Pre-election potpourri

››› ››› ERIC ALTERMAN

I've got a new "Think Again" column here, called "Portraying an Electoral Victory."

A liberal manifesto: Well done, Bruce and Todd. I would have liked to quibble with a little of the language -- as well as its Judt-centrism -- but overall, it is beautifully stated and badly needed, why is why I was happy to sign it. You can too. Here's how it begins:

We Answer to the Name of Liberals

As right-wing politicians and pundits call us stooges for Osama bin Laden, Tony Judt charges, in a widely discussed and heatedly debated essay in the London Review of Books, that American liberals -- without distinction -- have "acquiesced in President Bush's catastrophic foreign policy." Both claims are nonsense on stilts.

Clearly this is a moment for liberals to define ourselves. The important truth is that most liberals, including the undersigned, have stayed our course throughout these grim five years. We have consistently and publicly repudiated the ruinous policies of the Bush administration, and our diagnosis, alas, has been vindicated by events. The Bush debacle is a direct consequence of its repudiation of liberal principles. And if the country is to recover, we should begin by restating these principles.


We have all opposed the Iraq war as illegal, unwise, and destructive of America's moral standing. This war fueled, and continues to fuel, jihadis whose commitment to horrific, unjustifiable violence was amply demonstrated by the September 11 attacks as well as the massacres in Spain, Indonesia, Tunisia, Great Britain, and elsewhere. Rather than making us safer, the Iraq war has endangered the common security of Americans and our allies.

We believe that the state of Israel has the fundamental right to exist, free of military assault, within secure borders close to those of 1967, and that the U.S. government has a special responsibility toward achieving a lasting Middle East peace. But the Bush administration has defaulted. It has failed to pursue a steady and constructive course. It has discouraged the prospects for an honorable Israeli-Palestinian settlement. It has encouraged Israel's disproportionate attacks in Lebanon after the Hezbollah incursions, resulting in vast destruction of civilian life and property.

Make no mistake: We believe that the use of force can, at times, be justified. We supported the use of American force, together with our allies, in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. But war must remain a last resort. The Bush administration's emphatic reliance on military intervention is illegitimate and counterproductive. It creates unnecessary enemies, degrades the national defense, distracts from actual dangers, and ignores the imperative necessity of building an international order that peacefully addresses the aspirations of rising powers in Asia and Latin America.

The misapplication of military power also imperils American freedom at home. The president claims authority, as commander in chief, to throw American citizens into military prison for years on end without any hearing, civil or military, that would allow them to confront the charges against them. He claims the power to wiretap Americans' conversations without warrants, in direct violation of congressional commands. These usurpations presage what are likely to be even more drastic measures if another attack takes place on American soil.

At the same time, the president is unconstitutionally seizing power on other fronts. He seeks to liberate himself from the rule of law by issuing hundreds of "signing statements" asserting, with unprecedented sweep and aggressiveness, his right to ignore congressional control. Such contempt for the people's representatives verges on monarchical pretension.

You can add your name here, at the bottom.

"Studio 60 Was Better When It First Came Out," here. (Thanks, Petey.)

Actually, did you notice that both SNL shows used the same tired gag about the performer who is "still miked" in the same week? Shouldn't that be someone's job, or has NBC already fired that guy too? ($)

And hello, NBC News: National polls don't matter worth a damn. It's as if you were purposely misleading people. Why do I have to keep explaining this?

Speaking of misleading: Back when Ken Silverstein was still learning his trade from his mentor and role model, Alexander Cockburn, he wrote an incompetent hit job on yours truly for the Village Voice that contained not a single named quote, if my memory serves. Now he's done a less sloppy, but perhaps more foolish hit job on Barack Obama for Harper's (which is not online). Still, I guess that's an undeniable improvement. In rewriting much of what David Sirota argued -- also wrongheadedly, in my opinion -- in The Nation months ago, Silverstein comes up with the idea that Obama may be considered for um, vice president. That's right, vice president, not president, which as every sentient, politically aware individual knows, is the decision that lays before Barack right now. I don't know what the worst humiliation that can befall any journalist is, but I would guess that being made to look like a chump by both Joe Klein and David Brooks ($) in the same week ranks pretty high. Nice to see you again, bub. And Brooks's column is quite good, by the way; a sad reminder of what he could be if Bill Kristol ever lost his email address.

All hail John Maine, the greatest athlete named after a state ...

Log-rolling -- to put it awfully politely -- in our time:

Mark Halperin on Jake Weisberg: "Weisberg, a writer's writer and proud member of the Conde Nast family, paints Obama a bit more poet than pol in this must-read look at the Democratic superstar." Here.

