April 25, 2008

Falling for the Dazzling Head Fake of the NBC Peacock

As I think I've written before, I do regard Democratic Party politics as only a semi-democratic process; meaning, it is not reasonable to hold a political party, in its internal deliberations, to the same standards which (used to) guide the constitutional voting system for the country itself. Which is to say, the Dems can have rules which don't necessarily conform to general election requirements. Surfing around various blogs, and the comments which follow posts therein (a Bugs Bunnyism), a pervasive confusion seems to center around this point. The Democrats can't "snatch" the nomination away from Barack Obama and give it to someone else, you know, like Hillary, right? Actually, so long as they're operating within their rules, they can. And they just might. If they can figure which of two wrong decisions they ought to make this time out.

As I wrote yesterday, they're in a terrible quandary now. Big Media have fallen out of love with Barack Obama. He was fun for a while, a nice, substantive diversion from missing blond co-eds in Aruba, but they're beginning to vainly fight, as Cole Porter sang and wrote, the old ennui. Barack and his glorious oratory, Chris & Tim & Wolf & The Boyz at Fox are beginning to grumble, are kind of yesterday. They sort of wish a former Playboy centerfold would swell to twice her original size, marry a nonagenarian billionaire, write an ambiguous will, take an overdose, and lie in a morgue while a bunch of former lovers litigate in the court of a crying judge looking for a TV gig about who gets an outsized haul of the spoils + custody of the bodacious corpse. Like old times, in other words.

I mean, it was real, Barry or Hossein or whatever the hell your name was, but we're corporate networks and this G--D--- America stuff, and the Weatherman you knew when you were eight years old, it's just kind of not us, see, it makes the suits in the mahogany conference room nervous and btw where's your G--D--- flag lapel pin? Sorry it had to end like this. Hillary, now Hillary, see, that's what we're talking about. Obliterate Iran! (Boffo!) Rocky! (You go, girl.) Beer and a shot! (Nice visual.) And...New York! (QED). Plus, her 3 am home invasion ad, where the nice white family with the little boy and the rape-age girl are trying to get some sleep and the father's away...it's a little uncomfortable, you know? Look, after you go back to being a Senator, we've still got to sell insurance using cavemen as spokeshominids. And we know we led you on, and we're sorry about that. We thought we could do it, support a, you know, but the time's not right.

So Harry "Mumbles" Reid and Nancy "La Diva" Pelosi are of course gradually waking up to the realization the media rug has been snatched out from underneath them, and as usual they're like a couple of screw-up management trainees, arriving in the Big Apple from Searchlight, Nevada and San Francisco, oversleeping and then taking the 9:15 am train for a 7:30 am meeting, marveling at all the tall buildings downtown as their heads loll back and their tongues hang out, and Nancy breaks a heel and Harry steps on an untied shoelace, and when they finally rush into the room they can only think of one question -- "wha, wha jus' happen?"

This: the five companies who own all significant means of communicating in the United States are in turn owned by huge multinational corporations who do not thrill to the prospect of a sorta liberal woman or an African-American with too much charisma for their good suddenly barging in on the financial free-for-all which has made a microscopically thin stratum of the big rich enormously richer. They might want to regulate. They might want transparency. They might want the SEC to actually protect the public.

This is regressive. Wall Street and the Bush Administration, using the Patriot Act, just got rid of the biggest pain in their butt, Eliot Spitzer, and they're not signing up for another crusading reformer. So they have maneuvered the Democrats into an absolute, no-win, box canyon. No matter who they choose, they lose. (I know it's "whom;" I'm on a roll here.) Reid/Pelosi/Dean now think Hillary can "fight" McCain better, but if they finagle the nomination for her, all the Barack people stay home, and anyway Hillary's negatives, which are not just the highest of any candidate in the U.S., not just in North America or the Western Hemisphere, not just in the world or the solar system, but in any of those putative entities which may exist in the many-universe model of cosmology, mean McCain wins in a walk. The manna from heaven which Big Business did not expect, felt they had no right to expect, was that Hillary would be the agent of undoing the other prospect which threatened them.

