December 2003, Part 1
Jim Miller on Politics
- 5:48 AM, 25 December 2003 [link]
Christmas Cards: As one who usually struggles, not always successfully, to get his Christmas cards out on time, I can only be awed by George and Laura Bush. Last year they sent 1 million cards; this year they are sending 1.5 million, all postmarked Crawford, Texas, though actually mailed from Dallas, as I understand it. Since most cards go to families, they are reaching at least 3 million voters. A few days ago, I mentioned his skill at retail politics; now I must be impressed by his skill in converting what is usually part of retail politics, the Christmas card, to wholesale politics. The choice of the card is important, mostly because you want to avoid offending anyone. This card, with its pleasant watercolor painting, seems just right. (Interestingly, the artist did the painting without charging for it, though I am sure that a White House commission won't hurt her business.)
(George Bush has reason to respect the power of a good Christmas card list. When he started in the oil business, he raised money for the venture by calling the people on his parents' Christmas card list.)
If you want to compare Bush to other presidents, you can look at this series of presidential cards, beginning with Herbert Hoover. The Clinton card in the series seemed garish to me; I don't think that my distaste for their politics is the reason for my opinion, but I won't say I am absolutely certain of that.
Cherie and Tony Blair's card shows some of the hazards of Christmas cards for the politician. Like most leaders, the Blairs want to protect their children from the press, and so they sent out two cards, a private one with all of the Blairs pictured, and an official one without the children. Naturally, the private one got most of the press attention. They dodged some other hazards, as W. F. Deedes notes, by not choosing a religious theme. It is odd that politics makes it wise for two political families with strong religious beliefs not to mention them on their Christmas cards.
- 4:37 PM, 24 December 2003 [link]
Happy Holidays? When the BBC tells you that that your political correctness is "curious", it would be well to pay attention, since the BBC is not an institution that generally rejects political correctness.
For an overwhelmingly Christian country which prides itself on freedom of expression, removing "offensive" Christmas trees and censoring school Santas may seem curious.One form that the political correctness takes is the replacement of "Merry Christmas" with "Happy Holidays" or "Seasons Greetings". Eugene Volokh, who is not a Christian, finds that more than a little bit silly in this post, recycled from last year. (I would say I can think of one group that might like "Seasons Greetings"—skiers.)
Talk show host Michael Medved has been telling his listeners, citing a poll, that 95 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas. The 5 percent that do not should just relax and be a little more tolerant about hearing an occasional "Merry Christmas" for a week or two.
- 7:48 AM, 24 December 2003 [link]
Did He Have His Fingers Crossed When He Took The Oath? Ramzy Baroud is an "American-Arab journalist based in the Seattle area". When he saw Saddam's capture, he had mixed feelings, as he explains in this op-ed piece.
"Are We Winning Now?" a headline arrogantly inquired, condescendingly proclaiming the capture of the former Iraqi president.Baroud's principal allegiance is not to the United States, but to an idea of the Arab nation.
Saddam, in his eccentric ways, symbolized the last drive for pan-Arab nationalism. In many ways, he was unrivaled. He was one of very few who dared to stand up to what many people in the world see as a harsh and domineering United States. To many people living in the Middle East, Saddam Hussein was simply the "lesser of the two evils."Eccentric! Now there's a adjective I had not seen applied to the brutal dictator. Note also the dishonest way Baroud makes his argument. Not "I think" or "I believe", but "many people in the world see". And it is more than a bit disgusting for him to claim that he is "not a fan of tyranny".
Unfortunately for both him and us, these beliefs are in direct conflict with the oath he took when he became an American citizen.
Here's the oath in full:
I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.(Some people, pacifists I assume, are allowed to skip the phrase about bearing arms.)
Did Baroud renounce and abjure all allegiance? No. Will he defend the US against all enemies? No. When he took that oath, he obviously had mental reservations. I don't know if there are legal grounds for revoking his citizenship, even though it was gained by fraud, but there are moral grounds for that action. Baroud should voluntarily renounce the citizenship he gained fraudulently and go elsewhere.
