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December 26, 2005
Guest: Steve Benen

THANKS A LOTT....When incumbent senators are gearing up for re-election, they usually spend the year before the race building up a campaign war chest. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) is up in 2006, but he raised an underwhelming $26,690 in the third quarter of 2005, a tiny fraction compared to the totals of his similarly situated colleagues. It seemed to be a strong hint about the embattled senator's future plans.

Or was it? Not long after Lott's anemic fundraising prompted a series of rumors about his retirement, Lott told reporters that he may not only return to the Senate, but he's also likely try to replace Bill Frist as Senate Majority Leader (unless the Dems regain the majority, of course).

According to Bob Novak, the mystery surrounding Lott's future is causing all manner of GOP consternation.

Trent Lott within the next week plans to decide between seeking a fourth term in the U.S. Senate from Mississippi or retiring from public life. That could determine whether Republicans keep control of the Senate in next year's elections. For the longer range, Lott's retirement and replacement could signal that Southern political realignment has peaked and now is receding. [...]

Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman pleaded with Lott last week to run again. The senator was as blunt with this emissary from President Bush as he was with me. "Where is our vision and our agenda?" he asked. The malaise afflicting the Bush administration not only threatens a Senate seat in Mississippi but impacts Lott's decision whether to retire.

There are a number of angles to this, each of which offer a compelling narrative for 2006.

Continue reading...

Steve Benen 3:10 PM Permalink | TrackBack (0) | Comments (18)

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Guest: Steve Benen

SANTORUM'S MARRIAGE INITIATIVE....When the Senate barely struck a deal on spending cuts last week, most of the attention emphasized the detrimental effect the cuts would have low-income families, specifically those who rely on Medicare, child-care programs, child-support enforcement funding, student loans, and foster care programs. As it turns out, though, not all of the provisions in the bill cut spending; some programs got a boost.

For example, Sen. Rick Santorum's (R-Pa.) "healthy marriages" proposal was awarded $100 million for federally-funded programs that will allegedly help families stay together.

The new marriage initiative Mr. Santorum pushed will parcel out $100 million a year for five years to promote marriage through counseling and educational programs in communities with high rates of out-of-wedlock birth. About $50 million would be set aside for each year over five years for the initiatives encouraging fatherhood.

Now, as my wife can attest, I happen to love the institution of marriage. However, I'm less fond of Santorum's idea.

First, I vaguely remember the time -- I believe it was called the "1980s and '90s" -- when Republicans railed against the idea of social engineering. In 1993, Henry Hyde wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post (which is no longer online) in which he lambasted the Clinton White House for its alleged belief that government could use its power to interfere with family structures. Hyde called the very idea "exotic social engineering."

Republicans don't seem to believe that anymore. The right may not want to admit it, but the GOP over the last five years has embraced social engineering as much, if not more, than anyone since the Great Society. The marriage initiative, faith-based initiative, fatherhood initiative, abstinence-only programs ... social engineering is predicated on the idea that the power of the state can alter how people can and will behave. It used to be anathema for anyone who valued "limited" government. The Bush presidency didn't herald the end of the government's drive towards social engineering; it marked the end of worrying about it.

Second, some far-right supporters of Santorum's marriage initiative praised the new funding because, in part, "children who come from single-parent homes experience more poverty." This won't do; conservatives can't praise budget cuts for low-income health care and child-care programs, and then express concern about reducing poverty through government spending.

And third, there's the matter of where the federal funds will actually go.

Continue reading...

Steve Benen 1:10 PM Permalink | TrackBack (0) | Comments (32)

Guest: Steve Benen

FALL FROM GRACE....All has not been well lately for military chaplains. There was the fiasco surrounding Capt. James Yee; the Navy's punishment for dozens of military chaplains for offenses ranging from sexual abuse to fraud; and the Air Force Academy was rocked by a controversy regarding chaplains proselytizing and harassing religious minorities with official support.

But James Klingenschmitt's fight is altogether different.

There will be no Christmas ham today for chaplain Gordon James Klingenschmitt. The Navy lieutenant has been on a hunger strike since Dec. 20 and says that nothing but water will pass his lips until President Bush "gives me back my uniform and lets me pray in Jesus's name."

