Saturday, December 29, 2007

It's The Pakistan, Stupid?

Cable news pundits began reporting on the 2008 election in 2006 because covering campaigns and horse-races is much easier than any actual substantive journalism (look there, a new poll!). Subsequently, they are always looking to the latest news events from around the country and world not in terms of the issue at hand itself... but how it will affect the campaigns (better do some more polls).

So, of course, all the news pundits were ghoulishly tripping over themselves on Thursday to decide what the Bhutto assassination meant in Iowa (the news had barely broken as MSNBC's Joe Scarborough declared victory for Giuliani and Clinton) and the candidates followed in kind.

Besides the ridiculousness of this in general (how I long for Stewart and Colbert right now), I am scratching my head at the notion that the events in Pakistan are somehow going to drive primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, or elsewhere. Is this something the average citizen has more than a passing concern about? I know I am concerned about it, but I am a political junkie... a tiny percentage of Americans, even among voters.

To the extent that it brings 'national security' back into the debate, I doubt it scares/concerns voters so much as it reminds them of what a joke and waste of the resources the 'war on terror' (as currently defined) has been. That doesn't seem to help any of the candidates per se, it just further frustrates an already frustrated electorate. And then they go to work and deal with their own problems.

Glenn Greenwald echoes my thoughts in an update to a piece on media stupidity-
"Pundits with nothing to do typically claim that every news event will 'transform' elections (in October of last year, North Korea announced it had tested a nuclear weapon, and -- that day -- people like Dick Morris breathlessly claimed that this changed everything, that it would dominate the midterm elections, that the outcome would be determined by who reacted best to the 'North Korea crisis.' Like most stories do, that 'crisis' disappeared from the news cycle within 24 hours and I'd be surprised if a single vote was changed by it. Instantaneous analysis often engenders hysteria of this type).

Contrary to the prevailing views of our political and media elite -- virtually all of whom seem eager to debate how we should best resolve Pakistan's problems: demand elections? get rid of Musharraf? find a replacement for Bhutto? -- that country isn't our protectorate or our colony and I doubt that the average American voter wants candidates to prove that they can best manage Pakistan's internal political mess. We have substantial messes of our own and I suspect voters are more interested in how candidates will manage those."

Is Greenwald right? Just what does concern voters right now? Well, the AP found-
Voters began to worry more about their pocketbooks over the last month — even more than about the war in Iraq.

More than half the voters in an ongoing survey for The Associated Press and Yahoo! News now say the economy and health care are extremely important to them personally. They fear they will face unexpected medical expenses, their homes will lose value or mortgage and credit card payments will overwhelm them...

...The impact of Bhutto's assassination on public opinion depends on whether Americans perceive her death as an added threat to the United States... All in all, though, voters appear to be weighing other issues at least as heavily as the country heads into the first voting of the presidential election.

I think that the article underplays the importance of the war in Iraq to people (just because it no longer dominates headlines hardly means it's diminished in importance and concern), but it is clear right now economic uncertainty is people's primary concern. This is a key difference from 2004, when that giant Jenga pile that was Bush's 'good' economy had yet to see its pieces slowly pulled away.

I do believe that what is happening in Pakistan (and in Asia in general, and in the Middle East) is of importance to us. And I would love to see some real, substantive coverage of these issues in the press... without trying to tie everything to the campaign. Due to ratings pressure, the cable news attitude has always been 'Leave that shit to PBS, we've got breaking news to cover!", and so instead we get silly coverage and punditry purporting to speak for what people believe. I am optimistic enough, though, to believe most people are smarter than cable news gives them credit for.

[UPDATE: Greg Saunders makes a compelling argument on why this should be political.]

Darn That Liberal Media!

The NY Times is, apparently, set to hire Bill Kristol to do a weekly column in 2008. Kristol is, of course, the media's main neocon ringleader, a man who sees every country in the world as a potential target of U.S. military might (besides Iraq and Iran, he advocated this against China in early 2001, and most recently this year advocated the same against Burma). Non-political junkies will recognize him as Jon Stewart's second most frequent sparring partner (after McCain, natch).

