Kevin Drum

Abortion Politics

| Mon Dec. 8, 2008 11:46 AM PST

ABORTION POLITICS....In the New York Times yesterday, Ross Douthat made the case that hardline views on abortion didn't have much to do with the Republican defeat in November. I think he's basically right about that. Abortion just wasn't a high profile issue this year.

However, then he goes a step further, arguing that conservatives aren't really so very hardline on abortion these days anyway. "Compromise, rather than absolutism," he says, "has been the watchword of anti-abortion efforts for some time now." Steve Benen replies:

The evidence of conservative willingness to "compromise" on abortion is surprisingly thin. In 2005, for example, pro-life and pro-choice Democrats crafted the Prevention First Act, which aimed to reduce the number of abortions by taking prevention seriously, through a combination of family-planning programs, access to contraception, and teen-pregnancy prevention programs. Dems sought Republican co-sponsors. Zero — literally, not one — from either chamber endorsed the measure.

What's more, this year, pro-life activists in South Dakota and Colorado forced strikingly inflexible anti-abortion measures onto their statewide ballots. Both lost, but it was a reminder of the movement's "absolutism" on the issue.

There is, of course, another side to this as well. As Ross himself points out in his piece, the Supreme Court's ruling in Roe v. Wade means that "the pro-life movement is essentially trapped." He takes this to mean that pro-lifers can't offer any genuine compromises because Roe doesn't allow them, but there's more than a whiff of disingenuousness to this. After all, does anyone really believe that the pro-life movement wants to overturn Roe (and Casey) merely in order to open the door to European-style compromise on abortion law? Anyone care to sound out James Dobson on that notion?

The truth is more prosaic: pro-life activists have done exactly what you'd expect them to do. They've pushed for the most restrictive possible laws they can get away with, and in many states they've succeeded in making abortion de facto unavailable. If Roe were overturned, compromise would be the last thing on their minds.

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Biden and the Senate

| Mon Dec. 8, 2008 11:13 AM PST

BIDEN AND THE SENATE....Harry Reid got some attention over the weekend for telling the Las Vegas Sun that Joe Biden should stick to his end of Pennsylvania Avenue after the inauguration:

In a move to reassert Congressional independence at the start of the new presidential administration, the vice president will be barred from joining weekly internal Senate deliberations, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in an interview with the Las Vegas Sun...."He can come by once and a while, but he's not going to sit in on our lunches," Reid said. "He's not a senator. He's the vice president."

....A spokeswoman for the vice-president-elect said "Biden had no intention of continuing the practice started by Vice President Cheney of regularly attending internal legislative branch meetings — he firmly believes in restoring the Office of the Vice President to its historical role."

"He and Senator Reid see eye to eye on this," said Biden's spokeswoman Elizabeth Alexander.

This is fine, and certainly in keeping with tradition. But here's the funny thing: of all the things that Dick Cheney did to expand the role of the vice president, spending more time on Capitol Hill was one of the few that seemed pretty legitimate to me. The vice president is, after all, the president of the Senate, so the idea that he might spend a lot of time in the Senate cloakroom taking the temperature of presidential initiatives and just generally working to help round up votes — well, that doesn't really sound like much of an abuse to me. The fact that Republican senators tended to knuckle under to Cheney's strongarming says more about Republican senators than it does about whether the vice president is a good choice to liason with Congress.

Of course, all Reid has said is that Biden won't be welcome at Democratic caucus meetings, so maybe we're all reading more into this than is really there. That really was a bridge too far for Cheney, but there's plenty the vice president can do outside of formal caucus meetings if he wants to. And offhand, I can't think why he wouldn't want to.

Chart of the Day - 12.08.2008

| Mon Dec. 8, 2008 10:39 AM PST

CHART OF THE DAY....Via Andrew Revkin, Maxwell Boykoff of Oxford University charts media mentions of global warming over the past five years. The dark line is the European media and the heavy dashed line is the North American media. As you can see, during the past two years media attention to global warming has nearly halved in both places. (The other lines are Oceania, South America, and Asia.)