- 1:38 PM, 23 December 2003
More: Stefan Sharkansky has a detailed critique of Baroud's op-ed piece in this post. Real Clear Politics also had some unfavorable comments.
And, one more thought: Did the Seattle Times deliberately publish this on a day when it would get less attention? Most likely.
- 6:10 AM, 24 December 2003 [link]
Now That Howard Dean Has Become The Democratic Frontrunner , as he has in the last month, we should ask what he stands for. Two writers, one from the left and one from the right, agree that Dean does not stand "for", but stands "against". From the right, Brendan Miniter notes that Dean is promising more partisanship.
Washington remains a bitterly partisan place, but the Democratic front-runner is upset about how little partisan wrangling there has been. That's right, Mr. Dean isn't interested in bringing tranquil, somber deliberations to the Beltway. The essence of his campaign is the promise of much more partisanship and a purge of the Democratic Party leadership.From the left, William Saletan agrees:
Dean often says Democrats can't win by running as "Bush lite." Thursday, he accused "Washington Democrats" of failing to oppose President Bush more diametrically on Iraq, tax cuts, and education. "The Democratic Party has to offer a clear alternative," he argued. Toward that end, Dean rejects nearly every proposition or policy put forward by Bush.Saletan explains what's wrong with that approach. It is bad policy and bad politics. It lets your opponent define you so that: "Pretty soon, you're against Mom and apple pie." It failed when Al Gore tried it.
Emphasizing partisanship can succeed when one party has a big lead in support. It helped Truman win in 1948, when the Democratic party had a big lead in identifiers. Now, however, the country is split into three almost equal groups, so in a high turnout presidential election, it is not a sensible strategy, because independents do not not respond well to partisan appeals. (It may be significant that Vermont has enough Democrats so that emphasizing partisanship could be a winning strategy in that small state. Clinton defeated Dole there by 22 percentage points in 1996.)
Dean will have another difficulty in a general election, if he gains the nomination. He is careless with the facts. As I have mentioned before, newspapers like the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times are beginning to note his "contradictions". Now, an Iowa newspaper caught him in a serious misstatement:
Asked by The Quad-City Times, which is based in Davenport, Iowa, to complete the sentence "My closest living relative in the armed services is," Dr. Dean wrote in August, "My brother is a POW/MIA in Laos, but is almost certainly dead."Or two serious misstatements, since Dean's brother is no longer alive, as Dean admits. When this kind of mistake happens, the best thing to do is apologize and blame it on bad staffwork. Instead, Dean blustered, as he almost always does. (Will this blunder and similar ones shake the faith of his followers. Probably not. I may do some checking on that after Christmas.)
Given these Dean problems, one might wonder why the Democratic establishment doesn't unite against him. David Brooks has a plausible explanation in this column. They have lost their nerve. Why they have is a question I will come back to later.
- 8:31 AM, 23 December 2003 [link]
Mercury And Molly Ivins: In eight years in office, Bill Clinton did nothing to reduce mercury pollution. Now, as part of his "Clear Skies" program to reduce air pollution, President Bush is proposing to cut mercury pollution by one third immediately and almost 70 percent over the next 15 years. Here's how fact-challenged Molly Ivins reacts:
I can't tell whether this administration is flaunting its cynicism, its contempt for science or its conviction that, when in power, you help your contributors and fry your enemies -- although how millions of small children and unborn fetuses came to be enemies of George W. Bush & Co. is beyond my political or theological understanding.Before I correct Ivins, some background. Mercury, by itself, is not terribly dangerous. Unfortunately, there are many natural processes that convert it to methyl-mercury, which is. It can then move through the food chain and concentrate in levels high enough to cause damage. In the last century, there have been large scale cases of mercury poisoning in Iraq (from pesticide contamination) and in Japan (from eating contaminated fish), but no recent ones. The amount of mercury deposited in the United States increased from 1900 to 1950, and has decreased since then to about one half or one third of its peak. The decrease stopped in 1995, and since then the level of deposition has been stable. Much of the mercury deposited in the United States now comes from natural sources, mostly volcanoes and evaporation from sea water, and from other nations, especially China. The leveling off has probably come because of the great increase in power production in China, which uses very dirty coal plants for most of its power.