When he's not playing armchair general, Kristol also excoriates all news media not owned by NewsCorp. He's said of the Times in the past that the paper should be prosecuted for writing about Bush's warrantless wiretapping program, and said also that it isn't "a first-rate newspaper," joking that "Fundamental regime change" was needed. On that last count, it would appear mission accomplished.

Like Karl Rove's new Newsweek gig, it's continuously fun to see how many crazy, failed conservatives the liberal media offers a perch to (as opposed to people like Phil Donahue or Robert Scheer who were fired for being insufficiently pro-war). They have to... otherwise Bernie Goldberg might write another mean book about them.

[UPDATE: This old Tom Tomorrow cartoon perfectly satires this media phenomenon.]

Rise of the Irreligious?

I have no grand insight into this issue, but I was intrigued by a chart Matthew Yglesias posted showing a steady rise of the "irreligious"-- his term, not the poll's-- in the past 50 years (a mere 3% in 1952; up to a whopping 17% in 2004). These are people who answered "other" or "none" when asked about their religious beliefs by pollsters.

I think that he is probably interpreting the results wrong. The "other", of course, would include Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and any other religion that isn't "Protestant", "Catholic", or "Jewish". I think the rise in the "other" #s in recent decades-- rather than "none"-- explain the rise in that overall number.

Despite how many I know in my bubble, I doubt 17% of Americans are atheists. And I think that a lot of the people who answered "none" may just be people who didn't think it was anyone's business but their own what they do or do not believe in terms of religion. And that's good enough for me.

As a lowly atheist, I am well aware how frightened most Americans are of the concept of no belief at all. A Gallup poll just this past Spring named different groups, asking people whether or not they'd ever vote for someone from that group as President. At the very bottom-- with 53% saying 'no, thanks'-- was atheists. That's the only answer to score over 50%, and comes in after someone in a third marriage (ie. Giuliani), someone over 72 years old (ie. McCain or Ron Paul), and even a homosexual (ie. ??).

So, rise of the irreligious? Maybe, but it's likely just wishful on my Yglesias' part.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Veto #8

The President shocked a lot of people today by announcing plans for a "pocket veto" of the latest, massive defense authorization bill (different from the $555 billion spending bill he signed earlier in the week). Why? Because of "a provision deep in the defense authorization bill, which would essentially allow victims of state sponsored terrorism to sue those countries for damages." The Bush administration says the provision "could make Iraqi assets held in U.S. banks vulnerable to lawsuits," thereby hampering Iraqi reconstruction efforts.

As Steve Benen notes, though, this explanation doesn't make sense. Moreover, congressional leaders say Bush raised no objections as the bill was debated and passed. The refusal to veto it directly is also very unusual. I'm sure our fine national journalists will demand a more full and detailed explanation from The Decider immediately.

[PS- Just to clarify the rules of civilized political debate in modern America, when Bush is chastising the Democrats for not caving/passing these bills quickly enough, it is important for him to remind everyone that failure to do so will help evildoers murder the troops and your family. But when Bush or Republicans have objections, we have nothing but time. Oh, and it's still Congress' fault. Natch.

UPDATE: Are the circumstances of the veto unconstitutional? Someone check on that.]

Pakistan: A Followup

With angry fingers pointed at President Musharraf in the wake of Bhutto's assassination, his regime is moving quickly to declare the case closed. "We have the evidence that al-Qaida and Taliban were behind the suicide attack on Benazir Bhutto," Interior Minister Nawaz said. I do think that those are the most likely culprits, but-- rioting mobs aside-- I am skeptical as to how upset the leadership is at what has transpired this week. All this talk of moving forward with the elections seems kind of silly right now, considering Musharraf's two key rivals won't even be participating (one dead, one boycotting). It has all the seriousness of Putin announcing in Russia that even though his presidential term will soon be over, he will remain on as Prime Minister... but without even that basic pretense of constitutional order.

(The official means of her assassination-- shooting-- now also seems in dispute.)

