Tuesday, May 24, 2005


Scott McClellan

Do you ever get the feeling that Scott McClellan is borderline retarded?



Scott McClellan

Do you ever get the feeling that Scott McClellan is borderline retarded?


Sunday, May 08, 2005


Re: Senate Madness

Oh, and I want to reply briefly to the following question from Neel:
One last thought, when Bush won the election we all discussed how he won it on cultural issues. And when he claimed a mandate on Iraq, Social Security, or tax cuts both of you said "Bush does not have a mandate on those issues; Bush tied or lost those issues. His mandate is on cultural issues." Do you think judges ruling on right to life, abortion, and gay marriage fall in this perview. Do you think Bush has a special mandate on the judges since the dems are so culturally off-base with the electorate?
First, I don't remember ever claiming that Bush had a special mandate on social issues. My only claim about Bush's mandates of any kind was that he was narrowly elected and so has a narrow mandate. He should be moderate because the country was very divided on his election. I don't think he has a mandate on social issues for two reasons. First, the Democrats are not "so culturally off-base with the electorate"--they represent a large minority. Pro-choice and pro-right-to-die demographics are large in this country. In fact, recent polls showed that the Republican's were the ones way off-base on the Terry Schiavo issue. (In fact, I recently talked with guy who does the polling for Fox News, and he said there was lots of gnashing of teeth at Fox recently because the polls were so decidedly against the Republicans on Terry Schiavo that they could not even be spun in a positive way.) The abortion issue, moreover, is an almost even split. This means that if you want to decide policy based on the beliefs of the electorate, the Republicans should be pushing for moderate policies not extremely conservative judges and federal intervention in family affairs. Second, in the abstract sense, one can never have a mandate to engage in immoral policy making--that's precisely what anti-gay legislation is.



Re: Senate Madness

It seems to me like the Senate Madness debate has put quite a few issues on the table. I'd like to weigh in on several.

I'd like to start by talking a little bit about why I found Neel's first email on this subject frustrating and why I intuit from Josh's emails that he too was frustrated. There is a difference between defending a decision and defending the right of the decision-maker to make that decision. Josh and I are appalled by Bush's recent appointments, both in terms of judges and critical foreign-relations positions. We criticize Bush for making bad appointments both because these appointments wield tremendous power and because there is no direct oversight of these positions by the electorate once the appointment is successful. I won't go through the reasons why I don't like each of the nominees in detail (unless you want me to), but in brief, I agree basically in whole with Josh's criticisms of Bolton and we all I think agree that some of Bush's judges are outlandishly conservative in ways that make even Neel uncomfortable.

So, anyway, Josh and I attack Bush for these appointments hoping to see Neel either defend the appointees with arguments we have not heard or agree that Bush deserves to be criticized for this. Instead, Neel's response contains almost nothing about the actual appointees or Bush's reasons (good or bad) for appointing them; instead, we get a defense of Bush's right to make those appointments. This came across to me (and probably Josh also) a like bending your wrist in arm-wrestling match--you shift the plane of conflict such that neither party can make any interesting attacks or defenses.

I sometimes feel like your replies are always "both sides have reason to be criticized and if you look at the parties over the last 75 years, you'll find that both have done things that they should not be proud of." This kind of claim is undoubtedly true, but it's always true, and it's obvious, so it isn't very interesting to me anymore. For example, the claim that the Fillibuster rules have been changed before or that the Fillibuster is not a consitutionally defined concept are not arguments either for or against the Fillibuster rules being changed now. Those facts do not speak to whether changing the fillibuster rules is good or bad policy--they are just wrist bending.

I think what gets my goat occassionally in these conversations is that Neel is a Republican but I hear almost no defense of recent Republican policies from him. This is your party, Neel. You keep voting for them. They keep coming out with policies--Iraq, Terry Schiavo, Judges, Social Security, Defense of Marriage, Fillubster busting, tax cuts, medicare cuts--defend some of those policies! It seems like the best you can do lately is defend the right of the Republicans to make those policies. It's a pretty sad state of affairs if that's the best that a smart intellectual Republican can do for the Republican party.

Now, in Neel's second email, he got deeper into the question of "should the democrats be obstructing Bush's appointments." While this isn't a defense of Bush's politics, which I would still like to see, it is certainly an interesting questions, and one that I'd like to bite on. Neel's position on this it seems is that they should not and that it is Bush's right to appoint within reasons whomever he wants. Josh's position on this question is still unclear to me. I'm going to argue that there are 3 reasons to think that the Democrats are justified in being obstructionist.