It is not clear whether the low levels of mercury we now encounter are dangerous to our health generally, or even to those most at risk, unborn babies. The "Medpundit" describes two benchmark studies that show why we are still uncertain.
One took place in the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic. The other, in the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean. In the Faroe Islands, where the predominant seafood is whale meat, subtle changes in some measures of intellect were found with increasing levels of prenatal mercury exposure. In the Seychelles, where fish is the predominant food, children with higher mercury levels at birth actually fared better intellectually. (That may not be as crazy as it seems. There's some evidence that low doses of some toxins could be beneficial.)If we were to judge by these two studies, we would advise mothers who want smart kids to avoid whale meat (not hard in the US), but to eat a little extra fish when they are expecting. We would not conclude anything at all about the danger of such low levels of mercury. Unless, that is, you work at the EPA, in which case you can take two conflicting studies and decide that the level of mercury should be lowered. The Bush administration, perhaps wrongly, has gone along with its scientists.
One scare statistic in the Ivins column requires an explanation. Ivins says:
Eight percent of American women of childbearing age already have mercury in their blood above the Environmental Protection Agency's "safe level."That seems frightening until you learn what it actually means:
A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control reported that eight percent of women of childbearing age have blood mercury levels greater than EPA's "reference dose" - a safety limit set at one-tenth the level believed to cause subtle neurological impairment in children.In other words, they could have ten times as much mercury before they would be endangered, from what we now know. For some reason, Ivins doesn't mention that.
There are two main ways the level of mercury might be lowered. Traditionally, in controlling pollution, the government would set upper limits by regulation that would apply to all sources and then use inspections and fines to force compliance. This was slow, since the polluters would resist compliance in the courts and politically, and often quite expensive.
More recently, we have moved to "cap and trade" systems for reducing pollution. A maximum is set for the total pollutant allowed (the cap), which declines over time. Existing polluters are given legal rights to pollute about as much as they are currently. They can then trade these rights with other firms. This gives the firms that can cut pollutants cheaply a powerful incentive to do so, since they can then sell their rights to other firms. In practice, "cap and trade" systems have been great successes, reducing pollution much faster with much less cost than regulations. In general, if you want to bash evil polluters, regulations are better; if you want to reduce pollution, cap and trade systems are better.
After deciding to reduce mercury pollution, the Bush administration decided to do it with a cap and trade system, instead of regulating power plants. That is what Molly Ivins is complaining about. The Bush administration is promising an immediate cut of one third in mercury emissions from power plants and a decrease of about 70 percent by 2018, but she doesn't like the way they plan to do it. The complete lack of action by the Clinton administration on mercury pollution did not bother her then, and does not bother her now.
(An argument can be made that, in this case, regulation would be better than a cap and trade system since mercury is more localized than other pollutants. Gregg Easterbrook, one of the better writers on the environment, makes just that argument in this post, but he is tentative about his conclusions. I think he is wrong because of the many failures of regulation in the past, our uncertainty about the best methods for reducing mercury emissions, and most of all because, in fact, mercury is not localized. As Dr. Harold Koenig, a former U. S. Navy Surgeon General, says:
Mercury travels great distances before leaving the atmosphere. Much of the mercury deposited on our nation's waterways comes from natural or international sources. Any attempt to reduce mercury levels in fish in bodies of water will require actions to reduce mercury emissions on a global scale, rather than a point source scale.There are more promising ways to reduce global mercury pollution. Dr, Willie Soon describes some here.)
Let's summarize. Current scientific evidence does not show definitively that our low levels of mercury pollution are hazardous to health. The Bush administration, unlike the Clinton administration, is proposing to cut those levels sharply anyway. For choosing a different method to achieve those reductions, one that has been wildly successful with other pollutants, Molly Ivins is accusing the administration of poisoning babies.
At the end, Ivins claims that "mommies" can recognize a "cynical sack of excrement". (Whether "daddies" can, too, is something she does not discuss.) If they can—and studies of the level of scientific knowledge in the public are not promising—mommies will not care for the stench from this column.
