Political MoJo

Bob Kuttner Has Tasted the Obama Kool-Aid, and it is Sweet

| Mon Feb. 26, 2007 1:13 PM EST

Kuttner is co-editor of the American Prospect, and we know who he's supporting in 2008.

I have followed politics far too long to fall in love, but I have to say that Barack Obama is like nothing we have seen since Bobby Kennedy and maybe since FDR. If you haven't read his first book, Dreams From My Father, you owe it to yourself.
Obama wrote the book when he was 33, having spent nearly three years as an organizer on Chicago's South Side, and then three years at Harvard Law School where he was elected president of the Law Review. From there he went to Kenya, to come to terms with the African side of his family.
Reading this work, you think: no 33-year-old has the right to such uncommon wisdom and humanity. The comparisons that come to mind are the young Martin Luther King, or Vaclav Havel, or maybe Jefferson.

I think a lot of hard-boiled politicos are softies at heart, just waiting to be inspired. The Obamania 2008 National Tour continues!

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Debating the End of the Vilsack Era

| Mon Feb. 26, 2007 12:33 PM EST

There's a mini-debate going on over at the American Prospect blog TAPPED about the reasons Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack dropped out of the running for the Democratic nomination.

Ben Adler chimed in first with the conventional wisdom: Vilsack simply couldn't find any loose dollars hanging around Democratic circles, because high-powered candidates with fully-formed fundraising machines have already taken them all. This is really two explanations in one. First, the campaigns are starting earlier and earlier with only independently wealthy and/or celebrity candidates able to generate enough early buzz to stay in the race. Second, Vilsack didn't have the qualities needed to compete in a Democratic race in which the bar is set very, very, very high.

The blogosphere's best Klein responded with characteristic astuteness:

...the roster of candidates who've already dropped out is instructive. Mark Warner and Evan Bayh, two deeply credible, DLC-type moderates, exited early into the race, and not for lack of funds. Rather, they realized this wasn't a year that could support moderate technocrats. Democratic voters are looking for progressive vision and assertiveness, not small promises and managerial acumen. Vilsack, I'd bet, realized the same thing.

My only contribution here is this. It's not that this year is bad for governors; politics are changing in fundamental ways that make the future bad for governors. Matt Yglesias wrote an article for the Prospect online (that was kind of the inspiration for the debate) in which he decried the inability of Bill Richardson, New Mexico Gov. and second-tier presidential candidate, to get any traction. In the end Matt reasoned that today's political atmosphere only takes "famous" candidates seriously; if you aren't a celebrity, you aren't a contender. This is undoubtably true, and what no one has said yet is that this likely means the end of governor-presidents.

Everyone (including Richardson) says that Richardson's strongest characteristic is that he's a governor, and Americans love electing governors to the presidency. Not any more. If you're governor of California, New York, or Virginia, you can get famous. Otherwise, it'll be real tough. And if you can't get famous, you can't run. And besides, in an era of near constant campaigning, only senators have enough breaks in their work schedule to travel the country; governors have to actually, you know, run things.

The only thing that could resurrect governors' chances nationwide is if the primary schedule is completely redrawn -- which it likely will be -- and states that were previously off the map become extremely important. California, for example, is moving it's primary up to February 5, making the nation's biggest state much more relevant and the man or woman who runs it a much bigger figure.

Your Weekend "Are You Ready for War With Iran?" News Roundup

| Mon Feb. 26, 2007 12:20 PM EST

It was all Iran, all the time over the weekend.

The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh wrote about the United States' increasingly developed and sophisticated plans to attack Iran, and how the Bush Administration is augmenting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with a regional push against expanding Shiite influence, an effort that has led it to join forces with al Qaeda-linked groups.

The UK's Times reported that "up to five generals and admirals are willing to resign" if Bush asks the military to strike Iran.

And the LA Times reported that 2007 is groundhog year, with the Bush Administration pushing the same phony intelligence on Iran that it did with Iraq, and the same U.N. agencies doing their best to debunk it all. Says the Times, "most U.S. intelligence shared with the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency has proved inaccurate and none has led to significant discoveries inside Iran."

It's just a matter of time until Dick Cheney tells us all to buy duct tape and plastic sheeting. Happy apocalypse!

The American People Badly Underestimate Iraqi Death Toll

| Mon Feb. 26, 2007 9:09 AM EST

A new AP-Ipsos poll finds that Americans can accurately identify the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq, but badly miss the mark on the number of Iraqi civilians killed.

