Friday, February 15, 2008

standing up to fear

Yesterday, House Democrats finally did something to defend the consitution by not doing anything. The Orewellianly titled "Protect America Act" was signed into law in August, when Congress was trying to head back to their districts/states to campaign and "suddenly" a terrorist warning for the Capitol came out. NSA head Mike McConnell threatened an attack if Congress didn't pass the they did. Of course, no plot was uncovered, no suspects were arrested and nothing happened. Except that telecom companies, who are facing lawsuits from their customers because they alledgedly violated their privacy, were temporarily shielded from liability.

That liability was set to run out the beginning of 2008. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Harry Reid promised civil liberarians that they wouldn't be a rubber stamp next time around. Yet Reid chose a Bush-blessed bill over a rhetroactive-immunity-free version for debate, and it passed the senate with 58 votes. Rather than rushing to pass an identical version of the bill in the House, the leadership there finally showed some leadership...and allowed the PAA to expire yesterday before Congress once again went home for a long weekend.

Bush and his allies claimed that the House had "let the terrorist win" by depriving them of effective tools to catch suspects. This is however, patently false. Now that the PAA is no longer in effect, those seeking to wiretap must get a warrrant from a secret court located inside the Justice Department's DC office building that has only denied warrants a handful of times in 30 years. Oh, and these warrants may be acquired 72 hours AFTER the suspect had been wiretapped.

Besides immunity to AT&T and other companies that allowed NSA to install devices to listen into all of our calls without a warrant, the PAA also allowed the Attorney General's word to trump any need for judicial review, since Bush's Attorney Generals are known for their "honesty" and "independence." FISA is a product of both the Watergate scandal and the Church Committee, which discovered that the Government is happy to spy on American citizens and political enemies of the Oval Office if no one notices.

Now we don't know what the Administration's been listening to or why. We do that the warrantless wiretapping program began BEFORE 9/11. We also know that due to the volume of calls, that no government agency could employ a sufficient number of people to listen to them all. Therefore, the devices installed in places like AT&T San Franscico office are designed for data mining. In fact, we have a former AT&T employee who gives us all the details of how it was done at his company. We don't know who the targets were or are, but we do know the potential for abuse of such absolute power (see Nixon, Richard Millhouse and Lord Acton) is there and we know that data mining has at best questionable utility in finding/stopping terrorist activities.

Some are willing to pull out all the stops (like laws and the constitution) to reduce any potential threat to the United States, even if it ironically makes the potential for threats worse by wasting time, effort and money on something useless and/or incites more people to join the Jihad against America. VP Cheney calls it the one-percent-doctrine, that is, if there is even a one percent chance that something might threaten US security, it is the responsibilty of the government to treat it as a certainty and do everything to stop it from occuring. I seem to recall that in 1945, we set up international tribunals to prosecute crimes against humanity, including those who tortured (using waterboarding) their enemies to gain intelligence to save their country. We lead the world to establish international laws against torture and for human rights shortly thereafter.

We beat the Soviets, the Nazis, and the Japanese without the use of torture or the need to spy on our own people without warrants. While the threat to American saftey from religious extremists remains very real, it is no where near as big a threat as those three were to the United States. No government, no matter how well meaning, should be above the law that created it.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

debating debates

Many pixels have been spilled over the Democratic presidential race recently on side issues--like how Super Delegates should vote, what to do about Michigan and Florida--which probably will all fall into place if either Obama keeps on winning or HRC takes off again. (more on where the race is going below) But the silliest discussion line of them all is about debates.

Hillary Clinton is much better at debating than Barack Obama and she is also at this point behind him in the race. Therefore, she is calling for debates like Sam I Am called for the eating of Green Eggs and Ham ("...would you would you in box, would you would you on Fox [News]?"). It is as simple as that. And to waste hundreds of thousands on an ad that mentions that seems to be a waste, even if she was able to sneak her in advantage on health care. Why not spend that money on spending a day in Wisconsin, which shows her within the margin of error? Instead, she is camping out in Texas and Ohio. I just don't get it.

