The Commons is a weblog for concerned citizens of southeast Iowa and their friends around the world. It was created to encourage grassroots networking and to share information and ideas which have either been suppressed or drowned out in the mainstream media.

"But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection." (Henry V, Act V, Scene 4)

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Under the weather

Under the weather
Aug 9th 2007 | WASHINGTON, DC
From The Economist print edition

The conservative movement that for a generation has been the source of the Republican Party's strength is in the dumps

THIRTY years ago Eric Hobsbawm, the dean of Marxist historians, chose as his subject, for the Marx memorial lecture, “The forward march of labour halted?” Things turned out even worse, for his side, than he had expected, thanks in part to the rise of a very American brand of conservatism. But are we now witnessing Mr Hobsbawm's revenge: the forward march of American conservatism halted?

The right has dominated American politics since at least 1980. The Republicans' electoral successes have been striking: five out of seven presidential elections since 1980 and a dramatic seizure of the House in 1994 after 40 years of Democratic rule. Even more striking has been the right's success in making the political weather.

The Republican Party is only the most visible part of the American right. The right's hidden strength lies in its conservative base. America is almost unique in possessing a vibrant conservative movement. Every state boasts organisations fighting in favour of guns and against taxes and abortion. The Christian right can call upon megachurches and Evangelical colleges. Conservatives have also created a formidable counter-establishment of think-tanks and pressure groups.

And many Americans who are not members of the movement happily embrace the label “conservative”. They think of themselves as God-fearing patriots who dislike big government and are tough on crime and national security. In 2004 roughly a third of the voters identified themselves as conservatives; just over 20% identified themselves as “liberal” (as American left-wingers are somewhat strangely called). Conservatives have driven the policy debate on everything from crime to welfare to foreign policy.

Yet today this mighty movement is in deep trouble. Veteran activists are sunk in gloom (“I've never seen conservatives so downright fed up,” says Richard Viguerie, a conservative stalwart). And the other side is cock-a-hoop. Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, describes the shift from conservatism as “breathtaking”.

The Democrats are well positioned to retake the White House in 2008. True, the Republican front-runner, Rudy Giuliani, a “big tent” Republican who combines liberal views on abortion and gay marriage with stellar credentials as “America's mayor”, is a strong candidate. The Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, suffers from high negatives and a scandal-prone husband. But the Clinton operation looks far more professional than Mr Giuliani's—and he has plenty of scandals of his own.

Overall, the Democrats are much more confident: 40% of Republicans believe that the Democrats will win, but just 12% of Democrats believe that the Republicans will win. They are more motivated: in the second quarter the two leading Democrats raised $60m, against just $32m for the two leading Republicans. And 61% of Democratic primary voters are happy with their choice of candidates, compared with only 36% of Republicans. Generic polls show voters expressing a preference for a Democratic president by a 24-point margin, a gap unheard of since the Watergate era.

The Democrats are also likely to keep Congress. The tide that enabled the party to pick up 31 House seats and six Senate seats in 2006, along with six governorships and 321 state-legislature seats, is still swelling. The Republicans will be defending more vulnerable Senate seats than the Democrats in 2008, and they are losing the race for cash. The public favours Democratic control of Congress by a margin of 10-15 points. Off the record, Republicans use words like “catastrophe” and “Armageddon” to refer to 2008.

The issues that people care about are also tipping the Democrats' way. A Pew Research poll in March discovered growing worry about income inequality combined with growing support for the social safety net. The proportion of Americans who believe that “the government should help the needy even if it means greater debt” has risen from 41% in 1994, at the height of the Republican revolution, to 54% today. The poll also revealed a decline in support for the things that drove the Republican resurgence in the mid-1990s, such as traditional moral values.

In 2002 the electorate was equally divided between Democrats and Democratic-leaners (43%) and Republicans and Republican-leaners (43%). Today only 35% align themselves with Republicans, and 50% with Democrats. The Republicans are doing particularly badly among independents (the fastest-growing group in the electorate) and younger voters. The proportion of 18-25-year-olds who identify with the Republican Party has declined from 55% in 1991 to 35% in 2006, according to Pew. Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster, notes that the share of Republican voters aged 55 and over has increased from 28% in 1997 to 41% today, whereas the share aged 18-34 has fallen from 25% to 17%. No wonder Ken Mehlman, a former Republican Party chairman who oversaw George Bush's 2004 victory, is now advising hedge funds on how to deal with a Democratic-leaning America.

