly reported Obama quote touches off a media frenzy about his "arrogance". The race card. And maybe McCain really isn't against global warming after all.
  • Other short notes. The Knoxville shooting is terrorism. Al Gore is really Jor-El. Pakistan might not be on our side. The housing crisis has a ways to go. And more.
The Rule of Law Struggles to Re-assert Itself
This week saw a number of developments on the various fronts where the Bush administration has been flouting the rule of law. These days you need a good diagram to keep all the issues straight.

A number of scandals revolve around this point: Three kinds of people work for an administration
  • political operatives, who work for the president and/or his party.
  • political appointees like the cabinet and the U.S. attorneys. Awarding these jobs to political allies and people who share the president's values is entirely legal, traditional, and even appropriate. Nonetheless, once in office these officials have well-defined and long-established duties to the United States that should supersede their loyalty to the president and his party.
  • career government employees. These folks are supposed to be non-partisan. They continue in office after the administration changes and their jobs are not supposed to be political spoils.You don't want FBI agents or IRS auditors or TSA airport security people asking you who you voted for.
The essence of the Department of Justice scandals is that the administration ignored these distinctions. In the U.S. attorney scandal they tried to make political appointees act like political operatives, and fired ones who wouldn't play ball. The Siegelman case is about prosecutors who would play ball, prosecuting a Democratic governor to get him off the political stage. The Goodling scandal is about treating career positions as political appointments.

Let's start with Goodling. Last Monday the Department of Justice's inspector general issued a report about Monica Goodling's hiring practices while she was one of the top DoJ officials. Here's the conclusion:
Our investigation found that Goodling improperly subjected candidates for certain career positions to the same politically based evaluation she used on candidates for political positions, in violation of federal law and Department policy.
When interviewing candidates, Goodling asked questions like "What is it about George W. Bush that makes you want to serve him?" The problem: Career Justice employees don't serve George W. Bush. They serve the United States of America. Or at least, they do under the rule of law.

dday on Hullabaloo culls through the inspector general's report for the details. The sleaziest story was how Goodling apparently got rid of a Justice Department prosecutor because she was rumored to be a lesbian.

If we're lucky, the worst that comes out of Goodling's misdeeds is that the career employees at Justice will be skewed towards religious and political conservatives for years to come. But dday makes a more ominous speculation: If these people think of themselves as political appointees, whose real career path is in the conservative/Republican political establishment, then they will essentially be moles in any future Democratic administration.
[Y]ou are going to see all kinds of whistleblowers and martyrs coming out of the woodwork in an Obama Administration, telling lurid and probably false tales accusing them of exactly what the Bush Administration put into practice and more. And they will be held up on the right as shining examples of patriots who understand how the rule of law must be respected at all times.
Moving on to the next scandal, federal Judge John Bates (a Republican who worked with Kenneth Starr on the Whitewater investigation of Clinton, appointed a judge by President Bush) rejected the adminstration's claims that former administration officials Harriet Miers and John Bolton should be exempt from congressional subpoena to testify about the firing of the U.S. attorneys. Marty Lederman analyzes the ruling here, and provides links to the text.

Karl Rove is offering the same excuse for his refusal to testify to the House Judiciary Committee about the Siegelman case. The committee voted to recommend that he be charged with contempt of Congress, putting him on the same path that Miers and Bolton went down. The Bush Justice Department -- being a political operation and not a department of justice -- refused prosecute the charge against Miers and Bolton, and presumably won't prosecute Rove either. The congressional investigation into the Siegelman case was requested by bipartisan group of 44 former state attorneys general.

Now, administrations have claimed executive privilege before, but these cases take it to a whole new level. A proper claim would be on a question-by-question basis: If Congress asked Rove or Miers or Bolton about their conversations with the president, they might well claim that those conversations are privileged. But refusing to show up at all, before knowing exactly what the committee will ask -- well, it's stunning, and Judge Bates found it "entirely unsupported by existing case law." And if Rove and the president were not involved in the Siegelman case (as Rove claims), then it's hard to imagine how executive privilege legitmately comes into play at all.

So Miers and Bolton, and presumably Rove down the road, have a court order telling them to submit to a congressional subpoena. It used to be that in America you didn't need to wonder what would happen next -- they'd show up. But under the Bush Imperium, who knows?

Leaving the Politics Department Justice Department, you probably thought that Hurricane Katrina malfeasance stories were over by now. But no, there's still one more: FEMA has warehoused a bunch of victim supplies ever since, and has now declared them to be government surplus -- without ever asking anybody in Louisianna or Mississippi if they wanted the stuff.

And finally, Valtin on DailyKos argues that the timeline on torture goes back to December, 2001 -- more than half a year earlier than previously thought. By July, 2002, (which is currently believed to be when the torture story starts) a number of presidential findings and other legal fig leaves were in place. But if the story starts sooner, Valtin claims, the war crimes charges are harder to dodge.