When the poll was conducted, the number of Americans killed was just over 3,100. Poll respondents guessed 3,000, on average. The number of Iraqis killed is a difficult question, but what we do know is that it's really, really high. From the AP story on the poll: "Iraqi civilian deaths are estimated at more than 54,000 and could be much higher; some unofficial estimates range into the hundreds of thousands. The U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq reports more than 34,000 deaths in 2006 alone."

What do Americans guess? 9,890. Yikes.

But apparently even that badly inaccurate number is too high for an increasingly war-weary country. "Whatever their understanding of the respective death tolls," writes the AP, "three-quarters of those polled said the numbers of both Americans and Iraqis who have been killed are 'unacceptable.'" For an explanation for why the American public doesn't know how many Iraqis have been killed, look no further than the Bush Administration, which was exposed as systematically undercounting Iraqi dead by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. Hit this link to read the obvious but damning allegation.

Mother Jones content on counting the Iraqi dead here and here.

Disabled Iraq Vets Shortchanged, Already

| Mon Feb. 26, 2007 1:40 AM EST

On Saturday the Army announced that its Inspector Generals Office has found 87 problems with the service's medical retirement system, including inconsistent training for counselors, inadequate record keeping and a failure to follow Defense Department policy. The announcement came after a yearlong probe where the IG's office talked with 650 soldiers and employees at 32 posts around the world.

Also this weekend we hear, via Army Times, that the Army is holding back disability retirement ratings to cut costs.

"These people are being systematically underrated," said Ron Smith, deputy general counsel for Disabled American Veterans. "It's a bureaucratic game to preserve the budget, and it's having an adverse affect on service members."

Turns out that the number of approvals for disability retirement have remained steady for the other branches—Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force—since 2001 but in the Army, where we are seeing the majority of casualties and the bulk of our 23,000 injured, "the number of soldiers approved for permanent disability retirement has plunged by more than two-thirds, from 642 in 2001 to 209 in 2005, according to a GAO report from last year.

The Army Times also points out that:

While the number of soldiers placed on permanent disability retirement has declined in the past five years, the number placed on temporary disability retirement — with medical conditions that officials rule might improve so they can return to work over time or worsen to the point that they must be permanently retired — has increased more than fourfold, from 165 in 2001 to 837 in 2005.

Compared to the overall size of the defense budget, disability retirement costs are relatively small, compared to what we are spending in theater. In 2004, the military paid more than $1.2 billion in permanent and temporary disability benefits to 90,000 people, the GAO said.

More on the hits our men and women in uniform are taking in Iraq, and everything else you might want to know about the Iraq War, in our Iraq 101 guide, here, and on newsstands later this week.

One for the Bizarro File

| Sun Feb. 25, 2007 6:26 PM EST

Not everyday that you see a CNN headline like this: "Genealogists: Thurmond's family owned Sharpton's kin."

The story is this: Genealogists commissioned by the Daily News discovered that Al Sharpton's great-grandfather, Coleman Sharpton, was a slave owned by a woman named Julia Thurmond, whose grandfather was Strom Thurmond's great-great-grandfather. What I really want to know is, did the Daily News get a tip that there was a connection between Sharpton and Thurmond, or do they do genealogical studies of all prominent black Americans to see if their ancestors were owned by the ancestors of prominent white Americans? How creepy would that be?

Late Update: Answers from the WaPo story on the subject:

The genealogy study was produced by researchers for the Web site Ancestry.com. Daily News reporter Austin Fenner initially asked them to research his own roots. He then approached Sharpton and asked if he would permit an investigation of his family history as well, for use in a story. Sharpton agreed. Neither the Daily News nor Sharpton paid for the research.

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Important Gay Rights Bills Likely to Pass This Session

| Sat Feb. 24, 2007 8:46 PM EST

The San Diego Union-Tribune reports today that two breakthrough bills for gays and lesbians are likely to be passed by the new Democratic Congress. Both possibilities have me on the brink of tears of joy, they are so overdue and yet still seem so implausible. The first is an employment discrimination ban. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) projects that the bill will even include gender identity—which, to have any teeth, it must, lest employers shift from discriminating against those who are queer to those who act queer (which it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out they've long since done).

The only problem with this bill—and it's a major one—is that churches and small businesses would be exempt. Churches: Feh—I don't have the energy to wade into the constitutionally murky waters of whether they should be exempt or not. But small businesses, which is to say most businesses? Why should they be exempt? No one is talking about a quota; the issue is whether GLBT people are turned away from positions for which they are qualified.

The other bill would include GLBT identity among those covered by hate-crimes legislation. That's right, nearly 10 years after Matthew Shephard was executed there is no national hate-crimes protection for GLBT people, who make up 14 percent of all victims of hate crimes. If that's not reason enough to support it, here's what Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council has to say: "It's taking us to the point where anyone who opposes the sexual behavior of homosexuals will be silenced." Now, he's probably exaggerating, but just for a moment imagine the utopia of not having to listen to the invented slanderous anecdotes and statistics about GLBTs groups like Perkins' generate. The sweet, sweet silence of it.