The Republicans have alienated America's fastest-growing electoral block—Hispanics—with their visceral opposition to immigration reform. Nearly 70% of Hispanics voted Democratic in House races in 2006, up from 55% in 2004. That trend is sure to have been solidified by the Republicans' recent scuppering of the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill, in a revolt sodden with xenophobia. Lyndon Johnson once noted that the Democrats' support for civil rights had cost them the South for a generation; the Republican Party's opposition to immigration reform may well have cost it the Hispanic vote for a generation.

Republicans have also whipped up a storm of opposition among middle-of-the-road voters on social issues. The religious right's opposition to abortion has always been an electoral liability: only 30% of voters favour overturning Roe v Wade. But in the past few years social conservatives tested people's patience still further over a federal marriage amendment and Terri Schiavo. Fully 72% of Republican voters opposed the Republicans' attempt to use the might of the federal government to keep the brain-dead woman alive. The voters got their revenge in the 2006 mid-term elections—“bloody Tuesday” in the words of Troy Newman, the president of Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group. Rick Santorum, once the religious right's most prominent champion in the Senate, barely scraped 41% of the vote in Pennsylvania. Ken Blackwell, social conservatism's most prominent black champion, went down to a humiliating defeat in the race for the Ohio governorship. Social conservatives lost ballot initiatives on everything from abortion to gay marriage.

Why the conservative crack-up?

The obvious cause of the right's implosion is the implosion of the Bush presidency. Mr Bush has the worst approval ratings since Jimmy Carter—29% according to Newsweek and 31% according to NBC News. Only 19% of Americans think that America is headed in the right direction under Mr Bush. An astonishing 45% of Americans, including 13% of Republicans, support impeaching Mr Bush, according to the American Research Group.

The most obvious cause of the implosion of the Bush presidency is the disaster in Iraq. The Republican Party's biggest advantage over the Democrats has long been on foreign and defence policy. You voted Democratic if you cared about schools and hospitals. But you voted Republican if you cared more about keeping America safe in a dangerous world. September 11th 2001 turbo-charged that advantage. The Republicans used the “war on terror” to roll over the Democrats in elections in 2002 and again in 2004.

But the war in Iraq has buried this vital advantage under a mound of discredited hype (“mission accomplished”) and mind-boggling incompetence. A CBS News/New York Times poll found that only 25% of people approved of Mr Bush's handling of the situation in Iraq. An ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 63% of respondents did not trust the Bush administration to report honestly about possible threats from other countries. The damage is not limited to the Bush administration: a Rasmussen poll on July 25th-26th found that Mrs Clinton outscores Mr Giuliani as the candidate voters trust most on national security.

Mr Bush has also presided over the biggest expansion in government spending since his fellow Texan, Lyndon Johnson, provoking fury on the right. His prescription-drug benefit was the largest expansion of government entitlements in 40 years. He has increased federal education spending by about 60% and added some 7,000 pages of new federal regulations. Pat Toomey, the head of the Club for Growth, says the conservative base feels “disgust with what appears to be a complete abandonment of limited government.”

Many conservative activists would like to pin the blame on Mr Bush alone—either because he pursued foolish policies (the paleo-conservative version) or because he pursued sensible policies in a cack-handed manner (the neoconservative version). William Buckley, the conservative movement's pope, says that, if Mr Bush were the leader of a parliamentary system, “it would be expected that he would retire or resign.” Bruce Bartlett, a former Reagan-administration economist, accuses him of “betraying” the conservative movement. Other conservatives would like to pin the blame on the Republican Party. “We have to recognise that this was a defeat for Republicans, not for conservatives,” Newt Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House, argued after the 2006 mid-term elections.

In fact, the Republican Party in Congress is just as responsible as Mr Bush for most of the recent troubles. The Republican majority routinely appropriated more spending than the president asked for. It also larded spending bills with as much extra pork as possible. The number of congressional “earmarks” for projects in members' districts increased from 1,300 in 1994, when the Republicans took over Congress, to 14,000 in 2005.

The Republican majority also cheered Mr Bush all the way to Baghdad. Add to this the corruption of congressmen like Tom DeLay, a conservative hero, and the semi-corrupt institutional relationship that the Republicans formed with lobbyists, and you see that Mr Bush was only part of a much bigger problem.