Klingenschmitt, 37, held prayer vigils in front of the White House at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. each day last week, attracting small crowds even though the Navy forbade him from wearing his uniform. He has gained a larger following on Christian talk radio programs and in Congress: More than 70 lawmakers signed a letter to the president calling for an executive order to guarantee the right of military chaplains to pray publicly as they wish.

Klingenschmitt's three-year Navy contract expires Saturday, and his commanding officer has recommended against renewal. The chaplain says his troubles stem from his insistence on praying specifically to Jesus rather than to "God," "the Father" or "the Almighty."

The religious right and the Washington Times have tried to make Klingenschmitt something of a cause celebre, and now the mainstream press is picking up on the story.

This isn't complicated. The Navy has public ceremonies -- where attendance is mandatory for sailors and officers -- in which chaplains are asked to use inclusive language that reflects the diversity of the armed forces. Klingenschmitt doesn't care for that approach and wants to use his post to promote Christianity. His superiors said no, so Klingenschmitt started a hunger strike and wants the White House to support him.

What's more, 70 members of Congress, nearly all of whom are Republicans, are using Klingenschmitt's fight to argue that Christian chaplains should be able to proselytize on the job. In other words, we'd have official government ministers, whose salary is paid with tax dollars, preaching Christianity to American troops. Suggesting that, at a minimum, official military prayers should be "non-sectarian" is, in the minds of these congressional critics, "censorship of Christian beliefs." (One wonders if they'd feel the same if a Muslim military chaplain wanted faith-specific religious expressions at mandatory Navy ceremonies.)

What a mess. No wonder James Madison thought military chaplains were a bad idea.

Steve Benen 11:37 AM Permalink | TrackBack (0) | Comments (54)
Guest: Steve Benen

POWELL SEEMS CONFUSED....One can criticize the Bush White House for circumventing the law and creating a warrantless-search program, or one can defend the administration and conclude that the president has the authority to engage in these kinds of activities. But leave it to Colin Powell to do both.

Former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said on Sunday that it would not have been "that hard" for President Bush to obtain warrants for eavesdropping on domestic telephone and Internet activity, but that he saw "nothing wrong" with the decision not to do so.

"My own judgment is that it didn't seem to me, anyway, that it would have been that hard to go get the warrants," Mr. Powell said. "And even in the case of an emergency, you go and do it. The law provides for that."

But Mr. Powell added that "for reasons that the president has discussed and the attorney general has spoken to, they chose not to do it that way."

"I see absolutely nothing wrong with the president authorizing these kinds of actions," he said.

Powell at first seems comfortable joining the chorus of conservative critics who believe Bush exceeded his authority. The White House could have followed the law and asked for warrants, Powell noted, even in an emergency. As Powell told ABC, there was "another way to handle it." These aren't the comments of an enthusiastic supporter.

Second, Powell takes a position that, while not the polar opposite, is certainly at odds with the first point. Bush could have easily requested a warrant and followed the rule of law, but, Powell concludes, it's just fine that he didn't.

Maybe Powell is trying to make nice with his former administration colleagues after rejecting the White House line on torture, or maybe Powell is grudgingly taking on the role of good soldier (again). But this is one controversy where it's awfully difficult for anyone, even Powell, to play both sides of the fence.

Steve Benen 10:08 AM Permalink | TrackBack (0) | Comments (39)
Guest: Steve Benen

WITH GOODWILL TOWARDS SOME....When it comes to presidential pardons, Bush can be a bit of a scrooge.

President Bush has granted 11 pardons, bringing to 69 the number of clemency orders he has issued since taking office five years ago, the Justice Department said.

Three moonshiners and a bank robber are among those pardoned, as is a Denver lawyer with Republican political ties. The pardons were issued [Friday], in keeping with a tradition of granting clemency during the holidays.

With 69 pardons over five years, Bush is on pace to be the stingiest two-term president in American history when it comes to granting clemency. Among Bush's more recent predecessors, Clinton, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon, and Kennedy had several hundred pardons each, while Eisenhower was among the most charitable, with 1,157 pardons over his two terms. H.W. Bush was less generous, but his 77 pardons during his one term -- including, not incidentally, Christmas Eve pardons for Reagan-era officials who could have implicated him in the Iran-contra scandal -- at least gives him higher a per-year average than his son.