REASON 1: We've all been talking as if the phrase "advise and consent" was obviously meant to be defined extremely restrictively in terms of how much right the Senate had to contradict the President's wishes. I see no reason to assume this definition. The phrase "advise and consent" simply doesn't have a clear definition. As such, I think that it begs for an underlying principle that would help make the phrase applicable to the real world. In the past when talking about Condi Rice and Gonzalez, I argued that the principle should be that the President gets to determine his own staff and the Senate shouldn't interfere except in extreme circumstances. The idea here is that the closer the appointment is to the executive branch, the more right the President has to choice whomever he wants and the less right the Senate has to interfere. Now, applying this principle to the current situation, demands a different outcome. The judges are clearly not part of the president's staff or even the executive branch. They are a different branch that is meant to be a check on the executive branch. As a result, I feel that for judicial appointments the Senate has the rightto interfere quite a bit. In fact, they should be able to reject justices based simply on the fact that they don't agree with their politics. The case of Bolton is half way in between. He is part of theexecutive branch because he is a foreign-policy appointment but he isn't Bush's staff and he really represents all three branches of thegovernment. Thus, his case is less obviously to me. I think that while the Senate shouldn't reject him simply because they disagree with hispolitics, they can be liberal in determining that he is objectively flawed as a diplomat and reject him for that reason. All of this adds up to an argument that the democrats do have some right to attempt to obstruct Bush's judicial appointments based solely on their political objections and Bolton's appointment based on their belief that he is a flawed diplomat.

REASON 2: This is essential an argument that the Republican's are the ones who have "poisoned the well" of political discourse and that this gives the democrats the right to be obstructionist in ways that bend the rules of engagement. For most of the later part of this century, the Democrats have had a small upper hand in a federal government that was divided such that no one had absolute power. For the most part, the democrats handled this by pushing for their policies while giving kickbacks to the republicans. There was a lot of back-room compromising and despite the fact that democrats often controlled the houses, only rarely did that control produce truly far-left legislation. The government was fairly moderate. This tradition was broken by the Republicans. It started with the Contract for America and then was refined under Bush. The Contract for America was basically a statement by the Republican party that now that they had legislative control they were no longer compromising. It was their way or the highway. Now under Bush, Republicans have control of the entire government and they quite explicitly claiming that they see no reason to give the democrats anything. They are pushing extreme tax cuts even in the face of medicare, budget, and social security deficits; they are pushing hard-line religious conservative social policies against gays and education; and now they are trying to push through truly extremist judges and deprive the democrats of time-honored (if occassionally changed) fillibuster. And during all of this, the Democrats are getting nothing. This is what is poisoning the well of the political discourse: the Republican's refusal to moderate their policies in recognition of the Democrats. This is why Democrats are so enraged that Bush claimed he was a uniter in the first election. When he was elected, he could have tried to moderate the Republicans and play by rules that at least respected the dissent of the Democrats. Instead, he pushed for hard-line republican legislation and sucker-punched Kennedy on the No Child Left Behind Bill--a move that I think was very symbolic to the Democrats. The result of all of this is that the Democrats cannot be blamed for palying down-and-dirty politics. Bush was the one who endorsed and enlarged this type of politiking. The Democrats are just playing by the rules that were established against their will by the Republicans over the past eight years. As such, it's fair for the Democrats to be obstructionist even in ways that historically parties have avoided being obstructionist. It's simply unreasonable to expect or demand that the Democrats turn the other cheeck to the Republicans dirty claims--it's only fair that they start fighting dirty themselves.

REASON 3: This is essentially an argument that the current state of government makes the Democrats look more like a minority than they really are, and so the right of minority to resist the majority inherent in our political system should be given extra weight in the current political landscape. For good reasons, the United States was founded on the principle of majority rule, but the founding fathers also built in ways for the minority to resist the "tyranny of majority." The idea, which I'm sure we all agree with, is that it "majority rules" is generally good but has a "winner takes all" bent to it that is dangerous. As a result, we have things like fillubster, veto, judicial review, and "consent and advise" clauses in order to help make sure that when the winner does take all at least the winner represents a substantial majority instead of just a simple majority. These are all ways to prevent a slight majority from imposing their will on a slight minority. These tools were built specifically for a political landscape like the one we currently live in. The Republicans control all three branches of government (and please don't pretend like Kennedy and O'Conner are liberal--that's bullshit and we all know it) and both legislative chambers but they control them all by very small margins. The precentages are close on the bench and in both the house and Senate, and Bush won the Presidency by a very small margin. What this means is that the Republican mandate from the masses is actually very small and moderate--the country is almost 50-50 Republican and Democrat--but they control the entire government outright. This results in the Democrats being demographically a very slight minority but getting treated in the government like a tiny minority. It allows the Republicans to enact hard-line conservative policies in a democgraphic landscape that calls for moderate policies. This situation is no parties fault--I'm not blaiming the Republicans for it in the least. But it does mean that I think the Democrats should be given substantial leeway in using the tools of the minority to resist the policy-making of the majority. Allowing the Republican's to take away the fillibuster is especially dangerous now because it is one of the only ways that the Democrats of asserting the support from the masses that they legitimately have. Again, I conclude from this line of argument that the Democrats have the right to be more "obstructionist" than usual in this case.