Nor can conservatives claim that Mr Bush is a country-club Republican like his father. He has devoted his energies to giving “the movement” what it wants: the invasion of Iraq for the neoconservatives (who had championed it long before September 11th); tax cuts for business and the small-government conservatives; restricting federal funding for stem-cell research for the social conservatives; and conservative judges to please every faction.

This desire to pander to the conservative movement is partly to blame for the administration's practical incompetence. Mr Bush outdid previous Republican presidents in recruiting his personnel from the conservative counter-establishment. But this often meant choosing people for their ideological purity rather than their competence or intelligence. Some 150 Bush administration officials were graduates of Pat Robertson's Regent University, including Monica Goodling, who put on such a lamentable performance before a House inquiry into the firing of nine US attorneys. A more pragmatic president would surely have sacked many of the neoconservative ideologues who have made a hash of American foreign policy

The Republicans' problems are creating a civil war on the right about how to dig themselves out of their hole. This is producing some spectacular intellectual fireworks—fireworks that prove there is still a lot of intellectual life in the right. But such internal strife tends to put off the voters. And this civil war has the added problem that, from the point of view of broadening the Republican coalition, the wrong side has won too many important battles, not least on immigration.

One fight is over the size and scope of government. Small-government conservatives accuse Mr Bush of betraying conservatism's core principle: that government is the problem rather than the solution. Big-government conservatives retort that there is only a limited constituency for small government. The general public strongly opposes cutting entitlements. “Anti-government conservatism turns out to be a strange kind of idealism,” argues Michael Gerson, Mr Bush's former speechwriter, “an idealism that strangles mercy.”

A second fight is over social conservatism. Libertarians argue that the Republican Party is too much in the pocket of ageing social conservatives such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family, activists who do not represent the views of common-or-garden Evangelicals let alone middle-of-the-road Americans. Social conservatives retort that they are the people who deliver the votes: if the Republican Party relies only on business conservatives and libertarians, it will be reduced to a rump.

A third fight concerns Mr Bush's foreign policy, particularly his stubborn defence of the Iraq war. Some conservatives predicted that the “war on terror” might take the place of the “war on communism”, both as a glue holding conservatism together and a guarantee of long-term Republican advantage over the Democrats. That happened for a while. But the sustained unrest in Iraq has opened deep divisions on the right—not least between Mr Bush (who rides off into the sunset in January 2009) and politicians who would like to hang around for a bit longer. Senate Republicans are on the verge of a full-scale revolt against the White House.

Dead right?

It is always tempting to read too much into this or that crisis. David Frum predicted doom for his fellow travellers in “Dead Right” just as Mr Gingrich was about to seize control of Congress. Emmett Tyrell described a conservative crack-up only to see the movement come back together.

The Democrats' good fortune is much more the result of a Republican collapse than a Democratic revival. The March Pew poll shows that the proportion of people who express a positive view of the Democratic Party has actually declined by six points since January 2001. It's just that the proportion of people who express a positive view of the Republican Party has declined by 15 points. The Democratic-controlled Congress is even more unpopular than the Bush White House, with the lowest approval rating in 35 years.
Illustration by Kevin Kallaugher
Illustration by Kevin Kallaugher

Americans remain sceptical about the Democrats' favourite tool for improving the world—government action. A Democracy Corps poll found that Americans believe by a majority of 57% to 29% that government makes it harder for people to get ahead in life. The same poll found that 83% of people believe that, if the government had more money, it would probably waste it, the highest level of anti-government sentiment in a decade. America is not entering into a new era of liberal activism.

The Democrats have ceded a lot of ground to the conservatives. The party has sidelined liberal groups who oppose the death penalty or want to restrict gun-ownership. The big three Democratic presidential candidates compete with each other to prove how religious they are: Mrs Clinton repeatedly claims that she is a “praying person” who once considered becoming a Methodist minister. The Party put forward anti-abortion candidates in both Colorado and Pennsylvania.

And the conservative movement is at its most deadly as an insurgency. The movement was born during the 1964 Goldwater campaign as a revolt against the liberal establishment. It enjoyed its glory days when it was battling Hillarycare and trying to impeach Bill Clinton. A Clinton presidential nomination would undoubtedly reunite and re-energise the movement. Deeply rooted in gun clubs, anti-tax groups, right-to-life groups and Evangelical churches, American conservatives will never be reduced to the feeble status of their British cousins.

But even when you enter all the qualifications the right's situation is dire. It is a sign of weakness that the conservatives are retreating to their old posture as insurgents, and need a bogeywoman like Mrs Clinton to hold them together.

