Political MoJo

Watch the Polls

| Tue Aug. 16, 2005 8:40 PM EDT

This weeks "Off to the Races" column by Charlie Cook has an interesting theory on voters and Iraq:

For a month or two, there has been a theory circulating among those that watch polls that the American public can be broken down into four distinct groups: those that have always been against the war; those who were for it but now believe we've blown it and should pull out; those who supported the war, believe the invasion was successful but think that the aftermath has been completely blown, yet would hate to see us withdraw immediately and lose all we've invested; and those that have always been for the war.

Pollsters say that the first group -- always against -- makes up about 30 percent of the electorate, while the second group -- those that started off in favor of the war but now see it as a lost cause -- includes about 20 percent. … The third group -- those that are conflicted because they see the effort as doomed and casualties increasing, yet still hate to see us 'cut and run' -- makes up another 25 percent. The last 25 percent remains supportive.

Looking at things from a political standpoint—and with this administration, you can't go too awry looking at things that way—these numbers put the GOP in a bit of a bind come the 2006 midterms, don't they? As far as the war is concerned, those first two groups may never look kindly on Bush and his party for getting us into this Iraq debacle. (That doesn't mean they'll look kindly on Democrats who got us into this war either, but save that for later.) At this point, even a serious draw-down of troops early next year, as Gen. George Casey has suggested, even that might not bring Cooks' group two—"those who were for it but now believe we've blown it"—back into the Republican fold. Although a draw-down might defuse enough anger and anxiety over the war that perhaps some voters from that group two could be persuaded to vote Republican over "moral values," or whatever it is the kids are voting on these days. So who knows? Maybe the administration's looked at the polls and is plotting a hasty withdrawal come 2006.

On the other hand, Bush has recently been suggesting that there will be absolutely no cutting and running on his bold and resolute watch. Now that means either three things: 1) he's lying, and the administration's already planning a hasty retreat come mid-2006, right in time for the elections; 2) Bush doesn't care about the polls and really wants Iraq to succeed, and thinks he's doing the right thing; or 3) deep in his secret lair, Karl Rove's been running the numbers, and he truly believes that the only way to eke out a Republican victory in 2006 is to win over that third group of voters on Cook's list—those that "are conflicted because they see the effort as doomed… yet still hate to see us 'cut and run'"—by getting the president to stand firm. None of these options would surprise me, quite frankly, but I don't think 3) is so outlandish that it's not worth thinking about. To pretend that polls and popular opinion won't effect what goes on in Iraq over the coming months seems, I think, a bit naive.

Meanwhile, as Billmon points out, all of those hawkish, pro-war Democrats you see on TV—Sen. Joseph Biden comes to mind—may be inadvertently undercutting this strategy by suggesting that the president isn't really doing everything in his power to win the war in Iraq. So Biden's call for more troops in Iraq may be wholly impractical, but if it puts Cook's "group three" at ill-ease, then it's not unwise politically. Of course, some of us have suggested that Bush wasn't serious about this war from day one, but then, we're not really the swing voters here, are we? At any rate, then there's the question of how the Democrats are going to handle the 2006 elections; at the moment, they seem to be opting for neocon-lite, and as Billmon says, given the choice between neocon and neocon, voters will probably just pick the genuine article. And meanwhile, once we put the polls away and start thinking about more serious matters, no one seems to have any idea what to do on a policy level to stop Iraq from imploding. (Here is the most serious and considered suggestion I've heard, but it's suitably bleak, so fair warning.) All in all, quite the disaster.

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Medicaid, Roberts, etc.

| Tue Aug. 16, 2005 7:36 PM EDT

My what a lovely lede this story has: "In a series of rulings, federal judges are limiting the ability of poor people to turn to the courts to fight for Medicaid benefits to which they believe they are entitled."

How can federal judges do such a thing? It seems that some patients—yes, mostly the poor—believe that their eligibility for Medicaid entitles them to the same access to health care services as "the general population." But of late, the Supreme Court has admonished lower courts that "they should be reluctant to infer individually enforceable rights where Congress did not explicitly create such rights." And, of course, if equal access to health care isn't a "right" under Medicaid, then it becomes much harder for patients to sue for such protection. Meanwhile, what do we find buried down in the piece but this: "John G. Roberts Jr., President Bush's nominee for the Supreme Court, was an early advocate for [the Supreme Court's] point of view, long before the recent trend emerged."

In related news, the Democrats aren't going to fight Roberts' nomination, and many of them even plan on voting for him—despite the fact that Roe v. Wade could be all but nullified if Roberts gets confirmed—and, as Sam Rosenfeld chronicles over at TAPPED, Medicaid is coming under further attack from the states and the federal government. Happy times.