Finally, Juan Cole (a professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan) has a good piece at Salon putting these events in context, both in terms of the history of Pakistan and what it means to us. In my opinion, the definitive article for you to read on this subject.

What Awaits A Democratic President?

Digby has this pessimistic view of what awaits a Democratic president in 2009-
"A Democratic president, no matter who it is, is going to pay for the Republicans' sins. But it won't be just because the Republicans and Blue Dogs in congress suddenly 'realize' they have co-equal power. I predict that the right wing noise machine will shout far and wide that the election was stolen (probably with the help of 'illegal aliens.') The new president will not be allowed to weed out even one right wing plant anywhere in the executive branch without being accused of politicizing it. There will be no executive privilege as the courts rediscover their 'responsibilities.' Scientists and experts will all be accused of being shills for the liberal special interests. The president will be accused of violating Americans' civil liberties and destroying the constitution. There will be widespread accusations of fraud and corruption and non-stop investigations.

In other words the Republicans are going to accuse the Democratic president of everything we know the Bush administration did. And because it was never fully investigated or even fully discussed, people will lay the sins at the feet of the Democratic president and feel a sense of relief that the balance of power is being restored and Washington is finally being cleaned up.

The media, who know the real story (they helped cover it up, after all) will lead the charge."

Normally I'd say that she is being over the top in terms of worry (let's worry about 2008 but we start panicking about 2009), but I won't deny I have similar concerns, which is why I am posting this. After all, the Republicans reacted to the loss of Congress by laughingly bragging about how they are destroying all Democratic legislation just to show them who's boss. And that's Congress, a branch that conservatives hold in low regard generally.

I imagine that, logically speaking, losing the White House will be met with an even stronger meltdown. They spent years trying to destroy Bill Clinton (Whitewater, Filegate, Travelgate, AirportHairCutGate, Monica, etc... and those were the BS scandals!); I don't imagine they will welcome our next President with open arms. Especially if it's you-know-who.

(I posted this after the '04 election; I can't imagine Hannity or Limbaugh doing so next year)

Still, as Atrios laments, it's better than the alternative (4-8 more years of Republican executive excesses). But hey, maybe they'll prove us all wrong, and help to clean house and we'll all take America in a better direction together. That'd sure be swell.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Meanwhile, in Pakistan...

Perhaps this was inevitable given the events (and previous attacks) of the past six months, but Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated this morning, shot to death as part of a larger suicide attack that killed at least 20 others.

This tragedy comes a little over a week before the parliamentary elections seen as vital in the wake of President Musharraf's emergency rule two months ago. Earlier in the day, four people were also killed at a rally for the other opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, though he was not there at the time. No one has claimed credit for the attacks, but the speculation is flying (Taliban? al-Qaeda? Musharraf goons?).

The White House condemned the attacks (obviously), though for them this is more than the loss of a potential ally... it's another deadly blow to their strategy for the region. I am sure that they realize now that supporting Musharraf has been a mistake, though a necessary one in the eyes of the neocons (hey, Pakistan only has nukes, not oil). That's why they were betting the farm on Bhutto to return to power in Pakistan, as she was U.S.-friendly (like Musharraf), but also aggressive against the extremists (unlike Musharraf). Now she is a martyr to democracy, and-- as in Afghanistan, Iraq, etc-- the U.S. has no Plan B, just a dictator who is sure to be staying put for the foreseeable future.

I'll leave further punditry to the experts, but this is not good news to end 2007 with.

[PS- Reactions/condemnations from India, Iran, and elsewhere around the world.

UPDATE: Sharif says his party will boycott the elections; calls for Musharraf's resignation.]

Bush vs. Schwarzenegger on Climate Change

Not satisfied with the federal government's lackluster environmental regulations, California asked the EPA for a waiver to implement a law to go further in their state's policies. They were-- for the first time-- turned down. Gov. Schwarzenegger is threatening to fight the matter in court. The Decider versus The Terminator? Yea, good luck with that, Bushie (seriously, how glad is Arnold to have Bush in DC making him look good in comparison?).