- 8:11 PM, 22 December 2003 [link]
Guardian Cartoonist Steve Bell is among those who are unhappy at Saddam's capture, as you can see in this cartoon. Bell follows his usual practice, drawing Saddam, a dictator some compare to Hitler, with much more respect than he does George Bush. Bell might benefit from reading the testimony from these Iraqi victims of Saddam. Or maybe not. Bell does not strike me as a man with a mind open to new evidence.
- 9:20 AM, 22 December 2003 [link]
Journalists Wonder Why Bush Ignores Them: USA Today columnist Peter Johnson seems honestly puzzled. That the Bush administration thinks that journalists are often inaccurate, usually biased, and sometimes hostile does not seem to register with him. You can see why if you read the column and look at his sources. Every source whose politics I can identify is on the left. Johnson completely ignores popular critics of the press like Bernard Goldberg, author of Bias, and academic critics like Robert Lichter. In other words, Johnson is guilty of the same thing he accuses Bush of, ignoring his critics.
For what it is worth, I think Bush is right to mostly ignore the press when making decisions. And, I confess that I share his indifference to the New York Times editorials; they simply are not impressive enough intellectually to be worth much time. In his short time as executive editor at the New York Times, Howell Raines did considerable damage to the newspaper. He was editorial page editor for far longer and did far more damage there. The people he chose may fill "diversity" slots but they do not write very good editorials.
(Here's an example from the Media Research archives. On the same day the House of Representatives passed the 29 percent increase in education funding that Bush had requested, the New York Times said this in an editorial: "Mr. Bush's rejection of increased education spending in the budget has made a mockery of his pledge to 'leave no child behind'...." Why pay attention to people who ignore the facts?)
And I think Bush is also right to needle the unelected mandarins of the press from time to time, as he did at the White House Christmas reception:
When President Bush warned David Gregory of NBC at a news conference last week not to pocket the White House silverware at a coming party, he was a little more than halfway through an Iditarod of holiday receptions at the Executive Mansion.Gregory was consistently hostile to Bush through the entire 2000 campaign and has continued to be ever since. Like the BBC, he seemed to take the capture of Saddam very badly.
(The article also has an interesting discussion of Bush's formidable political skills. Bush has, Bumiller tells us, "an uncanny ability to remember small details about thousands of friends, acquaintances and staff members: the names of new babies; the number of children a guest has; the fact that an old college classmate played the trumpet his freshman year".)
- 7:10 AM, 22 December 2003 [link]
Who Do You Trust? John Tierney finds a curious result in one of those odd focus group studies.
Suppose your teenager will be abroad for a year as a foreign exchange student living with a guardian. Which Democratic presidential candidate would you pick as that guardian?You may recall that, in 1996, a poll found that Americans preferred Bill Clinton to Bob Dole, both as a babysitter and as the person to choose the pizza. It may just be that independents don't care much for Howard Dean, for any responsible role.
- 8:01 AM, 21 December 2003 [link]
When The Telegraph Published an article on a document linking Saddam and 9/11, I expressed some skepticism in this post. Now, Newsweek casts doubt on the timeline in the document.
While all of Atta's movements cannot be accounted for, enough is known to make it "highly unlikely" that the September 11 ringleader could have flown off to Baghdad for a three-day work program with Iraqi intelligence, a FBI official told NEWSWEEK. For similar reasons, the bureau has long since discounted claims by Czech intelligence—and widely promoted by some Iraq hawks in the Bush administration—that Atta had flown to Prague to meet with an Iraqi intelligence agent around April 8, 2001.This does not close the case on the document because some researchers, notably Edward Jay Epstein, think that the FBI has the timeline wrong.
One reason I was skeptical about the document from the beginning is that it seemed too good to be true, providing evidence of both Saddam's link to 9/11 and his search for uranium in Niger. It seemed unlikely that a single document would cover two subjects so different.