The Republicans have failed the most important test of any political movement—wielding power successfully. They have botched a war. They have splurged on spending. And they have alienated a huge section of the population. It is now the Democrats' game to win or lose.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Juan Cole - A surge of phony spin on Iraq

A surge of phony spin on Iraq
Bush's backers are peddling a sunny view of the president's strategy -- despite Iraq's political chaos and soaring death counts.

By Juan Cole

Aug. 07, 2007 | As Congress prepared to go on its August recess, Pentagon officials and White House backers were desperately spinning as a success this year's escalation of U.S. troop levels in Iraq. A recent poll shows that there has been a 10 percent uptick in the proportion of Americans who think the so-called surge, first announced by President George W. Bush in January, is having a beneficial effect. But how accurate are the sunny pronouncements coming out of Washington? What would constitute a success for the surge, and how likely is it to be achieved?

The troop escalation was intended to calm down Baghdad and to give the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki breathing room to pursue a political reconciliation, especially with the Sunni Arab population. But the political goals of the surge are simply not being accomplished -- and indeed, the political situation has deteriorated substantially.

Maliki has lost even the few Sunni Arab allies he began with; the Sunni Arab coalition, called the Iraqi Accord Front, that had actually been in his government has now had its cabinet ministers tender their resignations. He has not held further reconciliation talks with dissident Sunni Arab groups. The Sunni Arab guerrilla groups are thinking of forming an opposition political party in hopes of extending their efforts to topple his government into the political sphere. His relations with Sunni Arab neighbors are so bad that Saudi Arabia declined his request to visit Riyadh.

Developments on other fronts are equally grim. The Maliki government has lost the confidence of three other political parties, the Islamic Virtue Party (15 seats in parliament), the Sadr Movement of Muqtada al-Sadr (30 seats), and just on Monday, the Iraqi National List led by former appointed Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. All have pulled their ministers from his government. The government of the major province of Basra, source of Iraq's petroleum exports and its major port, has collapsed. The governor, from the Islamic Virtue Party, failed a vote of no confidence by the provincial council, spearheaded by a rival Shiite faction, but he refuses to resign even though Maliki backed his removal. And if Basra collapses socially and with regard to security, it is unlikely that the Baghdad government can survive.

Administration supporters have been upbeat about the way in which some Sunni Arab populations, especially in al-Anbar Province, have turned against the foreign jihadi volunteers that were behind much mindless violence. These jihadis, styled "al-Qaida" by the Bush administration, however, were never the core of the insurgency. Politically speaking, the Sunni Arab Iraqi opposition to the foreign volunteers does not imply that the Sunnis are reconciled to the Maliki government. On the contrary, the Arab press reports substantial support in al-Anbar for the withdrawal by the Iraqi Accord Front from the Maliki government, on the grounds that the prime minister heads a narrow Shiite sectarian regime that holds thousands of innocent Sunnis in prison and has been implicated in Shiite ethnic cleansing of Sunnis.

And what of the supposed "good news" on the military side of the equation? Before July ended, a spate of wire service and newspaper reports began appearing, saying that only 74 U.S. troops had been killed by Iraqi guerrillas that month, the lowest total since November and a sign that the surge was working. But the reporters and editors who gave U.S. headlines such as "U.S. Death Toll in Iraq in July Expected to Be Lowest in '07" (New York Times) were being assiduously spun. Bush officials were undoubtedly pushing the information that produced these headlines in an attempt to give Republicans in Congress some good news to take back to their constituents during the August recess.

In late July, CNN interviewed Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, war propagandist-in-chief in Baghdad, about the casualty numbers, reporting,

Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, commanding general of the Multi-National Corps-Iraq, called the development in recent weeks "an initial positive sign." "This is what we thought would happen once we get control of the real key areas that are controlled by these terrorists," Odierno said at a press conference. At the same time, he said, "I need a bit more time to make an assessment of whether it's a true trend or not."

Odierno's performance was unconvincing to anyone who knew the score. He was speaking on July 24, well before the month had ended. By the time all the casualties were counted and reported (not until early August), was giving the July toll as 80, only one less than in March, during the opening stages of the surge.

Worse, comparisons to previous months in the spring don't take into account the searing summer environment. Baghdad in July is one of those torrid colonial locales of which Noel Coward was speaking in his 1923 song when he wrote that only "mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun." The dip in casualties is always substantial in July, since guerrillas usually prefer not to operate with heavy explosives when it is 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade.