Indeed, over the last 200 years, only three presidents have had fewer pardons than George W. Bush -- Zachary Taylor, James Garfield, and William H Harrison. Taylor died after one year in office; Garfield was shot four months into his term and was bedridden until he died two months later; and Harrison died of pneumonia within a month of taking office. Among healthy presidents, Bush is in a league of his own.

Given Bush's Texas record, this shouldn't necessarily come as a surprise. As governor, Bush not only executed Texans at a record clip; he signed only 18 clemency grants, making him the stingiest Texas governor in recent memory. (This isn't a partisan matter; the last Republican to hold the office before Bush, Bill Clements, used the power 822 times -- or about 46 clemencies for every one of Bush's.)

At this point, the cushiest job in Washington has to be the deputy attorney general at the Justice Department who reviews the files in the pardon office. "Compassionate" conservatism? Not so much.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | TrackBack (0) | Comments (30)
December 25, 2005
Guest: Steve Benen

FOR THE REST OF US.... In the life-imitates-art category, Seinfeld-inspired Festivus celebrations seem to be catching on in a big way. I haven't done a direct comparison with last year's media reports, but there seems to be more Festivus-related coverage this year. We're dealing with a "holiday" with real growth potential.

* Two fairly popular Festivus books are on bookstore shelves: Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us and The Real Festivus: The Handbook for the Rest of Us.

* Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D) is not only celebrating Festivus, he added a Festivus pole to the holiday decorations at the governor's mansion. "I assume we'll be celebrating the traditional Festivus," Doyle deadpanned in an interview last week.

* There's a Festivus wine, Festivus beer, a Miss Festivus pageant, and a Festivus ice cream from Ben & Jerry's.

* In Lakeland, Fla., local officials created a "free speech zone" outside the county administration building, allowing local residents to feature holiday displays, leaving no tradition behind. Someone, naturally, placed an aluminum pole with a "Festivus" sign on site. (The sign was defaced and the pole stolen. How soon until "war on Festivus" talk dominates Fox News?)

As the New York Times explained last year, Festivus was invented in 1966 by Dan O'Keefe, whose son became a writer on "Seinfeld" and who appropriated the family tradition for the show. It's a good thing; there are apparently a lot of disaffected people looking for an alternative holiday this time of year.

It'd likely drive Bill O'Reilly and John Gibson mad, but I'm still waiting for the U.S. Post Office to get in on this. For a business that's perennially short on revenue, Festivus stamps would be a real money-maker.

Steve Benen 1:16 PM Permalink | TrackBack (0) | Comments (37)
December 24, 2005

MERRY CHRISTMAS....It's a few hours early, but I'm signing off for the year now. Merry Christmas, everyone!

I'll be on vacation until shortly after New Year's. Steve Benen of The Carpetbagger Report will be guest blogging for me, and various Washington Monthly editors may be popping in from time to time as well. In fact, I might even pop in occasionally myself depending on mood and availability of internet time.

In the meantime, have a nice holiday, eat yourselves silly, and root for the team of your choice in the upcoming bowl games. In Marian's family, tradition says that even-numbered years are always better than odd-numbered years, and I'm sure hoping that's true of next year. See you in 2006.

Kevin Drum 6:28 PM Permalink | TrackBack (0) | Comments (59)

CONSERVATIVE BLOGS....Tis the season to be — what? Charitable toward ones sparring partners, I suppose, recognizing them not as the agents of Satan they surely are the rest of the year, but instead as piteously misguided souls who will surely see sweet reason if only they're properly exposed to the warm embrace of liberalism and progressive taxation. Right?

Right. With that in mind, I periodically get email asking me for a list of good conservative blogs. In fact, I got another one just yesterday. Around these parts, we consider "good" and "conservative" to be oxymorons for most of the year, but today I'm going to make an exception. For a variety of reasons — some are entertaining, some I learn things from, some are mainly anthropological excursions — there are several non-liberal blogs that I read daily or almost daily. Here they are:

DISCLAIMER: I'm not recommending any of these blogs. I'm not giving any of them a seal of approval. I disagree with 90% of what they say. But I do read them regularly. If you check them out for a few days, you might find one or two that you enjoy reading too.