If a state government asked for a waiver to ignore/downgrade federal requirements, yes that should be turned down. But a state agrees to not only meet the ridiculously minimal requirements, but also asks to be more aggressive and go farther? You only turn that down if your ultimate goal is to protect the polluters, ignore the issue, and only have fig-leaf policies. Which, of course, is the Bush-Cheney environmental policy in a nutshell.

Of course, there's Supreme Court precedent that seems to favor California here. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Post-Holiday Odds and Ends

Here's a quick roundup of some news we missed while we were waiting for Baby Santa...

Fiscal conservative George W. Bush adds to his legacy of debt, signing the $555 billion spending bill he demanded (look for more tax cuts in '08!). He complained about the $10 billion in earmarks, but also grumbled that Congress gave him only $70 billion for the war(s). He's a serious leader.

Did the CIA lie to the Sept. 11 commission in regards to the Al Qaeda interrogation tapes (you know, the ones which were quietly destroyed)? It looks more and more likely.

Turkish warplanes bomb northern Iraq in search of Kurdish rebels. Isn't war fun?!

Meanwhile, Iran asks to "renew high-level talks with U.S. officials on security in Iraq, insisting that discussions take place between ambassadors and not lower-level functionaries". George, this would be a great opportunity to capitalize on that NIE before we/you/they forget about it.

More exciting news: U.S. Officials See Waste in Billions Sent to Pakistan

Moving back to domestic news, Mark Kleiman explores the way that George Bush and Alan Greenspan undermined the economy saved us all from the threat of that deadly surplus.

There is a weird little feud going on between NY Times columnist Paul Krugman and Barack Obama (over Social Security and health-care). On Social Security, I fully agree with Krugman (there is no crisis; it's a myth hyped by conservatives). But on health-care, I think he is wrong. I don't see the Edwards/Clinton mandate plan as helpful on the road to universal care. This week, for what it's worth, Krugman defended his case.

Finally, the more we learn about J. Edgar Hoover, the more despicable he looks.

Hypocrisy, Thy Name Is Ron Paul

The cult-like worship of Ron Paul among his internet supporters (they bought him a blimp!) has been an obsession of mine for months. According to them, Rep. Paul is perfect and the only person standing between our republic and a totalitarian new world order.

One issue upon which the legend of our libertarian hero is built is his fiscal responsibility and hatred for government spending. He's known on Capitol Hill as "Dr. No" for his 'no' votes on pretty much every spending bill (whether it's bloated military appropriations or aid to Katrina victims). He specifically rails against earmarks... even though he regularly adds his own to bills ("for water projects, a nursing program, to expand a hospital cancer center and to promote Texas shrimp") he votes against, but knows will pass anyway. Rather than leading by example, Paul insisted on 'Meet The Press' that while he does oppose earmarking, as long as Congress is doing it, he might as well use the process to get money back to help his district. Which, of course, is the rationale of every congressman for the practice.

But he likes the Constitution and opposes foreign entanglements, and these days that does make him a very unique creature in the Grand Old Party (his positions on choice, guns, and government regulation and aid are standard fare, of course).

Elsewhere on his 'Meet The Press' performance (a sad hazing ritual all candidates must perform), Rep. Paul took a bold stand in opposition to the Civil War. He said that the war was wrong, and too heavy a price to pay to end slavery. He said that, instead, the government should've bought all the slaves and then freed them. Ignoring the general ridiculousness of that suggestion, Paul also ignores that the primary issue of the Civil War was not slavery, but rather defending the very country itself against a secessionist South. There is some very disturbing ideology buried when you start digging into Ron Paul, and this example is one window into that.

I think it speaks volumes about how much the modern Bush/Cheney GOP has made people hate and fear government that someone like Ron Paul has gained so much traction with so many people. The Birchers are back and gaining strength, and it has the GOP establishment a little frightened. And for that, they have no one to blame but themselves.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Weekend Video Theatre: A Charlie Brown Christmas

I'll be away from the computer (mostly) for the next few days... have to take up arms in the War On Christmas, you know. I hope that your holidays are relaxing and enjoyable, and I'll be back rambling by Wednesday. In the meantime, enjoy 25 minutes of great television.