And as a tally noted on Foreign Policy magazine's blog, the number of U.S. troop deaths in July, compared with previous years of the war, is anything but a turn for the better:

July 2003: 48
July 2004: 54
July 2005: 54
July 2006: 43
July 2007: 80

Meanwhile, the statistics for the hapless Iraqis themselves are no less discouraging. According to, the Iraqi civilian and military death toll from political violence in July 2007 was 1,690, a 25 percent increase from the July 2006 number, 1,280. (There was also a 25 percent increase in Iraqi casualties in July 2007 over June 2007, meaning the trend was going in the wrong direction any way you look at it.) These statistics -- bad enough as they are -- are typically understated by a substantial margin because passive tallying by media outlets misses many deaths.

On CNN's "This Week at War" for July 28, Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution said of Iraq, "I think we have reduced the amount of violence overall, but not to the point where the psychology has fundamentally changed, and Iraqi political leaders are not helping much yet in this process."

But by what measure, exactly, have "we reduced" the "amount of violence"? The continual reports of bombings and casualties in Iraq can have a numbing effect, but consider this: Iraq's population is one-eleventh the size of America's. If people were being killed on a similar scale here, we would have seen more than 18,000 deaths in July alone from bombings and political assassinations. (And this number would not even count ordinary criminal homicides, which are common in Iraq.)

Surely if the troop escalation has been working, then the number of guerrilla attacks must be declining, right? But as recently as June, according to a report by Reuters, daily attacks by guerrillas that month hit an astounding all-time high of 177.8 per day on average. That is, not since May 1, 2003, have there been as many attacks per day as in June 2007, with a total of 5,334. May's total number of attacks was similar, and year to year, the number of attacks in June was 46 percent greater than in June 2006. About 18 percent of the operations in June targeted civilians, and a slightly higher percentage were aimed at Iraqi security forces. The remainder, more than 60 percent, were aimed at U.S. troops (guerrillas launched 3,671 attacks on U.S. troops in June alone, up 7 percent from May).

Guerrillas pulled off numerous horrific bombings throughout July, many of them in central Baghdad under the noses of the U.S. military commanders. On a single day in late July, wire services reported nearly 150 deaths from political violence throughout the country, including three bombings in downtown Baghdad. Recent weeks have seen worrisome political assassinations continue, roiling civil society. Two senior aides to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani were cut down in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, raising fears that the spiritual leader (who is one of the few forces for peace in the country) might himself be assassinated, sparking a blood bath. On July 10, guerrillas stormed the home of Abdul Hamid Saleh, mayor of the major Sunni city of Samarra north of the capital, and dispatched him. The head of Mosul's election commission was shot to death. On July 26, gunmen in downtown Baghdad rubbed out the general director of the Housing and Construction Ministry. On the 27th, the head of the Lawyers Guild in Basra was assassinated. Sectarian death squads execute an average of 20 residents of Baghdad every day, leaving their corpses in the streets for police to find. The majority of the victims are Sunni Arabs.

Some proponents of the surge may have rightly argued that an effort to take on the guerrillas and militias will produce higher casualties in the short term -- but some of them are also saying the strategy has already begun working and is producing lower casualties and more security for Iraqis, which is a blatant falsehood.

What has surged is not calm or political compromise, but rather the number of guerrilla attacks, the number of U.S. troop deaths compared to the same months in previous years, and the number of Iraqi casualties. That some of the U.S. media and the U.S. public have allowed themselves to be manipulated into thinking the "numbers" from Iraq are a cause for optimism echoes the sloppy and wishful thinking that got U.S. into this mess in the first place.

Iraqi access to electricity and even food and water has fallen, 2 million have been displaced internally and another million abroad since April of 2003. That is not encouraging, to say the least. The "national unity government" of Prime Minister al-Maliki is on the brink of total collapse, as the bad news piles up.

Indeed, the power of positive thinking is an old American value. But sometimes it causes people to fall for pyramid schemes, or even worse.

New York Times Epitath of FISA

New York Times Epitath of FISA

The Fear of Fear Itself

It was appalling to watch over the last few days as Congress — now led by Democrats — caved in to yet another unnecessary and dangerous expansion of President Bush’s powers, this time to spy on Americans in violation of basic constitutional rights. Many of the 16 Democrats in the Senate and 41 in the House who voted for the bill said that they had acted in the name of national security, but the only security at play was their job security.