So there you have it. That's my case for the Democrats.


Wednesday, May 04, 2005


Re: Senate Madness

I think Josh's confusion about my argument comes from his general disposition coming into the conversation. My goal was not to be partisan or to try to look balanced while really blaming the dems. As for Bolton, I think the dems are being unreasonable in executing the death of a thousand cuts. My point on the judges, generally, was that both sides need to come together and make this work. Both sides are to blame. For hundreds of years, the parties have found a way to work together and make government function. We are now in a time when both sides take hard, uncompromising positions any time a new issue arises.
Brooks made this similar point in his article in the Times. Our leaders need to learn to work together to make compromises happen and keep the government moving. We have lost our ability to do this.
Finally, it's time to redsicover the art of the backroom deal. There are two ways the Senate can work. The Senate could be a legal battleground in which the two parties wage all-out struggles to rig the procedures so they get what they want. In this model, democrats would go on abusing the filibuster until the republicans muscle through procedural changes.

Or the Senate could be the home of informal arrangements. In this model, leaders of the two parties would get together--yes, often in secret--and make reasonable bargains. They would rarely settle things on pure procedure, but they'd hope for agreements in which each side achieved a portion of its goals. They wouldn't try to decide once and for all whether the filibuster was good or evil. They'd allow it, within reason. This backroom deal-making model went out of fashion after Watergate, but it is much better than what has come since.
To speak to some of Josh's arguments specifically:
Take [Neel's] opening statement about 'poisoning the well.' He says that both sides are to fault right up front. But then he says that the Bush administration is not to blame and singles out Democrats for blame, apparently on the grounds that they're still worked up over a movie. This is all really hard to swallow.
I pointed out that both parties do this, specifically citing the things the reps did to Clinton. I do not blame one side. I just think it is a low blow for people to make snide remarks about how Bush is not a uniter, because we live in divided political times. The atmosphere was divisive far before he arrived.
[On Bolton] Alas, he's a bad nominee be he tried to coerce intelligence to suit an ideological agenda, thus flouting his responsibility to the American people not to go to war and sacrifice the lives of our soldiers except on honest grounds. Bolton is basically blinded by his conservative zeal.
I don't think this is really the argument in play. The asshole argument is not connected with the Iraq argument. One claim is that he showed bad judgment on Iraq. This is the same claim the dems hit Condi with. Another claim is that he is blinded by zeal because he only looked at favorable intelligence. This is the same claim they hit Bush with during the election. Evidently, the elctorate doesn't buy this claim. Without getting into the whole WMD thing, I think it is silly for the dems to turn nominees for being pro-Iraq-war, when the people elected the man who took us to war. A third claim is that he is mean and Powell had to go and smooth things over when Bolton was an ass and therefore he is not a good diplomat. This claim is not related to the Iraq claim, although coupling them is clever. The fast is that he is an accomplished man who is outspoken, and the dems feel he is not the guy they would want. The problem is that they don't get to do the appointing. Bush's agenda calls for a more aggressive, outspoken person to do some heavy lifting at the UN. Bush has the right to appoint people to carry out his agenda.

As for the judges, I agree that the republicans should have taken the deal, especially with the extra sugar that Brooks reports. I think it is reasonable for the dems to say "We disagree with all these, but take off the most controversial, and we will put the rest up for a vote." That is the kind of deal-making that makes the system work.

At the end, Josh tries to corner me by saying, "Neel says Bush should stop inflammatory judges. But what if Bush doesn't, as is likely? Would Neel then condone democrats 'obstruction'? Would he then find no problem with republicans abolishing the filibuster? And, finally, what would he then say about democrats partially shutting down the Senate (not the whole government)?"