Election Notes
Trash Talk Replaces Straight Talk. During the last two weeks, during and after Obama's successful foreign tour, the McCain campaign has gone full frontal negative, complete with some subtle but definite racial overtones. They threw around some false charges about Obama's cancelled visit to a military hospital in Germany, blamed Obama for rising gas prices, said Obama would rather lose a war than lose an election, and then did some negative ads they claim are humorous: Celebrity and The One, which poke at the adoration Obama gets. (Seems like sour grapes to me. McCain would think it was great if he could draw huge, enthusiastic crowds. But he can't, so it's bad.)

It amazes me how many people can't see the Obama-and-slutty-white-women theme in the visuals of the Celebrity ad. Or the racial odor to the whole he's-not-one-of-us theme or the he-doesn't-know-his-place theme in the other attacks. (David Gergen gets it. So does Bob Herbert.) (Here's a parody of Celebrity. The official catalog of McCain ads is here. )

Other comments on the low road McCain is taking: the Washington Independent, Time's Joe Klein, the Economist, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, Salon's Joe Conason, New York Magazine, and David Kiley of that well-known liberal bastion Business Week. Kiley writes:
What the McCain campaign doesn’t want people to know, according to one GOP strategist I spoke with over the weekend, is that they had an ad script ready to go if Obama had visited the wounded troops saying that Obama was...wait for it...using wounded troops as campaign props. So, no matter which way Obama turned, McCain had an Obama bashing ad ready to launch.

Not the man he used to be. The word is starting to get out that if you liked McCain in 2000, you need to take a second look because he has changed.

You can tell that a meme is catching on when a bunch of independent commenters use the same words. Thursday I was reading David Ignatius' WaPo column about how McCain should return to his "true voice" -- that of his 1999 autobiography Faith of My Fathers. WaPo lets you leave comments, so I started mine "The McCain of 1999 is long gone."

By coincidence, my comment appeared right after two others: "The John McCain you write about is long gone ..." and "McCain is no longer that man ..." Now, sometimes stuff like that happens because a bunch of dittoheads repeat the same Rush Limbaugh line. But since I am one of the people doing it this time, I know that I believed I thought of those words myself.

Here are some specifics: McCain 2000 had a conflicted opinion on abortion and expressed concern about the "illegal and dangerous operations" that women would suffer without Roe v. Wade. McCain 2008 is unequivocal: "Roe v. Wade is a flawed decision that must be overturned." McCain 2000 criticized the proposed Bush tax cut by talking about the "lucky millionaire" who would get a much bigger break from Bush's plan than McCain's. McCain 2008 wants to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, and make more cuts that will benefit the wealthy. McCain 2000 denounced religious right leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as "agents of intolerance" and decried "the evil influence that they exercise over the Republican Party." McCain 2008 gave the commencement address at Falwell's Liberty University and sought the endorsement of an even nuttier agent of intolerance, John Hagee.

Fox News is making McCain look younger by sneaking in video from his 2000 campaign.
This kind of stuff never happens to Republicans. WaPo reporter Dana Milbank blogged a second-hand, unsourced Obama quote that made him sound puffed-up: "This is the moment . . . that the world is waiting for. ... I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions." TV pundits picked this up and ran with it, echoing the Republican talking points that Obama is "arrogant" and "presumptuous".

Except ... it turns out the quote was way out of context, and the context turns it completely around. WaPo's The Trail blog eventually got around to publishing the preface to the quote: "It has become increasingly clear in my travel, the campaign -- that the crowds, the enthusiasm, 200,000 people in Berlin, is not about me at all. It's about America. I have just become a symbol."

The LA Times "On the Media" column comments: "It all would be quite funny if many people didn't seem to be inhaling this multimedia stink bomb as if it were fragrant truth."

Naturally, no apologies from anyone involved, and the narrative about Obama's uppity nature rolls on. The lesson -- which we should have learned in 2000 and 2004 -- is that gaffes aren't required. Once a narrative is in place, supporting evidence can be manufactured as needed.

Another tale of manufactured outrage begins (if you tell the story properly) here: On June 27, the McCain campaign released an attack ad that featured, among other images, Barack Obama's face on a dollar bill. Obama then said this:
what they’re going to try to do is make you scared of me. You know, he’s not patriotic enough. He’s got a funny name. You know, he doesn’t look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills, you know. He’s risky.
And the McCain campaign responded: "Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck."

But the McCain ad that started this exchange isn't mentioned by anybody in the media, so Obama's dollar-bill comment seems to come completely out of the blue. As a result a poll shows that 53% of the public buys the line that Obama is injecting race into the campaign.