Whew! How close was that? they're thinking over cocktails at that trendy spot in Battery Park, laughing with relief over their coup at the meeting with Mumbles & Diva.

I think their margin of error was greater than they might imagine. All they had to do was beat the Democrats. Again. It looks like they'll have their boy, a guy who gives the idea of getting in bed with the lobbyists a whole new wrinkle, as it were.

April 24, 2008

The Hobson's Choice of the Democrats

The liberal wing of the Democratic Party means well, and they've proposed some very fine Americans over the years as presidential nominees. Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and so forth. In a British parliamentary system, these forward-thinkers would have risen to the top of a Labour or Liberal Party and, as its titular leader, have become Prime Minister. They could have used their terms as Prime Minister to ameliorate some of the excesses of a constant suzerainty of far Right ideologues like Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush: restoration of civil liberties, attention to the needs of the lower and middle classes, a reining in of excessive military spending in favor of domestic needs.

Unfortunately, these guys had to run for President in the United States, and none of them (with the possible exception of Bobby Kennedy) had a chance. The reason for this is painfully clear, although it's hard for the American Left to accept. The electoral college system, installed by the Founders so long ago as a compromise between federalist liberals and the states'-rights conservatives, destroys the one-person, one-vote concept, awarding a disproportionate value to the vote in very conservative but sparsely populated Red States. For one example, California has 36 million residents and 55 electoral votes, equal to one vote for every 654,000 residents. Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi have a combined population of about 12 million but 30 electoral votes, or about one vote for every 400,000 residents. What happened to those disenfranchised quarter million people? Didn't the Sons of Liberty say something about taxation without representation? As a direct result of the Electoral College, George W. Bush was able to lose the popular vote by over one-half million votes yet place himself in position for appointment to President by a conservative Supreme Court. After his appointment, he was able to run as an incumbent. Since Al Gore was never President, America went bankrupt, sold itself to foreign creditors and destroyed the Earth's atmosphere. These little words in the Constitution sometimes mean a lot.

Presidential candidates don't waste much time in California. It leans Democratic, at about a 55-45% angle, and all its votes go for the Democrat, year after year. But a cluster of hard Red states in the Dixiecrat South easily cancels that out. States that are waaaaaaay over-represented by electoral votes (such as Wyoming, 515,000 population, 3 electoral votes = 1:171,000) add to the Republican haul. So elections get decided by Ohio and Florida. That's actually what the American presidential elections are about now, these two purplish states that tend to be Republican but might go Dem if things get really shitty in the U.S. and A (as Borat said).

Barack Obama obviously has problems with states like Florida and Ohio. For one thing, there's the crypto-racist vote, or "Bradley effect," named for Tom Bradley, the African-American candidate for California governor, who led in the polls on election day but lost handily to George Deukmeijan, an uninspiring Republican who had the distinct advantage of paler skin. Racists responding to pollsters say one thing in answering questions and another in voting in the booth. This effect was clearly at work in Ohio and Pennsylvania; a fortiori, in the Dixiecrat states, the usual Republican Southern Strategy will be given a boost if Obama is the candidate in the fall, and Ohio and Pennsylvania have already shown they prefer a white person. In addition, Obama will have a peculiar problem in Florida because of his Muslim middle name and indirect, several-degrees-of-separation connection to Louis Farrakhan, which will cause him to lose some of Florida's otherwise Democratic-reliable Jewish vote. If Barack can't win Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida (and he probably can't), then he can't be president.

(Okay, maybe we're a racist country which tortures people for no reason, but we're a country also with a very rich, very thin slice of plutocrats who wear flag lapel pins while investing heavily in hedge funds which make their money by betting against American currency and short-selling the ability of average Americans to make their mortgage payments, thus reaping billions when all those Ohioans and Floridians are turned out onto the street. Where they will have no health coverage and the public transportation, naturally, sucks. But I will brook no criticism of this, the greatest country on Google Earth.)