- 7:30 AM, 21 December 2003 [link]
Osama Bin Laden Is Still Dead: Probably. I have thought this for about a year, since there have been no new video tapes of him. If he were alive, it would be easy for him to make a tape with a newspaper or something else to verify the date. Such a tape, played on al Jazeera and other propaganda outlets, would be a powerful propaganda weapon. (There has been one tape, said to be from last spring, but there was no visual evidence in it that verified the date.) It is just possible that he is disabled or disfigured in some way that would make a propaganda tape useless, but that seems unlikely to me. Now, his supporters are even recycling audio tapes, which provides even more evidence that he is no longer alive.
- 6:55 AM, 21 December 2003 [link]
Imitation Is The Sincerest Form Of Flattery: So, since these German reforms are not original, who should be flattered? Let see, the Schröder government has cut taxes, moved to a freer market in employment, and, though the article does not mention it, taken steps to reform welfare. In Britain the party most associated with those ideas is the Conservatives, and in the United States, it is the Re . . , well, I'd better not give away the name and spoil things for Schröder's Social Democrats. I will give this hint, however; the head of that American party is often called a "cowboy" in Europe. It is fun to imagine, though it will never happen, a reporter asking Schröder why he is imitating the "cowboy".
There's a historical lesson here for Americans. It is no secret that Bill Clinton was enormously impressed by the success of the German welfare state in the 1980s, and wanted to imitate parts of it. And I don't doubt that there are parts of it worth imitating, but I think it fair to say that it now needs drastic reform. Sometimes the faults in a system only become apparent over time.
Naturally, I wish the Germans well in this effort. This kind of reform is almost always very difficult to bring about, since the costs are immediate and direct, and the benefits mostly in the future and indirect.
- 2:52 PM, 20 December 2003 [link]
Libya's Decision To Give Up Their WMDs was great news for Libya, the Middle East, and the world. It was not great news for Le Monde, as you can see in today's cartoon. (Although it appears today, it is dated the 21st.) The cartoon shows Bush, backed by an arsenal, confronting the Libyan leader, Khadaffy, and saying, "Halte aux ADM!... Nos avons le monopole!" Or, as I would translate it, "Stop the WMDs! We have the monopoly!"
In fact, Libya has chemical and perhaps biological weapons, but the United States does not. We gave up our arsenal of those weapons during the Nixon administration, under an agreement with the Soviet Union. (The Soviets cheated on the agreement, as we learned later.) We do have nuclear weapons, but so do Russia, Great Britain, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and, of course, France. Our nuclear arsenal has been reduced greatly since its peak during the Cold War.
It is bizarre, but no longer surprising, to be accused of wanting a monopoly over weapons that others have, but we do not.
- 8:13 AM, 20 December 2003 [link]
The BBC Took The Capture of Saddam Very Hard , as emailer Janet Gerson told the Telegraph:
When I heard the 11am news bulletin [on Saddam's capture] on Sunday, I feared from the tone of voice of the news reader he was about to announce that a member of the royal family had died.(If that link doesn't work, you can find the entire email in the December 17th Feedback section. The Janet Daly column Gerson mentions is here.) I got the same impression as Gerson when I heard the BBC last Sunday. This morning, however, there was no mistaking the pleasure their Baghdad correspondent took from his interview with a businessman who preferred the "order" of Saddam's regime. Naturally, the BBC did not mention that much of the crime and disorder are being caused by criminals released by Saddam just before he was overthrown. Also naturally, there was no interview with the many businessmen who are prospering under the new freedom.
But the BBC is resilient; they have recovered enough to decide that it is wrong to call Saddam a "dictator", because he did, after all, win a faked referendum. (As dictators almost always do when they go to the trouble of arranging one.)
- 7:25 AM AM, 20 December 2003 [link]
More On the Halliburton "Overcharges" In Iraq: In this post, I noted that the evidence so far did not support the Democratic charge that Halliburton was overcharging the Pentagon for gasoline in Iraq. Byron York has more on the controversy, including this about the difficulty of delivering the fuel:
"Not many people want to drive eight to fifteen days through a war zone with a truck full of flammable materials," the company says. "Three drivers have been killed and many others injured while performing this mission, and 60 vehicles have been damaged."That would tend to increase the prices, I suspect.