What makes this especially perverse is that it's come at the very time when climate scientists are getting increasingly cataclysmic in their warnings about the danger of global warming. It's no longer a vague theory and it's no longer a matter of gradual change. Most climate scientists now think that we're getting very close to a tipping point at which we'll basically destroy our planet if we don't make some big changes very quickly. Here's Bill McKibben, from our current issue, on the most important number on earth, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere:

And so we're now in the land of tipping points. We know that we've passed some of them — Arctic sea ice is melting, and so is the permafrost that guards those carbon stores. But the logic of Hansen's paper was clear. Above 350, we are at constant risk of crossing other, even worse, thresholds, the ones that govern the reliability of monsoons, the availability of water from alpine glaciers, the acidification of the ocean, and, perhaps most spectacularly, the very level of the seas....We can't rule out, in other words, the collapse of human society as we've known it. "If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted..." We should add the phrase to the oath of office for every politico on the third planet.

Are you listening, politicos?

Non-Outliers

| Mon Dec. 8, 2008 9:54 AM PST

NON-OUTLIERS....Matt Yglesias defends Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers:

I've seen a few people express the notion that Gladwell's conclusion — that success is determined largely by luck rather than one's powers of awesomeness — is somehow too banal to waste one's time with. I think those people need to open their eyes and pay a bit more attention to the society we're living in. It's a society that not only seems to believe that the successful are entitled to unlimited monetary rewards for their trouble, but massive and wide-ranging deference.

Beyond that, it's a society in which the old-fashioned concept of noblesse oblige has largely gone out the window. The elite feel not only a sense of entitlement, but also a unique sense of arrogance that only an elite that firmly believes itself to be a meritocracy can muster.

Point taken. But just to push back a little, I'm not sure it's the outliers who are the biggest problem here. To a certain extent, I think most people already understand that there's more than a little bit of luck involved in the fact that IBM decided to license Bill Gates's MS-DOS instead of CP/M or that 24 turned out to be a monster hit for Kiefer Sutherland. The star who gets a lucky break early in his career is practically a cliche. What's more, I think most of us don't begrudge the occasional outliers their jackpots all that much. Sure, Gates and Sutherland were both good and lucky, but at least they were good.

The bigger problem is with the vast amounts of money earned routinely and consistently by people who aren't even all that good. Ordinary CEOs and ordinary Wall Street executives, for example, have gotten enormous paydays over the past few decades not because they were really any better than their predecessors, but simply because they were riding a wave of prosperity. And it's not just a lucky few, either: it's all of them. Most of these guys aren't even outperforming the market significantly, let alone acting as titans of industry, but one way or another they've managed to convince themselves that a rising tide is a sign of personal brilliance. This allows them to sleep easily at night as they keep worker pay stagnant and use the resulting enormous buckets of money to reward themselves and their peers with comp packages that would make Croesus blush.

I wish Gladwell would write that book. It's one thing to make a story about geniuses interesting, but it's the corrosive and stifling triumph of the non-geniuses that could use a popular touch. Maybe next time.

Gates on Defense

| Sun Dec. 7, 2008 10:48 PM PST

GATES ON DEFENSE....In Foreign Affairs, once and future Defense Secretary Robert Gates writes about the need for a greater focus within the Pentagon on counterinsurgency and prosecution of small wars:

One of the enduring issues the military struggles with is whether personnel and promotions systems designed to reward the command of American troops will be able to reflect the importance of advising, training, and equipping foreign troops — something still not considered a career-enhancing path for the best and brightest officers.

....As secretary of defense, I have repeatedly made the argument in favor of institutionalizing counterinsurgency skills and the ability to conduct stability and support operations. I have done so not because I fail to appreciate the importance of maintaining the United States' current advantage in conventional war fighting but rather because conventional and strategic force modernization programs are already strongly supported in the services, in Congress, and by the defense industry. The base budget for fiscal year 2009, for example, contains more than $180 billion for procurement, research, and development, the overwhelming preponderance of which is for conventional systems.

....There is no doubt in my mind that conventional modernization programs will continue to have, and deserve, strong institutional and congressional support. I just want to make sure that the capabilities needed for the complex conflicts the United States is actually in and most likely to face in the foreseeable future also have strong and sustained institutional support over the long term. And I want to see a defense establishment that can make and implement decisions quickly in support of those on the battlefield.

In the end, the military capabilities needed cannot be separated from the cultural traits and the reward structure of the institutions the United States has: the signals sent by what gets funded, who gets promoted, what is taught in the academies and staff colleges, and how personnel are trained.