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has a Karl Rove-like grasp of the nuances of the American electoral scene and has chopped, stuffed and contorted her psyche and very soul to appeal to just enough electoral votes, she thinks, to win the general election. She voted for the Iraq war when she thought that was the way to go, for free trade when free tradewinds were blowing, and managed to be the one Senator who skipped the Bankruptcy Reform vote, thus preserving her embrace of Big New York Banking while retaining deniability with the "little people" she says she champions, when she and Bill are not hanging with their true peeps out on Martha's Vineyard and in the Hamptons. Her absolute phoniness is so palpable, so patent, that the Bosnian sniper story gained traction precisely because the citizenry was so poised to believe she'll say and do anything to embellish what is, after all, a pretty mediocre record as a populist. Her forced, 24/7 toothy smile, her dissociative lurches into fabulism, all grate on the common people. When the Republicans go to work on her more serious characterological lapse, her cashiering from the Watergate committee because she hid relevant precedents in her office and concocted a brief pretending that no such precedent existed (which a lifelong Democrat, who fired her, will attest to), then John McCain, who isn't very honest either, will look like Honest Abe.

The real, underlying problem, which Democratic activists tending toward the liberal side (the Kucinich partisans, the Great Society people) don't like to admit, is that the American electoral system does not work in the one nationwide election we hold in this country, the choice of a President and Vice President. This is the reason that Republicans have held the White House for about 20 of the last 28 years, with the exception of a preternaturally talented Democrat who ruled from the center right, Bill Clinton, and he was put in office by Ross Perot, who drained away 19% of the conservative vote (Clinton won in 1992 with 43% of the popular vote). The Southern Strategy took hold as soon as Lyndon Johnson put the finishing touches on the Civil Rights bill. Nixon exploited it, Reagan and George W. Bush perfected it, and it's going to persist for a long time to come.

I have to get my head around the idea of John McCain choosing two more Supreme Court judges. That will finish off the high court as an instrument of justice, and access to abortions will become a matter of state elections. The regressive, strictly-pro-business approach of the current Court will gather force.

As Jack Balkin writes, America needs a Constitutional Convention to revamp the electoral system and to convert our present, fractured method into a parliamentary/prime minister approach. This would encourage the development of numerous political parties which could form governing coalitions, and break the dualistic gridlock of modern Congress and President-With-A-Veto. The problem, of course, is that wholesale amendment to the Constitution requires the agreement of all those same, over-represented Red states, and what are the odds of that? If you lived in Wyoming and knew you could cancel out all those crazy West Coasters with a vote worth about four times as much, would you give up your leverage? It's not an optimistic thing to acknowledge, but this is the most fascinating aspect of the American political system: It cannot work and it cannot change. Although I talk about it, I also realize, at a deep level, there's no point in talking about it anymore. Only awful, unprincipled, cynical candidates can possibly thrive in such a situation. Did Jefferson & John Adams see that one coming?

April 21, 2008

Amerikanisches Ministerium der Propaganda

It just sounds more sinister in German, and anyway Pravda doesn't quite get the idea across. America is Right Wing, not Left, and our propaganda ideas rest more on the techniques and legacy of Joseph Goebbels than Josef Stalin.

For those who missed it, David Barstow in yesterday's (Sunday) New York Times wrote a very long article (11 pp. online) concerning the "military analysts" you've perhaps been watching over the last five years or so on network and cable news shows. Men like Barry McCaffrey, Ken Allard, Thomas McInerney et al., who appear as a head and shoulders on Chris Matthews and give us the real story about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction or progress in the American occupation. It turns out that very little of this stuff was actually "objective." In my own American, patriotic naivete, I simply assumed that these uniformed talking heads were gung-ho because they're lifers; if the U.S. military is doing it, then it's the right thing to do. Depressingly enough, not in modern Bushian America.