- 7:42 AM, 19 December 2003 [link]
All The Marines Want For Christmas are some unmanned surveillance planes, dust controlling chemicals, troop tracking systems, and other items that will give them an edge when they go back to Iraq. Their requests to the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory don't include any of the usual Christmas gifts, apparently. Sometimes practical gifts are the best choice.
One of our great strengths is our adaptability; we may be able to provide many of those items before the Marines deploy to Iraq again. That the DragonEye unmanned airplane is one of the most requested items shows again how crucial intelligence is in this conflict.
- 6:53 AM, 19 December 2003 [link]
These Criticisms Of Howard Dean don't come from the Bush campaign or the right wing media. No, they come from reporters at the liberal Washington Post:
Howard Dean's penchant for flippant and sometimes false statements is generating increased criticism from his Democratic presidential rivals and raising new questions about his ability to emerge as a nominee who can withstand intense, sustained scrutiny and defeat President Bush.And from the editorialists at the same paper:
Mr. Dean's carefully prepared speech was described as a move toward the center, but in key ways it shifted him farther from the mainstream. A year ago Mr. Dean told a television audience that "there's no question that Saddam Hussein is a threat to the United States and to our allies," but last weekend he declared that "I never said Saddam was a danger to the United States." Mr. Dean has at times argued that the United States must remain engaged to bring democracy to Iraq, yet the word is conspicuously omitted from the formula of "stable self-government" he now proposes. The former Vermont governor has compiled a disturbing record of misstatements and contradictions on foreign policy; maybe he will shift yet again, this time toward more responsible positions.And from a staff writer at the leftist Los Angeles Times:
As his rivals have stepped up their criticism of his stance on Iraq, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's public statements about the war are under increasing scrutiny, revealing a candidate whose off-the-cuff style has sometimes led him to take contradictory positions.(You have to admire the passive voice in that last sentence, and the shifting of blame. Dean's style "has sometimes led him to take contradictory positions" sounds so much nicer than the more direct, "Dean sometimes contradicts himself".)
Perhaps Dean should add a little Walt Whitman to his stock speech:
Do I contradict myself?Though how voters will determine which of those multitudes, if any, is the real Howard Dean, I do not know.
(The Spinsanity site has a good analysis of "Dean's not-so-straight talk on Bush and the war", if you want a more comprehensive treatment. And, for more examples of how Dean is being deceptive, see this Rich Lowry column on Dean's charges that Bush cut soldier's pay (not true), and cut back on veteran's benefits, which have increased from 48 to 64 billion dollars.)
- 8:50 AM, 18 December 2003 [link]
Strom Thurmond's Grandson Is Proud Of Him: Even though Dr. Williams is just now admitting the relationship publicly.
Following his mother's lead, a 53-year-old doctor in Onalaska has come forward to talk openly about his heritage as the mixed-race grandson of the late South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, a former segregationist.Thurmond helped Williams get a scholarship to medical school. Thurmond's change in later years made it possible for Williams to forgive him.
Williams has forgiven Thurmond for his history of racist politics: he said his grandfather redeemed himself in later years by reversing his opposition to civil rights legislation and being one of the first senators to hire black aides.(Morton is a small town in a depressed rural area of Washington state, Years ago, the loggers and farmers there would have considered any black an object of curiosity; now they have one running the emergency room at the local hospital.)
- 7:00 AM, 18 December 2003 [link]
There Will Be Fewer Posts for the next few days, while I catch up on Christmas preparations.
- 5:46 AM, 18 December 2003 [link]
Trying Saddam: Iraq has the best case for trying Saddam, but Iran and Kuwait have nearly as good cases. And there are other countries, including our own, that have good reason to try him. We could even use an international tribunal, though the precedents are not entirely positive. And there's another wicked possibility that occurs to me. An old, some say obsolete, meaning of "try" is "To melt (lard, for example) to separate out impurities; render". No, I don't think we should try Saddam that way, but it's fun to think, for a minute or two, about him cooking over a slow fire, isn't it?
- 5:22 AM, 17 December 2003 [link]