Meanwhile, zenbowl on DailyKos shows some of the places where "the race card" has already been played.

Bob Cesca jumps on the Obama-isn't-one-of-us theme:

The Republicans ... set the tone of the debate. The corporate media accepts their terms, their rules and their frames as a given and the Democrats are expected to jump and dash and explain themselves based upon those givens, irrespective of how ludicrous they happen to be.

Prove to us that you're one of us. Prove to us that you support the troops. Prove to us that you're patriotic. Prove to us that you're not an effete snob. Prove to us that you can talk to a gathering of bumpkins in a diner like a plainspoken Republican can. Prove to us that you're not the enemy. Prove to us that you're not presumptuous.

McCain, meanwhile, wears $500 Italian shoes, married an heiress who has $225,000 of credit card debt she's too rich to pay attention to, and he's never had a non-government job. But for some reason he never needs to prove that he's one of us.

I've been ignoring the endless VP speculation on the blogs because it's a waste of time. But I want to get my Republican prediction on record: Mitt Romney.

A Washington Post editorial makes the connection between Republicans' vague, trumped-up charges of vote fraud and attempts to "scare new voters away from the polls".
Global warming is supposed to be the signature issue that proves McCain is different from Bush. But it seems to depend on the audience. While talking to CNN's conservative pundit Glenn Beck, McCain adviser Steve Forbes made McCain's cap-and-trade system for regulating greenhouse gases sound like window dressing: "I don’t think those things are going to get very far as people start to examine the details of them."

Short Notes: Not election
I've been wondering what to say about the shooting at the Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville. (The most complete set of links is at the UUA web site.) I'm a UU myself, and have to confess that it's unsettling to think of someone intentionally targeting members of my faith, even if it is just one lone bozo.

What I find missing from the general media coverage is the word terrorism. If this were a Sunni shooting up a Shia mosque in Baghdad, we'd all instantly recognize it as terrorism. When the Earth Liberation Front burns down a house, the New York Times calls it terrorism. But not here. White conservatives can't be terrorists, it seems.

But the next time someone tries to tell me there haven't been any terrorist attacks in America since 9-11, I'm going to mention Knoxville.

The pattern continues: Iraq casualties down, Afghanistan casualties up. In July, 13 coalition troops (all Americans) were killed in Iraq. (I almost wrote "only 13". It's easy to get into that mindset, and forget that you're talking about people's lives.) 30 killed in Afghanistan; it's harder to tell from the way the web site is laid out, but at least 20 of them were Americans.

Sometimes a piece is just funny, even if you like the guy it's making fun of. The Onion inserts Al Gore (or Gor-Al) into the Jor-El role of the Superman myth: Al Gore Places Infant Son in Rocket to Escape Dying Planet. It makes Gore look ridiculous, but the parallels really are striking.

If you've ever wondered how to get your letters to the editor published, author John K. Wilson explains how. He wrote this on the same day he got a letter published in the New York Times, so he must know what he's talking about. (I've also gotten a bunch of letters published, and agree completely with what he's saying, especially Rule 9: Make One Point.)

Remember how Pakistan was supposed to be on our side? Well, maybe not. The ISI -- Pakistan's version of the CIA -- might have been behind the bombing of the Indian embassy in Afghanistan, which killed 54 people. If so, then they're working with an ally of Al Qaeda.

In an interview in the current issue of Barron's (no link without subscription), NYU economist Nouriel Roubini predicts bad loans from the housing bubble could eventually mount to $2 trillion. Bank write-offs so far are "only" $300 billion.
We are in the second inning of a severe, protracted recession, which started in the first quarter of this year and is going to last at least 18 months, through the middle of next year. A systemic banking crisis will go on for awhile, with hundreds of banks going belly up.

Insiders in the industry know that the debate about offshore drilling is largely moot, at least in the short term. Consider this paragraph from the most recent annual report of Transocean, the world's largest offshore drilling company:
Our ultra-deepwater, deepwater and harsh-environment fleet is almost fully committed in 2008, with little availability in 2009 and 2010. We also have a large number of long-term, forward-start contracts, some of which provide fleet commitments beyond 2014. Similarly, few of our midwater rigs have availability in 2008, with a substantial portion of our midwater fleet contracted well into 2009. In addition, our jackup fleet is more than 80 percent committed in 2008. Our significant contract backlog gives us confidence that we will continue to see strong financial performance in the years ahead.
In other words, the bottleneck in the industry is a shortage of rigs, not places to drill. Releasing more land to offshore drilling would probably not increase the number of wells drilled between now and 2011.

Here's a great graphic, illustrating that the U.S. isn't as healthy as the other rich countries. Our death rate for children under 5 is about the same as Cuba's and way below Sweden's.

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