After a Freedom of Information lawsuit and two years of investigation, the Times came up with about 8,000 pages of documents demonstrating that these retired opinionators for hire were part of an orchestrated program directed by Donald Rumsfeld and his propaganda minister, Victoria Clarke (now gracing us with her insider dope via "panel" discussions on Sunday mornings). It worked this way: the retired brass made about $500 to $1,000 a pop by talking about Iraq or Guantanamo or whatever for a couple of minutes. This, however, was (is, because it's still going on) not where the action was (is). These guys tend to sit on the boards of lots of defense contractors who want "access" to the Pentagon's very lucrative contracting biz. So the "influentials," as Victoria Clarke called them (the favored brass), attended meetings with Rumsfeld, flew to Iraq and Cuba at Pentagon expense, were made to feel important and still relevant, and given talking points (or a script) to recite as they appeared with Chris or Sean Hannity or Wolf Blitzer, etc. The meetings served as a means of delivering the Party Line to the generals (who are, after all, very comfortable in hierarchical situations) and also acquainting the brass with current military needs, such as up-armoring Humvees or the latest night-vision requirements. The generals took the contracting info back to the board room, appeared on Hardball to spout official propaganda, and the only loser was the American public who were duped by their own government.

A general, colonel, admiral or whatever rank was monitored closely by the Pentagon's propaganda department (with the assistance of a private company specializing in tracking public appearances - paid for by the taxpayer, of course) to determine how closely they hewed to the Official Story. Serious variances were punished by denial of future access.

The networks and cable shows did very little to ascertain whether their paid experts had serious conflicts, such as a vested interest in guaranteeing that their corporate clients remained on the government procurement list. And with all that taxpayer money shipped to Iraq and Afghanistan via supersonic conveyor belt, there was clearly a lot at stake. After all, in modern America, only about 12% of its GDP is still attributable to any kind of manufacturing. In a dwindling market, the merchants of death look for any angle to maintain a competitive edge.

I don't think there will ever be any end, or bottom, to the corruption in the Bush Administration. This is a sideshow, one of many variations on hiding the truth which have become the modus operandi of the Bush years. Reporters like David Barstow still labor to get at the facts, against a government that fights tooth and nail to hide what are, after all, public documents paid for and owned by the American citizenry. And by the time the Times or some other still semi-independent media company can write up the story (delayed by official obstruction), Bush&Co. have moved on to the next outrage.

One thing is clear: next time you see an "influential" on Hardball or The Situation Room, remember that he's just selling the company line so he can keep his client plugged into the Pentagon disbursement office. That's become his high calling. And don't believe a word he says.

April 20, 2008

War Crimes Prosecution of the Bush Administration - Removing the "Good Faith Reliance on Counsel" Dodge

First, the money shot from the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005:

a) Protection of United States Government Personnel- In any civil action or criminal prosecution against an officer, employee, member of the Armed Forces, or other agent of the United States Government who is a United States person, arising out of the officer, employee, member of the Armed Forces, or other agent's engaging in specific operational practices, that involve detention and interrogation of aliens who the President or his designees have determined are believed to be engaged in or associated with international terrorist activity that poses a serious, continuing threat to the United States, its interests, or its allies, and that were officially authorized and determined to be lawful at the time that they were conducted, it shall be a defense that such officer, employee, member of the Armed Forces, or other agent did not know that the practices were unlawful and a person of ordinary sense and understanding would not know the practices were unlawful. Good faith reliance on advice of counsel should be an important factor, among others, to consider in assessing whether a person of ordinary sense and understanding would have known the practices to be unlawful.

Baretta thought you shouldn't do the crime if you can't do the time. In the Bush era, this moral stringency has been visibly relaxed. Now it's okay to do the crime, even a war crime, provided you relied in good faith on Bruce Bybee, John Yoo, David Addington and Alberto Gonzalez. The exoneration clause quoted above was incorporated and extended in the Military Commissions Act of 2006, specifically referring to prosecutions for war crimes, and, for good measure, reinterpreting Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions as used by the American War Crimes Act. And, for better measure yet, allowing that paragon of humane sensibility, George W. Bush, to have the last word on what the hell torture even is, by publishing his gory fantasies in the Federal Register as a list of "approved techniques."

