Ross Douthat's thoughts on health care outline the ideological stalemate that assures the demise of comprehensive reform. But you wouldn't know it from his weekly column. So far this year, the New York Times' new conservative columnist has produced anemic columns on topics like Internet politics and Tiger Woods' faith. But his strength is best showcased on his meticulously maintained blog, which moved from the Atlantic to the Times in December.

After Scott Brown swiped the Democrats' Senate supermajority last week, the Times' youngest columnist (30) blogged about the future of health care legislation in the Senate. One post claims that the public rejects the high taxes of liberals and the aversion to government programs common among conservatives. So to pass health care, Douthat writes, both sides need to take baby steps. This "would mean trying to prod the country in the direction they want it to go, instead of trying to drag the public, kicking and screaming, toward wholesale transformations."

At this point, comprehensive health care reform is a long shot. And although it would be a shame to let the last few months of legislative nightmare go to waste, Jonathan Chait and Ezra Klein agree that Democrats can't salvage a scaled back version of the bill. But Douthat's willingness to accept the Democrats' ideas, if not their political strategy, makes him one of the Times' most surprising columnists. While he's certainly conservative (pro-choice, pro-abstinence, anti-big government), he rejects the party-line Republican platform. He's uncomfortable taking a firm position on gay marriage, for example, because his opposition is rooted in his Catholicism. In the current issue of Mother Jones, Mark Oppenheimer sums up Douthat's unpredictable conservatism:

His comfort with complexity, and with those who disagree with him—along with his somewhat unconventional upbringing, his unorthodox ideas on abortion law, and his embrace of both popular culture and highbrow literature—make him a surprising conservative writer. More surprising than most of his Times readers would ever know, and compelling in ways his fellow conservatives may not like to admit.

For these reasons (not to mention his love for The Wire), Douthat is a great addition to the Times op-ed page. Read the piece for more about the quirky upbringing and budding career that make Douthat a great blogger, an important columnist, and perhaps America's most interesting conservative voice. 

Need to Read: January 25, 2010

 The must-read stories from around the web and in today's papers:


US Soldiers from 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, arrive at an Afghan National Police checkpoint in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Jan. 15, 2010. (US Army photo from Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez.)

A key and attention-grabbing section of Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's new book, Game Change, focuses on the less-than-adequate vetting of Sarah Palin by John McCain's presidential campaign. The campaign's internal report on the Alaskan governor was thrown together in less than 40 hours, according to the book, and the report's author, a Washington lawyer named Ted Frank, included a disclaimer: Given the time constraints, the vetters might have missed something.

What the media missed (and what's not reported in Game Change) was Frank's full role in the McCain-Palin campaign—a role that could have caused a big political headache for Palin had it been known at the time. Frank was part of a team of lawyers scrutinizing potential candidates for vice president. After working on the vetting report, Frank was dispatched to Alaska to help with damage control on "Troopergate"—the quasi-scandalous allegations that as governor, Palin had pressured the state public safety commissioner to fire her ex-brother-in-law, a state trooper who had allegedly made death threats against Palin’s family in the midst of a nasty divorce and custody dispute with her sister.

At the time, Frank decided that it was best that his work for the McCain-Palin campaign remain undisclosed. The reason? He had been an outspoken critic of the 1994 federal jury verdict that required oil conglomerate Exxon to pay $5 billion in punitive damages to some 30,000 Alaska residents after the Valdez ran aground and spilled 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. That verdict had been extremely popular in Alaska.

In October 2007, Stuart Bowen, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), was forced to temporarily call off an audit of a billion-dollar contract to train Iraq's troubled police force. The problem was there wasn't much to audit. Invoices and other supporting documentation were missing or error-riddled—in such "disarray," as Bowen put it, that it was impossible for his office to render any definitive judgment. His staff could only conclude [PDF] than the State Department division overseeing the contract simply had no idea what it had received in return for most of the $1.2 billion it had paid out to the contractor, DynCorp International.

More than two years later the main thing that has changed is the amount of money the government can't fully account for. In a new audit [PDF] released Monday, SIGIR concludes that the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) "continues to exhibit weak oversight" of DynCorp's work under the police training program. "As a result, over $2.5 billion in US funds are vulnerable to waste and fraud."

The Supreme Court's decision striking down limits on corporate election advertising is, as I noted yesterday, a big win for the US Chamber of Commerce, which already has a war chest to influence the 2010 election. Today, National Journal's Peter Stone gives us an inside look at the woman responsible for building their substantial monetary arsenal: Agnes Warfield.

Warfield has been the Chamber's senior vice president of finance and development for nearly a decade, and in the past few years has brought in an average of $200 million to support the group's lobbying, electoral, and legal work. She's by all accounts a force to be reckoned with, bringing in potential funders to meet with president Tom Donohue, who seals the deal with new donors. She helps Donohue plan lavish dinners where Chamber board members and major donors can cavort with political bigwigs; guests during the Bush years included Karl Rove, Chief of Staff Andy Card, and Commerce Secretary Donald Evans.

Those who know Warfield's work give her high marks as a money magician. She is adept at tapping the business lobby group's large team of outside advisers, a number of whom are also lobbyists. Warfield occasionally attends internal policy dinners held for chamber consultants. "She says, 'Help reach into your client base and help us raise money,' " said GOP lobbyist Scott Reed, who is a chamber consultant.
Warfield also takes good care of the chamber's big sugar daddies. "When there's a donor who wants to know about X, Y, or Z, she gets it done," Reed said. "She cracks the whip. Donors like to know what's going on in Washington."

Warfield's heading up the group's $100 million lobbying and political advocacy effort, the Campaign for Free Enterprise. And as Robert Kelner, a GOP election lawyer at Covington & Burling, told the Hotline, yesterday's decision will likely increase the amount of money coming through groups like the Chamber, an idea other campaign-finance experts echoed.