Gates' full piece doesn't contain any startling insights or bold new directions, but it certainly suggests that his basic sensibilities are fairly sound. The big question is whether he can do anything about it. He understands the obvious, namely that big weapons systems are so entrenched in the Iron Triangle of Pentagon procurement that they aren't going away no matter what he does, so he's set his sights fairly modestly. He just wants to redirect funding a bit and change the military personnel structure to reward counterinsurgency and nation building. It's a limited vision, but as he says, funding and promotions are where the rubber meets the road. It's the right place to start.

Fred Kaplan has more here, including a few specific suggestions for how Gates might turn his concept into reality. Also this: "My guess is that Obama said that he'll back him up on this — not because I have inside information (I don't), but because I doubt that Gates, who has been desperate to leave Washington and retire to his lakeside home in the Pacific Northwest practically since he arrived at the Pentagon, would have agreed to stay without Obama's backing."

From the Annals of Cluelessness

| Sun Dec. 7, 2008 9:50 PM PST

FROM THE ANNALS OF CLUELESSNESS....A reader recommends watching this interview on Friday between Greta Van Susteren and Troy Clarke, president of GM North America. It's worth a listen just to hear his answer to this one question: "What possessed the three automakers to come to town without a plan asking for money [two weeks] ago?...Didn't you know that people would want a plan?"

The exchange starts at about 10:45, and Clarke's answer, basically, is that they figured, hey, the banks got bailed out without a plan, so why shouldn't they? After all, when it's raining money, you don't ask questions, you just get out your bucket.

Points for honesty, I guess, but not much else.

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Leverage

| Sun Dec. 7, 2008 5:42 PM PST

LEVERAGE....Hey, you remember John Rogers, the inventor of the Theory of Crazification, don't you? Well, his new TV show, Leverage, debuts tonight at 10 pm on TNT. You should watch, even if you don't think you'll like it. It's the least we in the blogosphere can do to recognize his achievements.

Nisoor Square Update

| Sun Dec. 7, 2008 1:37 PM PST

NISOOR SQUARE UPDATE....The Blackwater guards who were charged on Thursday for their role in the 2007 Nisoor Square shootings plan to give themselves up tomorrow:

Five indicted Blackwater Worldwide security guards plan to surrender to the FBI Monday in Salt Lake City, about 2,000 miles from the Washington courthouse where they were charged, a person close to the case said.

Such a move would be the opening salvo in what is shaping up to be a contentious legal fight before the guards can even get to trial. By surrendering in Utah, the home state of one of the guards, the men can argue for a trial there — a far more conservative, pro-gun venue than Washington.

Via Blue Girl. More here. Iraqi reaction here.

Afghanistan Update

| Sun Dec. 7, 2008 1:18 PM PST

AFGHANISTAN UPDATE....This is really bad news:

Most of the additional American troops arriving in Afghanistan early next year will be deployed near the capital, Kabul, American military commanders here say, in a measure of how precarious the war effort has become.

....The plan for the incoming brigade [] means that for the time being fewer reinforcements — or none at all — will be immediately available for the parts of Afghanistan where the insurgency is most intense.

It also means that most of the newly arriving troops will not be deployed with the main goal of curbing the cross-border flow of insurgents from their rear bases in Pakistan, something American commanders would like and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has recommended.

This isn't a huge surprise at this point, but it's the most concrete evidence yet of how badly the fight in Afghanistan is going. Two years ago, the main complaint was that, sure, Kabul was safe, but it was just a small island of security in a vast sea of lawlessness. Today, we're apparently close to losing even that small island.

So does that mean that we need a surge in Afghanistan? Well, the theory behind the surge in Iraq was that a relatively small number of additional troops could make a big difference if they were concentrated primarily in Baghdad, where three or four brigades would represent a near doubling of forces. Baghdad was considered so central to Iraqi security that if it could be pacified, it would make an enormous difference in the rest of the country too.

That's not true of Afghanistan. Obviously Kabul has to be safe, but it doesn't play the same outsize role that Baghdad does in Iraq. Nor are any of the other factors that helped the surge succeed present in Afghanistan. It's just a mess. Denying al-Qaeda a safe sanctuary is an important goal, but if even Kabul isn't safe anymore, it means we've got a very, very long road ahead of us before we can make that happen. I don't envy Barack Obama the choices he has ahead of him.

Conservative Hysteria Watch

| Sun Dec. 7, 2008 12:59 PM PST

CONSERVATIVE HYSTERIA WATCH....Shorter George Will: If liberals were trying to do a bunch of things they aren't trying to do, they'd really suck. Next week: If Canadians launch an attack on North Dakota, they'd be real warmongers, wouldn't they?