And one more thing: in the spirit of the Christmas etc. season, keep it clean in comments, OK? I already know you guys don't like conservatives, so you won't be telling me anything new by explaining in detail why one or more of these folks are fit only for worm food. Let's play nice today.

On the other hand, further recommendations in comments are welcome.

Kevin Drum 4:24 PM Permalink | TrackBack (0) | Comments (120)

AL-JAZEERA....Via the Aardvark, Rami Khouri of the Daily Star suggests that American criticism of Al-Jazeera and other Arab satellite TV stations is badly misguided:

Unlike most American officials who routinely criticize Al-Jazeera and other pan-Arab media, I've actually watched these stations virtually daily since their inception during the past decade....On the basis of what I have witnessed during the past 1,000 days, I would like to bet Donald Rumsfeld a double cheeseburger with cheese, and Karen Hughes two tickets to a Yankees-Rangers baseball game on a balmy July evening, that the overall coverage of Iraq on the mainstream Arab satellite services has been more comprehensive, balanced and accurate than the coverage of any mainstream American cable or broadcast television service.

....These stations, in fact, have provided a vibrant television form of precisely that which Bush and his nonstop string of dizzy dames of public diplomacy have been calling and warring for in this region: democratic pluralism, at least in television news and opinion. The U.S., Israel and others understandably dislike the criticisms of their policies that they see and hear on Arab television. To respond by attacking the Arab journalist messengers who carry the bad news, however, rather than addressing the contentious underlying political problems between the U.S., Israel and the Arab world, is a sign of political amateurism and personal emotionalism.

When the history of our era is written half a century from now, I'll bet that satellite TV and the internet get far more credit for democratizing the Middle East than any military intervention ever does. And deservedly so.

As Donald Rumsfeld might say, a free press is a messy thing. But when all is said and done, Al-Jazeera might well be the greatest force for reform in the entire history of the region.

Kevin Drum 2:49 PM Permalink | TrackBack (0) | Comments (55)

YEAR END QUIZZES.... The annual King William's College General Knowledge Quiz is now available here. I think I managed to puzzle out three or four correct answers last year (out of 180 questions), and a quick glance suggests I'd do no better this year. However, those of you with broader liberal arts educations — and more patience for rhetorical trickery — than I possess should give it a go.

For a more straightforward, but still British, year-end quiz, check out the Guardian's version. I got 34 out of 50 right, which seems fairly respectable since we Yanks could hardly be expected to know about Jamie Oliver's campaign against Turkey Twizzlers or Andrew Flintoff's consoling gestures at the Ashes. My favorite pair of questions are shown above. I liked the simple blandness of Question 35 too.

Kevin Drum 2:29 PM Permalink | TrackBack (0) | Comments (24)

A BETTER MIDDLE EAST....Joshua Muravchik of AEI writes today about a small but gratifying advance in global freedom this year (as quantified here by Freedom House). He is especially gratified that six of the nine counties that improved their freedom scores were majority Muslim, a significant change from the decline of the past:

Some of the credit for reversing this belongs to President Bush's strategy of promoting freedom and democracy, including by means of war in Iraq. Saad Edin Ibrahim, the dean of Egyptian dissidents and an opponent of the war in Iraq, said recently that it had "unfrozen the Middle East just as Napoleon's 1798 expedition did."

This, I think, is pretty much the only justification left for the Iraq war: the slim possibility that simply by kicking over the status quo in the Middle East we might make things better. It's a last gasp justification, to be sure, but at this point we'd all better hope there's something to it.

Kevin Drum 2:12 PM Permalink | TrackBack (0) | Comments (46)

MORE ON THE NSA PROGRAM....James Risen and Eric Lichtblau provide some additional technical information about the NSA's domestic spying operation today:

"There was a lot of discussion about the switches" in conversations with the court, a Justice Department official said, referring to the gateways through which much of the communications traffic flows. "You're talking about access to such a vast amount of communications, and the question was, How do you minimize something that's on a switch that's carrying such large volumes of traffic? The court was very, very concerned about that."