But before you let those tears of joy trickle down your cheeks, remember on whose desk the veto pen rests.

Bill Richardson Serious About This "Running for President" Thing

| Sat Feb. 24, 2007 12:26 PM EST

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has an op-ed in today's WaPo arguing that George Bush's refusal to use diplomacy early in his administration led to a nuclear North Korea, and that if we aren't careful we'll repeat our mistakes with Iran. Hard to argue with logic like this:

Rather than directly engaging the Iranians about their nuclear program, President Bush refuses to talk, except to make threats. He has moved ships to the Persian Gulf region and claims, with scant evidence, that Iran is helping Iraqi insurgents kill Americans. This is not a strategy for peace. It is a strategy for war -- a war that Congress has not authorized. Most of our allies, and most Americans, don't believe this president, who has repeatedly cried wolf.
No nation has ever been forced to renounce nuclear weapons, but many have chosen to do so. The Iranians will not end their nuclear program because we threaten them and call them names. They will renounce nukes because we convince them that they will be safer and more prosperous if they do that than if they don't. This feat will take more than threats and insults. It will take skillful American diplomatic leadership.

As I wrote a couple days ago, I totally agree. The funny thing about this is that it isn't just Democratic boilerplate from a presidential candidate. Bill Richardson knows diplomacy. Bill Richardson knows nukes. The man was U.S. ambassador to the U.N., negotiated with Saddam Hussein way back when, negotiated a ceasefire in Darfur more recently, and briefly ran the U.S. Department of Energy under Clinton. (All of this leads me to believe that Richardson, who is unlikely to get the nomination for president, would make an excellent Secretary of State.)

Florida Appeals Court Rules Against Girl Based On Fantasized Future Events

| Fri Feb. 23, 2007 5:07 PM EST

In 2004, two Florida adolescents--16-year-old Amber and 17-year-old Jeremy--took digital photos of themselves nude and engaged in some sort of sexual contact. They then sent the photos from a computer at Amber's house to Jeremy's email address. Somehow, the Tallahassee police got possession of the photos, and both Amber and Jeremy were arrested and charged with producing, directing or promoting a photograph featuring the sexual conduct of a child. Jeremy was also charged with possession of child pornography.

Amber appealed the charge, believing she had the law on her side. In 1995, a Florida court ruled that two 16-year-olds could not be found delinquent for having sex with each other. Since Amber was engaged in legal sex, she and her attorney reasoned that the police had violated her guaranteed right to privacy.

Remember this (edited) exchange between Alice and the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass?

"Suppose he never commits the crime?"
"That would be all the better, wouldn't it?"
"Of course it would be all the better, but it wouldn't be all the better his being punished."
"You're wrong there, at any rate. Were you ever punished?"
"Only for faults."
"And you were all the better for it, I know!"
"Yes, but then I had done the things I was punished for. That makes all the difference."
"But if you hadn't done them, that would have been better still; better, and better, and better!"

This month, a Florida Appeals Court voted 2-1 to uphold the charge against Amber. Writing for the majority, Judge James R. Wolf, speculated that both Amber and Jeremy could have eventually sold the photos to child pornographers or shown them to friends. He also said that transferring the digital images from a camera to a computer and then sending them via email created "innumerable problems" because the computers could be hacked.

Judge Wolf's reasoning must make every Florida parent with photos of their naked children a bit uncomfortable. After all, they might show the photos to friends, and those friends might even sell them to child pornographers. Or one might slip out a of parent's pocket or purse and be picked up by a stranger, who could then sell it to a child pornographer. And who knows how many parents with photos of their naked toddlers might become child pornographers?

Amber and Jeremy are too young to be listed on a sex offender registry, thank goodness, but there is no doubt that their privacy was violated, and there is no telling what kind of psychological effect this circus has had on them.

Ahmad Chalabi Breaks My Spirit

| Fri Feb. 23, 2007 1:51 PM EST

Like a monster that will not die, Ahmad Chalabi is back in the headlines. Apparently everyone's favorite Iraqi troublemaker has gotten himself a job leading the implementation of the surge from the Iraqi end. Story from the subscription-only Wall Street Journal site here, excerpts here.

I won't even bother with this, because I trust all of you know Chalabi's sordid history and because I've spent more brain-hours thinking about Chalabi in the last year than I care to count. But if you want to know why working with this character is bad, bad, bad idea for the American government, see all of the Chalabi entries in the Mother Jones Iraq War Timeline.