Obama's response is pretty lame too. But is the public really clammoring for more debates? And who really makes their minds based on a debate? In 2004, Kerry cleaned Bush's clock in the debates, but he still lost. In 2000, Bush won due to the expectations game (and sighing by Gore)...yet Gore won the popular vote. My favorite "TV show" these days is CNN's ballot bowl, because it shows alll of the candidates at their events (rallies or town halls) without commentary. I know CSPAN does this too, but it doesn't have the crawl going in case an event gets mega-boring. Such event-watching to me is better than a debate. Presidents don't debate Congress or the American people, they give speeches and hold press conferences/town hall meetings. You can see a potential president's ability to react and human side much better with citizen/press questions than barbs by their oposition.

This afternoon, I bumped into two prominant local Democrats and asked them what they thought of the state of the Democratic race. One thought Obama had the clear edge and was going to win, "you can't attack a movement" was a comment that stuck with this person. The other came to the oposite conclusion. "Every time Obama gets momentum, she comes right back and wins." This result was presumed to be due to women rallying to her campaign when it gets too picked on. What do you think? Is Hillary poised for a comeback or is the wave of momentum too high for her to stop?

Personally, I think she could come back too, and Obama now has to win Wisconsin convincingly in order to make a game of it in Texas and Ohio. I wonder if Lincoln Chafee's endorsement of Obama will help Barack at all in Rhode Island. Afterall, even though voters tossed him out in 2006, they still like him on a personal level.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

in defense of a long, drawn out primary

So unless you don't own a TV or newspaper, you know that Obama destroyed Clinton last night in three more contests. Obama's campaign manager is saying that Clinton will have to win Texas and Ohio by large margins (20-30 points) in order for her to recapture the lead amoung pledged delegates, assuming he wins Hawaii and Wisconsin next week. Even if he does, it would be a big mistake of his to go through the motions in Texas and Ohio (maybe he is trying to lower expectations).

But the real point of this post is not talk strategy for once, but explain why Democrats are blessed with a surprisingly lengthy and hard-fought primary calendar ... and why the GOP should be increasingly nervous.

With each state contested, Obama and Clinton must find supporters and train staffers, draft field teams, walk neighborhoods, hold rallies, sign up supporters, hand out lawn signs, conduct visability, etc. It may sound like a collosal waste of money, but one concrete example of how this is helpful is Carol Shea-Porter. In 2004, she worked for Wesley Clark's primary campaign in New Hampshire. Clark narrowly got third place in that contest, but two years later, Carol fared much better. She beat the Democratic leader of the State House 54%-34% in the primaries without any money, and then beat the incumbent Republican Jeb Bradley 52-48 without any help from the outside and being outspent 5 to 1. Why, because she knew the issues and the district.

Now I am not saying that every supporter of Obama or Clinton will become Members of Congress, but what I am saying is that training staff and volunteers now leads to winning other elections in the future. Staffers who worked for Clark, Dean, Kerry, Gephardt, and Edwards in 2004 all became reliable hands for Obama, Clinton, and Edwards in 2008. These folks also helped Democrats win the House and Senate in 2006.

A battle between two smart, tough, well-funded, yet relatively friendly campaigns is a great way to train the next generation of political leaders and a great way to get people excited about your party. You get months and months of relatively positive coverage, and both end up looking like winners since they both won lots of states and votes.

The proof is in the pudding. Obama got much more than all of the Republican candidates combined yesterday in all three races, and Hillary Clinton bested McCain in terms of raw numbers of votes by about 100,000. And while Maryland and DC are safe Democratic territory, the last time Virginia went Blue was when Utah did--LBJ's landslide in 1964. Indeed, Democrats getting more votes in each state (except Utah, Arizona, and Florida and Michigan where they didn't campaign) than Republicans. Most of this is due to Democrats excitement about their chances in getting back the White House, but some of it has to be due to the fact that Clinton and Obama and spending serious sums to get people to the polls, money that will be well spent when we see returns in November. I am not saying it will be 1964 or 1984, but right now it looks to be a pretty good year...thanks in part to the primaries.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Patomac Primary Prognosication

Say that three times fast. Anyway, having lived in this region for a year (and last fall) I feel somewhat more qualified to quess at what will happen than I have in most other primaries (save Utah, Rhode Island, and Massacusetts, where I feel I have a sense).