....What has not been publicly acknowledged is that N.S.A. technicians, besides actually eavesdropping on specific conversations, have combed through large volumes of phone and Internet traffic in search of patterns that might point to terrorism suspects. Some officials describe the program as a large data-mining operation.

This is interesting stuff, and it sounds like pretty useful stuff to me, too. This program and this technology might very well be important elements in the fight against al-Qaeda.

But that's not the point. The point is that it appears to be illegal, and if George Bush believed it was genuinely critical to our national security he should have asked Congress to pass legislation authorizing it. The president is simply not allowed to decide for himself to break the law simply because it's inconvenient, and the excuse that he couldn't go to Congress because that would expose valuable secrets to al-Qaeda is laughable. It's tantamount to saying that he never needs to ask Congress for approval of any black program because that might somehow tip off al-Qaeda to its existence. Not only is that untrue (Congress routinely holds closed hearings to discuss sensitive issues), but it's a transparent rationalization for the president to do practically anything he wants with no oversight at all, and that just doesn't fly, wartime or not.

Kevin Drum 1:10 AM Permalink | TrackBack (0) | Comments (108)

PUBLIC EMPLOYEE UNIONS....This single paragraph from the New York Times does a pretty good job of encapsulating the mixed feeling a lot of people probably have about public employee unions:

To control soaring pensions costs, the [Metropolitan Transportation Authority] at first demanded raising the retirement age for future employees to 62. Workers can now retire at age 55, after 25 years on the job, and receive pensions equal to half their earnings. They average $55,000 a year, including overtime.

An average salary of $55,000 a year? That's fine. Sure, it's pretty good money, but my guess is that most people are OK with it anyway.

But retiring at age 55, with 25 years on the job, at half salary? I support unions and I support the notion that Americans work too much, but even so that strikes me as indefensible. After all, most people have working lives of 40-50 years, and it's hard to imagine that they have a lot of sympathy for a deal like that. I have to confess that I don't.

I don't really have any bigger point to make here. I just thought I'd toss this out for comments.

Kevin Drum 12:41 AM Permalink | TrackBack (0) | Comments (227)
December 23, 2005
Guest: Benjamin Wallace-Wells

KOS CORRECTION... After we put up an online link yesterday to a profile I wrote of the blogger Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of Daily Kos, Moulitsas put up a pair of posts on his blog saying he'd found some errors in the piece. I spent much of today reconnecting with sources to seek clarification and looking back through my notes, and would like to make several corrections. The corrections will also appear in the Monthly's next print issue, and will be made in the online version of the story. All errors are mine.

My piece quoted a staffer for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee indicating that Moulitsas makes calls to prospective candidates on behalf of the DCCC. The source was definitely in a position to know, and a review of my notes shows that the quote was what my source said. When I emailed him this morning for clarification, the source said that while he had "brainstormed" with Markos, a different blogger had made the recruiting calls. This is Moulitsas's position too, and I take him at his word.

My story states that Moulitsas speaks frequently and regularly with DCCC Chair Rahm Emmanuel and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. In fact, he speaks regularly with their staffs, never with Emmanuel, and only very occasionally with Reid.

Continue reading...

Benjamin Wallace-Wells 7:09 PM Permalink | TrackBack (0) | Comments (83)

SHIELD LAWS REVISITED....Those of us who support a federal shield law for reporters have been having a rough time of it lately. Having Judy Miller as our primary poster child hasn't helped our cause much.

But things have been looking up lately. Last month Dana Priest revealed the existence of CIA "black sites" in Eastern Europe and last week James Risen and Eric Lichtblau revealed the existence of a secret NSA spying program. Both of these stories were leaked by multiple sources, and it's almost certain that those sources broke the law by doing so.

Now, I happen to think that it was a good thing these stories were broken, but I suspect the Bush administration disagrees with me about that. And needless to say, they can do something about this difference of opinion. If they felt like it — and they might, this being wartime and all — they could appoint a prosecutor to investigate these cases, and the prosecutor could then subpoena Priest, Risen, and Lichtblau and demand to know who they talked to under threat of jail time.

A qualified shield law would make it clear that this couldn't happen and would encourage more whistleblowing of this nature. That sounds like a great idea to me. Anyone else disagree?

Kevin Drum 4:45 PM Permalink | TrackBack (0) | Comments (47)

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