There was plenty of bad behavior. Republicans marched in mindless lockstep with the president. There was double-dealing by the White House. The director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, crossed the line from being a steward of this nation’s security to acting as a White House political operative.

But mostly, the spectacle left us wondering what the Democrats — especially their feckless Senate leaders — plan to do with their majority in Congress if they are too scared of Republican campaign ads to use it to protect the Constitution and restrain an out-of-control president.

The votes in the House and Senate were supposed to fix a genuine glitch in the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires the government to obtain a warrant before eavesdropping on electronic communications that involve someone in the United States. The court charged with enforcing that law said the government must also seek a warrant if the people are outside the country, but their communications are routed through data exchanges here — a technological problem that did not exist in 1978.

Instead of just fixing that glitch, the White House and its allies on Capitol Hill railroaded Congress into voting a vast expansion of the president’s powers. They gave the director of national intelligence and the attorney general authority to intercept — without warrant, court supervision or accountability — any telephone call or e-mail message that moves in, out of or through the United States as long as there is a “reasonable belief” that one party is not in the United States. The new law all but eviscerates the 1978 law. The only small saving grace is that the new statute expires in six months.

The House handled this mess somewhat better than the Senate, moving to the floor a far more sensible bill. Mr. McConnell certified that the House bill would address the problem raised by the court. That is, until the White House made clear that it wanted to use the court’s ruling to grab a lot more power. Mr. McConnell then reversed his position and demanded that Congress pass the far more expansive bill.

In the Senate, the team of Harry Reid, the majority leader, gave up fast, agreeing to a deal that doomed any good bill. The senators then hurriedly approved the White House bill, dumped it on the House and skulked off on vacation. Representative Rahm Emanuel, the fourth-ranking member of the Democratic House leadership, said yesterday that his party would not wait for the new eavesdropping authority to expire, and would have a new, measured bill on the floor by October. We look forward to reading it.

But the problem with Congress last week was that Democrats were afraid to explain to Americans why the White House bill was so bad and so unnecessary — despite what the White House was claiming. There are good answers, if Democrats are willing to address voters as adults. To start, they should explain that — even if it were a good idea, and it’s not — the government does not have the capability to sort through billions of bits of electronic communication. And the larger question: why, six years after 9/11, is this sort of fishing expedition the supposed first line of defense in the war on terrorism?

While serving little purpose, the new law has real dangers. It would allow the government to intercept, without a warrant, every communication into or out of any country, including the United States. Instead of explaining all this to American voters — the minimal benefits and the enormous risks — the Democrats have allowed Mr. Bush and his fear-mongering to dominate all discussions on terrorism and national security.

Mr. Bush claims that he has kept America safe since 9/11. But that claim ignores the country’s very real and present vulnerabilities. Six years after the 9/11 attacks the administration has still failed to secure American ports, railroads and airports from terrorist attack, and has put the profits of the chemical and nuclear-power industries ahead of safeguarding their plants.

Mr. Bush also worries Democratic strategists by talking about “staying on the offensive” against terrorism, but it was his decision to invade Iraq that diverted resources from the real offensive, the one against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mr. Bush’s incessant fear-mongering — and the Democrats’ refusal to challenge him — has had one notable success. The only issue on which Americans say that they trust Republicans more than Democrats is terrorism. At least those Americans are afraid of terrorists. The Democrats who voted for this bill, and others like it over the last few years, show only fear of Republicans.

The Democratic majority has made strides on other issues like children’s health insurance against White House opposition. As important as these measures are, they do not excuse the Democrats from remedying the damage Mr. Bush has done to civil liberties and the Bill of Rights. That is their most important duty.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Paul Krugman - The Substance Thing

The Substance Thing


Two presidential elections ago, the conventional wisdom said that George W. Bush was a likable, honest fellow. But those of us who actually analyzed what he was saying about policy came to a different conclusion — namely, that he was irresponsible and deeply dishonest. His numbers didn’t add up, and in his speeches he simply lied about the content of his own proposals.

In the fifth year of the disastrous war Mr. Bush started on false pretenses, it’s clear who was right. What a candidate says about policy, not the supposedly revealing personal anecdotes political reporters love to dwell on, is the best way to judge his or her character.

So what are the current presidential candidates saying about policy, and what does it tell us about them?

Well, none of the leading Republican candidates have said anything substantive about policy. Go through their speeches and campaign materials and you’ll see a lot of posturing, especially about how tough they are on terrorists — but nothing at all about what they actually plan to do.