For the Democrats, I predict Obama will get about 55 percent in Maryland and Virginia, and something like 70 percent in the District. Hillary briefly tried to contest Virginia, but then quickly saw some polls or something and gave up. She is already in Texas, trying to build up a lead in the Lone Star state (as well as Ohio and Rhode Island) so that she can withstand a probable last minute surge by three weeks. Meanwhile, she is essentially skipping next week's contest Wisconsin, a big state that on paper would seems favorable to her (and Hawaii, but everyone knows Obama will get Virgin Island-like numbers out in the Aloha State).

I know part of this strategy is by necessity, but I still believe it to be a mistake. She can't keep writing off states claiming that she can't win caucuses, or states with large black populations, or states where Obama used to live, or Red States... Eventually, she starts to look like a loser by losing so many; the fact that she never seriously contested them doesn't make the loss any better. While the punditry always saw this month as the most favorable to him...assuming he survived Super Tuesday, it wasn't a forgone conclusion that he would sweep February's contests.

Both Obama's and Clinton's camps had initial strategies that never panned out, and are on plan B or C or D by now. Obama's was to win the first 4 early states and then sweep Kerry style...if that didn't work, it was to win South Carolina big (along with Nevada) and then survive Super Tuesday. Clinton's was to try to win Iowa, and if that didn't work, she had New Hampshire as a firewall...and Nevada...and then she was supposed to knock out Obama on Super Tuesday. Still, I think pinning your hopes on Super Delegates and Texas and Ohio is pretty scary.

Obama's path to the nomination is much simpler to understand. He keeps on winning. Assuming he wins today big and then also Hawaii, he goes 9-1 at worst in February. He could also gets Wisconsin, which seems to be more and more likely given that a) southern Wisconsin is drivable from Chicago, b) Madison and Milwaukee proper are prime Obama territory, c) unlike other states, Obama has more state elected by his side here. If that were to happen, it would 10-0 in February and he could hope that a last minute surge will take him over the top in either Ohio or Texas. Texas' system is more like a caucus than a primary, so maybe he can do well. Winning that state would once and for all put to rest the "Black-Brown divide" questions and winning Ohio would put to rest the working class questions. If he won both of those states, Clinton would drop out. If she won one of them, they fight on, if she wins both, we are back to even Steven. Then Pennslyvania gets very interesting. There will be a long period between March 4th and the April contest, meaning Obama and Clinton will treat the Keystone state like New Hampshire or Iowa (and camp out there).

On the Republican side, I am going to pick my upset special--Virginia goes for Huckabee. McCain is sleepwalking through this set of primaries and as far as I can tell lost every contest last week (WA's results look very fishy). Southern VA is one of the centers of the theocons--home to the late Jerry Fallwell and still kicking Pat Robertson--and that region is swinging rapidly towards the Huckster, who went to Jerry's son's (they inherited their Dad's megachurch) service on Sunday and got standing O's.

What an amazing year. It seems that nearly every state and protectorate will get a voice in deciding who the nominees will be. Democratic voters, of course, will have more say because of the parity between Obama and Clinton, but Republican voters also get to tell us what they think about McCain. It is facinating to watch and I can tell you for sure that the world is watching very closely.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Jesus, attorney at law

(image courtesy of the Subversive Intellectual Society)

This Sunday's reading was from Mathew's version of the Tempation of Christ. And what struck me was not the fantastical nature of the story itself (which makes it very unlike almost all of the other New Testiment stories) but how much Jesus and Satan sounded like lawyers.
The tempter came to him and said, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread."
Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"
"If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down. For it is written:
" 'He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'"
Jesus answered him, "It is also written: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"
the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. "All this I will give you," he said, "if you will bow down and worship me."
Jesus said to him, "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'"

Satan, like all bad lawyers, quotes stuff out of context to misconstrue the meanings of the passages. Jesus, like any good attorney worth his salt, is ready to perry with not just a quibble over his oposition's quote, but a more powerful one that counters even the misquote.

To me, the phrase "for it is written" has special meaning...written words were rare in Jesus' day, reserved only for the most important things (like holy books or the history of kings). Writing something down took rare expertise and/or money, and cannoted the desire for preeminance and perminance of the words.

While nowadays writing is commonplace and a sigificant number of the world's population is literate, we still hold the written word in high regard. There is a reason the Founders spent weeks tweaking the language of the Constitution, which unlike its British counterpart, was explicitly written down. Those of us who study the law and literature know that writen words still have special power over us.

Remember that next time you are wandering in the proverbial Desert for a proverbial 40 days and 40 nights.