Doctor, Recuse Thyself

Tue Aug. 16, 2005 3:01 PM EDT

Today's New York Times has a piece looking into a June Journal of the American Medical Association article about doctors who serve as paid consultants to investment companies. These companies are looking for an investing edge in medical fields, such as biotech and drug development, and since doctors are ultimately the ones who implement or prescribe many treatments, their judgments are valuable. Providing that sort of information isn't illegal, barring investment conflict-of-interests. But doctors are occasionally privy to results and information about clinical trials or feasibility studies before regulators or the general public. Today's Times article comes on the heels of a Seattle Times investigation that found at least 26 cases of doctors leaking confidential information in paid conversations. In some cases, this had clearly observable effects on stock prices as investors reacted. Overall, the flavor of the New York Times article is that doctors should avoid these relationships, which for the most part don't result in illegal information sharing, to avoid the appearance of impropriety. In the few cases where information is leaked, most seem willing to assume that the doctors are just making small, unintended disclosure mistakes.

But the trading firms certainly know better than to use what they are told. The paper trail seems clear: The Seattle Times was able to obtain investment research reports showing that the financial companies were making recommendations to their clients on inside information obtained from the doctors. The SEC has started investigating, but convictions might be hard to come by, as prosecutors will have to prove that doctors gave specifically prohibited kinds of information, and that those pieces of information formed the conclusions that were passed on to investors, rather than the legal general impressions that may have also been collected. In any case the new light on the problem, and now federal involvement, ought to put some cold water on the future of similar payment schemes.

Rebutting the IDers

| Tue Aug. 16, 2005 1:50 PM EDT

Once when I was about twelve, I visited China, where, during lunch, my family and I watched, gape-mouthed as the police chased a man scrambling through a restaurant, bowling over chairs left and right. Finally they tackled him to the ground and dragged him outside by the scruff of his neck. Through the window we could see four policemen take turns punching the guy in the head again and again. Pow! Pow! And when he tried to resist? Pow! Pow! It was all very horrifying, but somewhat perversely, that was the image that came to mind while reading Jerry Coyne takedown of "intelligent design" in this week's New Republic. Brutal and unrelenting. If you're looking for the definitive rebuttal of ID, this is pretty much it.

Kick the Can

| Tue Aug. 16, 2005 1:28 PM EDT

This… definitely falls into the category of arcane-yet-important budget stuff, but Health Affairs has a new study out on the ways in which various states dealt with their fiscal crises during Bush's first term. The short answer: not very well. Most state legislatures, not surprisingly, were reluctant to treat the shortfalls as long-term crises, so they refrained from raising taxes or taking other difficult and politically unpopular measures to shore up their deficits. Rather, they just kicked the can down the road, either by borrowing money from other funds—New York's legislature drew out money from its welfare fund; California from the transportation kitty—or by making "one-time" cuts in state health programs, such as Medicaid and S-CHiP, by, for instance, making it more difficult for residents to qualify, or by raising co-payments.

The problem with all this is that these moves weren't just "one-time" cuts necessary to weather the fiscal crises: Since 2004, tax revenues have finally been increasing again, but most states still haven't solved their long-term budget problems, and can't use the additional funds to expand Medicaid again. As the study puts it: "the damage that the recent recession did to Medicaid may take years to repair." That means less health care for everyone, despite the fact that we're in the middle of an economic boom, supposedly. The lesson here, it seems, is that the Bush administration's first-term reluctance to send federal relief down to the states during the recession—a measure many economists had advocated, and the federal government didn't get around to doing until 2003—has created problems that persist to this day. Even more crucially, though, someone needs to point out that state legislatures can't get away with pretending to take "one-time emergency actions" to deal with budget crunches.

Condoleeza Rice: Francophile

| Mon Aug. 15, 2005 6:51 PM EDT

Fred Kaplan is trying to figure out what to make of Condoleeza Rice's first term thus far. After rattling off a bunch of her accomplishments—including the resumption of nuclear talks with North Korea (a feat that probably had more to do with South Korea's offer of electricity than American diplomacy) and crafting a "war crimes" resolution against Sudan—he calls her accomplishments "considerable." I'd disagree—in fact, measures like the UN resolution against Sudan, which was then followed by absolutely no international action, may have done more harm than good—but Kaplan's right on when he says: " Yet these feats are only stirring because of who she's working for. They are the sorts of things—conducting diplomacy, entering negotiations, dealing with international organizations—that secretaries of state in most administrations do routinely."

Right on, but more to the point, most of these steps were things that John Kerry was practically pleading with George W. Bush to take all during the 2004 campaign. Now fair enough, the election's over, and it's hard to get upset over the fact that the Bush administration has essentially adopted Kerry's foreign policy, after spending a year telling the electorate how weak-kneed it was, and how unsafe it would make America. I just wish the press would actually make note of this fact, so that, you know, they could call foul the next time a presidential candidate gets depicted as a flower-strewing wimp for pointing out that, hey, maybe doing nothing while Kim Jong Il develops nuclear weapons isn't the best idea after all. But that's probably hoping for too much.