My point, as the Brooks article points out, is that both sides need to give. The dems need to accept that Bush has the right to appoint his guys and that their role is limited in the advice and consent situation. And Bush needs to nominate some people who can muster some democratic votes. Doing all this along party lines is bad for politics. We should not come to occupy a political ground where no one can compromise and every issue is battled to death. I would prefer that the filibuster stay in place, but I would also prefer that it not be abused. If this gets played out to the end, the reps have the right to change the rule as the dems have in the past. But I think it would be a tragedy. As for the blame game, I guess it will depend on how far each side pushed the envelope.

One last thought: when Bush won the election, we all discussed how he won it on cultural issues. And when he claimed a mandate on Iraq, Social Security, or tax cuts, both of you said, "Bush does not have a mandate on those issues; Bush tied or lost those issues. His mandate is on cultural issues." Do you think judges ruling on right to life, abortion, and gay marriage fall in this purview. Do you think Bush has a special mandate on the judges since the dems are so culturally off-base with the electorate?



Re: Senate Madness

Sometimes it's hard to address Neel's arguments, because they try subtly to have it both ways. Take his opening statement about "poisoning the well." He says that both sides are to fault right up front. But then he says that the Bush administration is not to blame and singles out democrats for blame, apparently on the grounds that they're still worked up over a movie. This is all really hard to swallow.

Second, Neel shares the democrats' three reasons for loathing Bolton: asshole, anti-UN, and pro-Iraq-war. He and I have actually talked about this. But since that conversation, if he'll allow, I've changed my tune slightly. Before, I granted that the first and third reasons were bad ones. I hung my hat on the second one, praising the democrats, and on another reason of my own, essentially a combination of the asshole and pro-Iraq-war reasons. I scolded democrats for not taking this reason as their own.

O.K., now I think it's become clear in the general debate around Bolton that the democrats actually do take the "asshole" and the "pro-Iraq-war" reasons to be two sides of the same coin. Bolton's not a bad nominee merely because he tried to fire underlings with whom he disagreed, and Bolton's not a bad nominee merely because he favored going into Iraq. Alas, he's a bad nominee because he tried to coerce intelligance to suit an ideological agenda, thus flouting his responsibility to the American people not to go war and sacrifice the lives or our soldiers except on honest grounds. Bolton is basically blinded by his conservative zeal.

Unfortunately, Neel doesn't entertain this reason. Democrats may not have evidently taken it up as their own in committee hearings. But it's theirs now, as a wide range of news reports show. Even Powell's boys say as much.

Third, democrats have offered the very compromise that Neel proposes; Frist turned it down. (In fact, David Brooks's column in Monday's NYT suggests that Reid offered an even sweeter deal: see my post at praxisblog.blogspot.com for discussion.) After trying the compromise route, it is then appropriate for a party to stand fast? After all, by Neel's admission, they're opposing bigots.

But Neel says the situation doesn't pose a constitutional crisis. Sure, the filibuster's merely a Senate rule; and sure, it used to be pegged at two-thirds rather than a supermajority. But the crisis to the constitution comes not as much from abolishing the filibuster as from handing over to Bush the power to appoint bigots to the Supreme Court. Shouldn't democrats and other honest Americans be able to yell "The constitution is imperiled!" when it looks like the republican party wants to install bigots to its courts? I think so.

In general, Neel says Bush should stop nominating inflammatory judges. But what if Bush doesn't, as is likely? Would Neel then condone the democrats "obstruction"? Would he then find no problem with republicans abolishing the filibuster? And, finally, what would he say about democrats partially shutting down the Senate (not the whole government)?



Re: Senate Madness

I couldn't even finish reading Neel's comments before I found I have to respond--to one point in particular: the term "nuclear option" did not flow originally from a democrat. In fact, it was a republican. It was Trent Lott, in 2003. See this post at Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo, and note that the post contains a link to an early March New Yorker article in which the same points are made.



Re: Senate Madness

To be honest, I am sort of enjoying the madness in that it is sort of like a good soap opera.

I do, nevertheless, find it disturbing in that underscores a major problem with today's political landscape: the environment is so poisoned that the parties cannot work together on anything. It is as if we have forgotten that the things that unite us far outnumber the things that divide us. Politics has become a game where the minority party finds it beneficial to stop the majority party from governing, as if anything the majority party does is a loss for the minority party. And so politics becomes a game of stopping the other party from governing, which is a terrible loss for the nation. We need government to move forward, and disabling the majority party from governing should not be the role of the minority party. Both sides are to fault. The republicans played the same game with Clinton, and I deplore both sides for poisoning the well.