I hope Congress also offered to fluff George's pillow while they were at it. Nevertheless, one can faintly, oh so subtly, descry a baseline fear among the top Bushocrats about what they've been doing to Arab prisoners for the last six years or so. These elaborate noose-slipping phrases are unprecedented, as far as I can tell, and I've read a lot (way too many) statutes over the last 30 years. I think the guys and gals stuffing the rags down Mohammed and Khalid's throats and pouring water over their faces and into their lungs, or just beating the crap out of them, or sticking them in a freezing cell naked for days at a time, have nothing to worry about. Congress has let all that go. They certainly did not want to look soft on terrorism, and Harry (Mr. Mumbles) Reid did not use the famous "60-vote rule" to block the Detainee Treatment Act, or the Military Commissions Act, from reaching the floor for a vote with their get-out-of-jail free cards intact. The "60-vote rule" is only used by hardball players, that is, by Republicans who aren't, after all, afraid to be in the minority because they can still push the wussy Democrats around.

No, the line officer with the CIA, the Army interrogator, if they were told everything they were doing was okay with the guys (and gal) upstairs, then it's pretty clear they're not going to be prosecuted, unless Congress gets tough and repeals these exonerations (excuse me, coffee just splurted out of my nose). However....editorial boards from New York to Washington, and over the great American heartland too, have lately been taking Bush&Co. to task upon the revelation that the Torture Team meeting in the Situation Room of the White House specifically approved all these Torquemada torts while sitting in plenary session. Take this unmodulated language from the Gray Lady of Manhattan, published today ("The Torture Sessions"):

"We have read the memos from the Justice Department redefining torture, claiming that Mr. Bush did not have to follow the law, and offering a blueprint for avoiding criminal liability for abusing prisoners.

"The amount of time and energy devoted to this furtive exercise at the very highest levels of the government reminded us how little Americans know, in fact, about the ways Mr. Bush and his team undermined, subverted and broke the law in the name of saving the American way of life."

Amazing, isn't it? The same newspaper that brings you the pissy whimpering of David Brooks and William Kristol on a weekly basis also writes this very good stuff. The New York Times is calling George W. Bush a criminal. Since I want to encourage such salutary opinionating (and this accounts for the somewhat clunky title of this thing, for ease in Googling), I offer this angle, which may amount to an insight: Note that Bush's exoneration drafters used the phrase quoted in red in the DTA: "Good faith reliance on advice of counsel." Now I know what they were trying to do. Bush, Cheney, Ashcroft, Powell, Rice, Rumsfeld et alia were trying to put their best feet forward. The unctuous phrasing, in this case, was to cast them in the most sympathetic light possible. Just humble terror-fighters thinkin' what their learned attorneys were sayin' must be okay. They'd already seen the District Court opinion in Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld by this point, that quirky case that inexplicably equated Arabs with homo sapiens; and they were none too sanguine about their chances with even their Supreme Court. So they needed a way out. If what they were ordering the guys down at the dungeon to do seemed a little too far out to pass as humane under the Geneva Conventions, then their "good faith" belief that the incredible bullshit written by John Yoo (he went to Yale!) was nevertheless true could maybe do the trick. But the recent revelations concerning the Torture Sessions, where John Ashcroft, the main lawyer at the Sessions, wondered aloud about the wisdom of discussing Inquisition tactics in the White House, and opining that history "would not judge us kindly," call into question the good faith nature of this reliance.

Couple this with the slowly unraveling story about just how "independent" the opinions from Yoo, Bybee and the rest of the torture lawyers were, and you have a whole new way of assessing "good faith." The opinion from Yoo in particular (as detailed by the estimable Jack Balkin) were "stovepiped" to the White House, bypassing the usual review process in the Department of Justice. Helpfully, Bush has thrown his lot in with the Torture Session honchos, so the question can be asked of all of them: if you want to torture, and you tell your lawyers to write memos that bend and distort plain language in order to allow you to torture and which invent new interpretations of the powers of the Commander in Chief in wartime to further your ability to torture; and you set up special rules which allow this junior member of the Office of Legal Counsel to get his "anything goes" memo to the Oval Office without any meddling from more experienced (and perhaps saner) minds at the Justice Department; just what in the hell is "good" about the faith you place in these legal opinions? So while they might work for the guys further down the line, they certainly should not work for Bush and his cronies who ordered up the opinions in the first place.

So, Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse of the Obama Administration, I offer this single brick for the edifice of justice, in the spirit of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, you may one day construct.