In fact, I suspect that the real reason most of the Republicans are ducking a YouTube debate is that they’re afraid they would be asked questions about policy, rather than being invited to compare themselves to Ronald Reagan.

But didn’t Rudy Giuliani just announce a health care plan? No, he vaguely described a tax cut proposal that he says would do something good for health care. (Most experts disagree.) But he offered no specifics about how the plan would work, how much it would cost or how he would pay for it.

As Ezra Klein of The American Prospect has pointed out, in the speech announcing his “plan” — and since no policy document has been released, the speech is all we have to go on — Mr. Giuliani never uttered the word “uninsured.” He did, however, repeatedly denounce “socialized medicine” or some variant thereof.

The entire G.O.P. field, then, fails the substance test.

There is, by contrast, a lot of substance on the Democratic side, with John Edwards forcing the pace. Most notably, in February, Mr. Edwards transformed the whole health care debate with a plan that offers a politically and fiscally plausible path to universal health insurance.

Whatever the fate of the Edwards candidacy, Mr. Edwards will deserve a lot of the credit if and when we do get universal care in this country.

Mr. Edwards has also offered a detailed, sensible plan for tax reform, and some serious antipoverty initiatives.

Four months after the Edwards health care plan was announced, Barack Obama followed with a broadly similar but somewhat less comprehensive plan. Like Mr. Edwards, Mr. Obama has also announced a serious plan to fight poverty.

Hillary Clinton, however, has been evasive. She conveys the impression that there’s not much difference between her policy positions and those of the other candidates — but she’s offered few specifics. In particular, unlike Mr. Edwards or Mr. Obama, she hasn’t announced a specific universal care plan, or explicitly committed herself to paying for health reform by letting some of the Bush tax cuts expire.

For those who believe that the time for universal care has come, this lack of specifics is disturbing. In fact, what Mrs. Clinton said about health care in February’s Democratic debate suggested a notable lack of urgency: “Well, I want to have universal health care coverage by the end of my second term.”

On Saturday, at the YearlyKos Convention in Chicago, she sounded more forceful: “Universal health care will be my highest domestic priority as president.” But does this represent a real change in position? It’s hard to know, since she has said nothing about how she would cover the uninsured.

And even if you believe Mrs. Clinton’s contention that her positions could never be influenced by lobbyists’ money — a remark that drew boos and hisses from the Chicago crowd — there’s reason to worry about the big contributions she receives from the insurance and drug industries. Are they simply betting on the front-runner, or are they also backing the Democratic candidate least likely to hurt their profits?

All of the leading Democratic candidates are articulate and impressive. It’s easy to imagine any of them as president. But after what happened in 2000, it worries me that Mrs. Clinton is showing an almost Republican aversion to talking about substance.

Bush Signs Law to Widen Legal Reach for Wiretapping

Bush Signs Law to Widen Legal Reach for Wiretapping

WASHINGTON, Aug. 5 — President Bush signed into law on Sunday legislation that broadly expanded the government’s authority to eavesdrop on the international telephone calls and e-mail messages of American citizens without warrants.

Congressional aides and others familiar with the details of the law said that its impact went far beyond the small fixes that administration officials had said were needed to gather information about foreign terrorists. They said seemingly subtle changes in legislative language would sharply alter the legal limits on the government’s ability to monitor millions of phone calls and e-mail messages going in and out of the United States.

They also said that the new law for the first time provided a legal framework for much of the surveillance without warrants that was being conducted in secret by the National Security Agency and outside the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the 1978 law that is supposed to regulate the way the government can listen to the private communications of American citizens.

“This more or less legalizes the N.S.A. program,” said Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies in Washington, who has studied the new legislation.

Previously, the government needed search warrants approved by a special intelligence court to eavesdrop on telephone conversations, e-mail messages and other electronic communications between individuals inside the United States and people overseas, if the government conducted the surveillance inside the United States.

Today, most international telephone conversations to and from the United States are conducted over fiber-optic cables, and the most efficient way for the government to eavesdrop on them is to latch on to giant telecommunications switches located in the United States.

By changing the legal definition of what is considered “electronic surveillance,” the new law allows the government to eavesdrop on those conversations without warrants — latching on to those giant switches — as long as the target of the government’s surveillance is “reasonably believed” to be overseas.

For example, if a person in Indianapolis calls someone in London, the National Security Agency can eavesdrop on that conversation without a warrant, as long as the N.S.A.’s target is the person in London.

Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman, said Sunday in an interview that the new law went beyond fixing the foreign-to-foreign problem, potentially allowing the government to listen to Americans calling overseas.

But he stressed that the objective of the new law is to give the government greater flexibility in focusing on foreign suspects overseas, not to go after Americans.

“It’s foreign, that’s the point,” Mr. Fratto said. “What you want to make sure is that you are getting the foreign target.”

The legislation to change the surveillance act was rushed through both the House and Senate in the last days before the August recess began.

The White House’s push for the change was driven in part by a still-classified ruling earlier this year by the special intelligence court, which said the government needed to seek court-approved warrants to monitor those international calls going through American switches.

The new law, which is intended as a stopgap and expires in six months, also represents a power shift in terms of the oversight and regulation of government surveillance.

The new law gives the attorney general and the director of national intelligence the power to approve the international surveillance, rather than the special intelligence court. The court’s only role will be to review and approve the procedures used by the government in the surveillance after it has been conducted. It will not scrutinize the cases of the individuals being monitored.

The law also gave the administration greater power to force telecommunications companies to cooperate with such spying operations. The companies can now be compelled to cooperate by orders from the attorney general and the director of national intelligence.

Democratic Congressional aides said Sunday that some telecommunications company officials had told Congressional leaders that they were unhappy with that provision in the bill and might challenge the new law in court. The aides said the telecommunications companies had told lawmakers that they would rather have a court-approved warrant ordering them to comply.

In fact, pressure from the telecommunications companies on the Bush administration has apparently played a major hidden role in the political battle over the surveillance issue over the past few months.

In January, the administration placed the N.S.A.’s warrantless wiretapping program under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and subjected it for the first time to the scrutiny of the FISA court.

Democratic Congressional aides said Sunday that they believed that pressure from major telecommunications companies on the White House was a major factor in persuading the Bush administration to do that. Those companies were facing major lawsuits for having secretly cooperated with the warrantless wiretapping program, and now wanted greater legal protections before cooperating further.

But the change suddenly swamped the court with an enormous volume of search warrant applications, leading, in turn, to the administration’s decision to seek the new legislation.

Warrantless Surrender

Warrantless Surrender
Congress is stampeded into another compromise of Americans' rights.

Monday, August 6, 2007; A16

THE DEMOCRATIC-led Congress, more concerned with protecting its political backside than with safeguarding the privacy of American citizens, left town early yesterday after caving in to administration demands that it allow warrantless surveillance of the phone calls and e-mails of American citizens, with scant judicial supervision and no reporting to Congress about how many communications are being intercepted. To call this legislation ill-considered is to give it too much credit: It was scarcely considered at all. Instead, it was strong-armed through both chambers by an administration that seized the opportunity to write its warrantless wiretapping program into law -- or, more precisely, to write it out from under any real legal restrictions.

Administration officials, backed up by their Republican enablers in Congress, argued that they were being dangerously hamstrung in their ability to collect foreign-to-foreign communications by suspected terrorists that happen to transit through the United States. The problem is that while no serious person objects to intercepting foreign-to-foreign communications, what the administration sought -- and what it managed to obtain -- allows much more than foreign-to-foreign contacts. The government will now be free to intercept any communications believed to be from outside the United States (including from Americans overseas) that involve "foreign intelligence" -- not just terrorism. It will be able to monitor phone calls and e-mails of U.S. citizens or residents without warrants -- unless the subject is the "primary target" of the surveillance. Instead of having the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court ensure that surveillance is being done properly, with monitoring of Americans minimized, that job would be up to the attorney general and the director of national intelligence. The court's role is reduced to that of rubber stamp.

This is as reckless as it was unnecessary. Democrats had presented a compromise plan that would have permitted surveillance to proceed, but with court review and an audit by the Justice Department's inspector general, to be provided to Congress, about how many Americans had been surveilled. Democrats could have stuck to their guns and insisted on their version. Instead, nervous about being blamed for any terrorist attack and eager to get out of town, they accepted the unacceptable. Most Democrats opposed the measure, but enough (16 in the Senate, 41 in the House) went with Republicans to allow it to pass, and the leadership enabled that result.

There is one small saving grace here: These sweeping new powers expire after six months. Of course, having dropped the audit requirement, lawmakers won't have a good way of knowing how many Americans had their communications intercepted. The administration will no doubt again play the national security card. Democratic leaders say they want to move quickly to fix the damage. If only we could be more confident that they won't get rolled again.