I do not, in fact, think that today's environment is Bush's fault; he came into a divided nation and won his first term in a way that only furthered the anger. In addition, the dems are still pissed for losing to him and have yet to get over it. That is why the first fifteen minutes of Farenheight 9/11 is so popular with dems; they're still reeling over Gore's loss.

Now onto the two issues. As for the Bolton nomination, it seems to me that the dems are being a bit obstructionist. They don't like Bolton for three reasons. First, he is an asshole. Second, he has made some anti-UN remarks. Third, he was pro-Iraq-war and therefore has bad judgment.

The first reason is just stupid. There are lots of assholes in government, probably some of the men in the committee grilling Bolton. The second reason is plain obstructionist. We have a problem in the Senate with the terms "advise" and "consent." I think the Congress has a role to play in the appointment process, but its role is limited. It does not have to agree with the politics of all nominees; in fact, it probably won't in times of divided government.

The president does the appointing, and he gets to appoint people to carry out his agenda. Congress may disagree with that agenda, but it does not have the right to block appointments because of it. The dems may want a more pro-UN guy, but the people elected Bush, who is not all that pro-UN. Bush has a right to put in place people who share his philosophy.

That brings me to the third reason. I watched the committee debate this, and it seems to me that the dems are just really pissed because he was pro-Iraq and therefore has bad judgment. So they chastise him for that and are now saying we don't want him as ambassador because he is not a nice guy. A note for all the dems out there: I know you may not like it, but we are in Iraq, and the people voted back into office the guy who took us there. I know dems are pissed about it, but trying to rehash this discussion whenever a foreign policy nominee comes up is just stupid. You already lost on this issue, and you're not winning any points by belaboring the issue.

As for the judges, let me start by commending the dems for coming up with the term "nuclear option." Finally, you have outdone the ridiculousness of the term "death tax." I personally don't like the people being held up. I think many of them are bigots and idiots. I hope they don't make it on the bench. The republican claim that judges should have up-or-down votes--and that they have always had those votes because the filibuster has never been used--is just stupid. There are many other procedure that have been used to hold up judges in the past; I cannot count how many judges have been held up in committee.

Having said that, the dems claim that this is a constitutional crisis is equally asinine. I mean, come now, constitutional crisis! This is procedural, not constitutional. Moreover, the the filibuster rules have been changed many times. Before 1917, you couldn't stop a nominee even with 60 votes. When that change was made, was the constitution under attack? The dems themselves, led by Senator Byrd, tried to change the rule four times in the late 70s. If it were up to me, I would compromise. I would say let through some of the judges, and we will take the others off the table. The dems need to show some restraint by allowing Bush to do his job and appoint people. And Bush needs to stop nominating inflammatory judges. Dole wrote an interesting article in the Time about this issue this week; read it.

That's all for now. Let me know what you think.



Senate Madness

O.K., time to reenter our three-way politics debate. We've all been reading the headlines. Democrats are blocking Bush's appellate court and UN nominees, claiming that they are far too conservative. They are using the filibuster to do this. The republicans led by Frist and Delay are trying to rewrite the Senate rules to eliminate the filibuster so they can confirm Bush's appointment against the will of the Democrats. Cheney just stepped into the fray, saying that he will vote to eliminate the filibuster if it comes to a vote, thus breaking Bush's promise not to get involved in this Senate fight.

In a parallel fight, Democrats wanted to run an ethics investigation of Delay, so Republicans rewrote the ethics rules to make a successful investigation impossible. Now the republicans want to investigate Delay with the new toothless ethics rules, and the democrats are blocking the investigation, saying they don't want to go forward until the republicans change the rules back. The democrats are also blocking investigations of several democrats using the same rhetoric. The republicans are now claiming that the democrats are trying to protect their own.

And to top it all off, Delay and Frist are also moving to try to change the rules governing the circumstances under which justices with lifetime appointments can be kicked off the court. They are doing this as a way of intimidating or eliminating the "activist" liberal judges who upheld gay marriage legislation and allowed Terry Schiavo's feeding tube to be removed. In the process, Delay has made the unprecedented move of blasting individual justices (Kennedy, a Reagan appointee, most recently).

So who's right? Who's wrong? Are the democrats being sore losers now that they don't have control over the House, the Senate, or the presidency? Are republicans getting out of control in their attempts to slam legislation, nominations, and values down the democrats' throats? Should the democrats be blocking Bush's nominees at all, given that their objections are almost entirely political? Should the republicans be trying to change the rules governing justices' tenure? Is shit totally out of control?

I'm interested in what you think. I don't think we've seen partisan fighting like this in our lifetimes. And to think Bush ran as a uniter. Ha.


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