"If people think that individual companies are going to go out and buy ads, there may be some of that, but for the most part companies are going to flow this money through trade groups and other outside groups," said Kelner. "This will open the floodgates for money flowing through groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other associations [that] spend money on political advertising."

I'm guessing Warfield will be a busy woman in the coming months.

Two prominent Muslim scholars will be able to visit the United States for the first time in years following the State Department's effective reversal of a Bush Administration policy that prevented dozens of writers, educators, and artists with negative views of US foreign and counterterrorism policy from obtaining visas. The American Civil Liberties Union, which praised the move, hopes it is a signal that "such ideological exclusions are now entirely in our past."

The decision paves the way for the professors, Adam Habib of the University of Johannesburg and Tariq Ramadan of Oxford University, to apply for visas free of accusations that they have ties to terrorism—charges that both scholars have flatly denied as their visa applications were routinely revoked over the past six years. Habib, a respected South African political analyst and a vocal critic of the war in Iraq, told the Associated Press that his most recent visa application was denied for having "engaged in terrorist activity," but he was never told what that activity entailed. The US government denied Ramadan's visa application to accept a tenured teaching position at the University of Notre Dame because he had contributed money to charities that the US believed supported Hamas. Ramadan denies the veracity of this claim.

The ACLU had been representing the professors in court on behalf of the American organizations that invited them to the United States. Those organizations include the American Sociological Association, the American Association of University Professors, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Boston Coalition for Palestinian Rights. Jameel Jaffer, the director of the ACLU's national security project, said the orders ending the professors' exclusion were long overdue and tremendously important.

"For several years, the United States government was more interested in stigmatizing and silencing its foreign critics than in engaging them," Jaffer said. "The decision to end the exclusion of Professors Habib and Ramadan is a welcome sign that the Obama administration is committed to facilitating, rather than obstructing, the exchange of ideas across international borders."

Both Habib and Ramadan told reporters they plan to apply for new visas soon. But the two professors are still the exception, not the rule. Dozens of other Muslim intellectuals whose cases are not as high-profile remain banned. 

Remember in June, when I told you the Justice Department Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) report on the authors of the "torture memos" was due out soon? It was going to be released in "a matter of weeks," Attorney General Eric Holder told a Senate committee. Then, in November, Holder told another Senate panel that the report would come out "by the end of the month." While, it's January now, and the OPR report is nowhere to be found. The American Civil Liberties Union is tired of waiting, so today it filed a lawsuit seeking to compel the release of the report. Maybe that will finally get the Justice Department to keep its promises. Don't count on it, though.

I have a general, albeit sometimes irrational, distaste for quarterbacks. There's something about their deified status, the fact that they're often positioned as Great White Hopes on mostly black teams, their 'me'-in-team attitudes; I admittedly look for reasons to knock them down a peg. Joe Theismann: ridiculous (he changed the pronunciation of his name, 'THEES-man,' to rhyme with Heisman, as in trophy). Joe Montana: privileged (Joe Cool played for the wine-and-cheese 49ers and had the best receivers in the biz). Peyton Manning: whiner (no-huddle does not have to mean all-tantrum). Michael Vick: dog hater (no explanation nec). I could go on, but this isn't a sports' blog, so I'll get on with it:

Mark McKinnon | Flickr/Tulane Public Relations (Creative Commons).Mark McKinnon | Flickr/Tulane Public Relations (Creative Commons).Many independent voters and some Republicans seem to agree with most liberals that the Supreme Court's decision to flood elections with corporate money was, quite simply, insane. One of those Republicans is Mark McKinnon, the political operative who did media strategy for George W. Bush and John McCain. McKinnon is on the board of Change Congress, law professor Larry Lessig's aggressive campaign finance reform organization, and he clearly buys Lessig's argument that campaign finance restrictions are good for small-government conservatives. (Short version: Lessig and McKinnon argue that big corporations and interest groups use campaign donations to expand government to benefit themselves.)

The problem, however, is that the Supreme Court's conservatives wouldn't have had the majority they needed to push through this decision if it weren't for Samuel Alito and John Roberts. George W. Bush appointed them, and Mark McKinnon, of course, worked to elect George W. Bush. So I asked McKinnon if he felt partially responsible for the decision he calls "outrageous." The answer: not really. "I didn't agree with President Bush on a lot of things but I supported him for President, did so without reservation, and have no regrets about that," McKinnon said. "I disagree with this decision, I disagree with the notion that corporations need a first amendment vote, and I've always expressed my disagreements with my Republican community and that's why I'm doing so today."

When I asked McKinnon whether he would have preferred for Bush to appoint justices who would have made a different decision on this case, he said that he would have "preferred a different outcome," but that he "didn't get to make those decisions, the president did."

That's all well and good, and it's nice that McKinnon is supporting Change Congress. But it's worth remembering (especially if you're an independent voter disgusted by the decision) that this ruling is the result of Republican rule and conservative Supreme Court appointments.

With very few exceptions, the modern GOP has always been opposed to campaign finance restrictions. That's despite the obvious fact that regulations and the tax code would be simpler, and handouts to government favorites rarer, if members of Congress weren't so dependent on campaign donations.

One of the precedents the Supreme Court gutted (well, contradicted the spirit of) on Thursday was McConnell v. FEC, brought by the current Republican leader in the Senate. Mitch McConnell sued the Federal Election Commission in 2002 claiming that campaign finance laws were, in the words of our own Stephanie Mencimer, "a violation of his First Amendment right to take gobs of corporate money to get elected." McConnell was at the Court again on Thursday to celebrate his ultimate victory.