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Deadline Extensions

| Mon Aug. 15, 2005 5:48 PM EDT

Ah, so it looks like the deadline for the Iraqi constitution will be pushed back an extra seven days. No idea why disagreements that were intractable today will somehow become tractable a week from now, but one can always hope—it's what everyone's been doing for the past two years, after all. On the plus side, this debt story in the Financial Times seems like positive news.

A Tax Battle Brewing?

| Mon Aug. 15, 2005 5:08 PM EDT

Paul Krugman has it right: Now that the Social Security privatization debate has all but died down—though admittedly a few dead-enders are still fighting—the Bush administration will likely focus on tax reform when Congress powers back up this fall. Expect similar tactics: lies, fudged numbers, and more scare stories about how the rich aren't working hard enough because they have too little money, and the poor aren't working hard enough because they have too much.

One possible talking point to watch out for: Bush will probably talk about how a "flat tax" will make the tax code simpler and more efficient. Michael Kinsley had a grand little column a few weeks ago on how the "flat tax" doesn't, by itself, make the tax code any simpler. The tax code isn't complex because some people have to multiply their income by 35 percent and others by 28 percent. It's complex because calculating income is complex, and calculating deductions are complex, and corporate loopholes are complex, and a flat tax rate won't solve any of that; all it offers is a tax cut for the top brackets and a tax hike for the bottom—which, granted, solves the "problem" mentioned above.

Abandon What?

| Mon Aug. 15, 2005 4:42 PM EDT

Robert Dreyfuss' piece on how to get out of Iraq, linked to by Clint below, is good and worthy of discussion, so let's discuss. This part of his plan, in particular, seems to me as outrageous as any delusion dreamed up by the Bush administration:

Talks in Amman, or Geneva, or at the United Nations, could serve as a vehicle for dissolving the current Iraqi interim government and holding elections that could produce a far more legitimate and broad-based regime in Baghdad. [I]t is perfectly clear what the United States has to do: It must abandon its deformed offspring in Baghdad, the hapless regime of Shia fanatics and Kurdish warlords, and pray that it can establish direct talks with the people it is fighting.

And, pray tell, why should the "Shiite fanatics" or "Kurdish warlords" go along with this idea? Right now, as thorny as the talks over the new constitution are getting, they all have a pretty good deal: not only do they hold disproportionate power in the National Assembly, they're also in position to siphon off a good deal of oil wealth from their respective regions. Meanwhile, Shiite militias control southern Iraq, and have shown they have no trouble toppling, say, rival mayors in Baghdad when the mood suits them. The Kurdish warlords, for their part, remain extremely popular in Kurdistan (if anything, Barzani and Talabani are criticized for not pushing hard enough for Kurdish independence), and still control an army of some 100,000 peshmerga fighters. Dislodging these two groups from positions of influence and power would be a pretty neat trick.

And yes, it's true, many Shiites are secular or moderate, and strongly dislike the fundamentalist governments holding near-tyrannical sway in southern provinces like Basra. At the same time, the US already experimented with putting a secular Shiite in charge, and Ayad Allawi proved none too popular, as I recall. Now a U.S. offer of withdrawal in exchange for Sunni participation in the government has some appeal, granted—as Spencer Ackerman explained a while back—but the idea that somehow a negotiated settlement with both insurgents and "the people" could take place over the heads of the current National Assembly—and, let's be honest, over the head of Shiite leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani—borders on fantasy. At any rate, as far as one can tell, the current Iraqi government already has offered many of the things Dreyfuss thinks the US should offer—including amnesty for insurgents—although the reports here are conflicted: according to some, Ahmed Chalabi has been the one scotching these sorts of deals; according to others, the countervailing pressure comes from the United States. Nevertheless, even if elements of the current Iraqi government really are the ones burning all the olive branches, that still leaves the question—can the US really just dislodge the current government from power? Not likely.

How to Get Out

Mon Aug. 15, 2005 4:25 PM EDT

Vermont Senator George Aiken once offered LBJ a succinct Vietnam exit strategy along the lines of "declare victory and get out." And of course, it's been quoted by a ton of folks. But failing that unilateral approach, Robert Dreyfuss has a piece on what international Iraq peace talks might look like. He argues that talking our way out might be the best way to avoid a civil war-like disintegration of Iraq. The most important question: what resistance forces actually get invited? (Apparently the Russians have some thoughts about that guest list.)

But first, says Dreyfuss, the U.S. would first have to publicly concede that it won't win the war militarily, issue widespread amnesty for Baathist-era crimes, and draw back to bases in Iraq only to venture out for protective purposes. I won't disagree that that would be what it would take to get any sort of negotiations going—and those steps seem to mostly be an honest reckoning about the facts on the ground. Of course I don't have much faith in the administration facing up like that. But Dreyfuss has the broad outlines of a plan that occupation opponents can work with; and it's far more sensible than the stay the course/ blame Bush/and hope for the best non-thinking that Senator Biden flacked this weekend on Meet The Press, or the cut-n-run strawman.