Jake Weisberg on Mark Halperin (via Mark Halperin): "Jacob Weisberg says The Way to Win is 'a new book that anyone seriously interested in the mechanics of contemporary politics ought to read.' " Here.

Speaking of The Note: One of the many, many things that drives me crazy about it is the respectful tone it takes toward right-wing crazies like Novakula, Peggy-the Magic Dolphin Lady, the self-described "Wild Men" of the WSJ, and most particularly the "We lose $50 million of Rupert's money a year" nutty New York Posties while ignoring the fine political analysis that can be found in places like TAP, The Nation, Salon, Talking Points Memo, etc. all this contributes to the further degradation of the public discourse in which The Note is a -- perhaps the -- key player. Anyway, one of the smart boys' faves is the Post's Andrea Peyser. So look, Madonna adopted an African child with the full cooperation of her only living parent, her father, rescuing him from a life of poverty and degradation in an extremely poor orphanage. She donated $3 million to the orphanage and will spend another million on a documentary publicizing the orphan's plight. Maybe there were better options, maybe not. I don't know, and don't particularly care. I'm just (momentarily) pleased that some really poor people are seeing some of Madonna's extra money. If you do care, there's a story here.

Now, look at the quality of the analysis presented by The Note's fave, Peyser, here:

Madonna, the sluttish, egomaniacal mother-of-the-century has topped even her most revolting self. She plans to remove a baby from the loving arms of his dirt-poor father, in one of the most desperate nations on earth. Madonna has traveled far beyond her bra-baring, intercourse-simulating, public girl-kissing, Jesus-emulating loser antics to grab attention -- and flesh. The one-named wonder, who already has given birth to two children by two different daddies, one of whom she would not deign to marry, has her heart set on raping Malawi. ... Madonna should nail herself on her crucifix -- for real, this time. ... Stop this monster!

That's the woman whose views on Hillary Clinton we're supposed to take seriously.

Speaking of monsters: You know, the problem isn't just the extremism, incompetence, sexual exploitation, and dishonesty. It's also a simple failure to even try to do their job. See below:

Examining reports of the House Government Reform Committee, the journalist Susan Milligan found just 37 hearings described as "oversight" in 2003-4, during the 108th Congress, down from 135 in 1993-94, during the last Congress dominated by Democrats. The House Energy and Commerce Committee produced 117 pages of activity reports on oversight during the 1993-94 cycle, compared with 24 pages during 2003-4. In the mid-1990s, the Republican Congress took 140 hours of testimony on whether President Clinton had used his Christmas mailing list to find potential campaign donors; in 2004-5, House Republicans took 12 hours of testimony on Abu Ghraib.

When committees do hold hearings, they tend to focus on routine budget review. Charles Stevenson, a longtime Senate staffer, has noted that "the Senate Armed Services Committee held no hearings specifically on operations in Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004, and only nine on Iraq [excluding the prisoner-abuse matter] in that two year period -- less than 10 percent of its total hearings. The House Armed Services Committee held only one hearing on Afghanistan in 2003 and 18 on Iraq during 2003-2004 -- less than 14 percent of its total number of hearings. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee spent 19 percent of its time on those two countries." Such hearings, moreover, suffer from "stovepiping" -- the practice of looking only at matters and people within one's narrow jurisdiction -- which prevents Congress from taking a comprehensive view of certain policies. Only one Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing involved a senior military officer, and only two saw witnesses from the Department of Defense.

That's from "When Congress Checks Out" by Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann, Foreign Affairs, November/December 2006, which I don't think is online yet, but which provides a nice lede to ...

The Altercation Book Club:

Heist: Superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, His Republican Allies, and the Buying of Washington by Peter Stone (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

The Rules of the Game

In the midst of the long running Washington influence peddling scandal, both before and after his plea bargain in early 2006, convicted superlobbyist Jack Abramoff made some stabs at presenting his side of the story, giving interviews to The New York Times Magazine, Time, and Vanity Fair. One of Abramoff 's recurring themes was that he was being pilloried for activities that are commonplace in the lobbying world. "I can't imagine there's anything I did that other lobbyists didn't do and aren't doing today," Abramoff told Time. In a similar vein, Abramoff complained to Vanity Fair that he really worked much like others on K Street, only better. "Most Washington lobbyists are lazy, people of limits, people who move glacially slow," Abramoff said.

Of course, this is heavily spun stuff, as Abramoff's own plea deal -- in which he admitted conspiring to bribe public officials, defrauding four casino rich Indian tribes and others of $25 million and evading $1.7 million in taxes -- makes abundantly clear. The lobbyist and his cohorts on Capitol Hill and on K Street subverted norms, ethics, and the law. Clearly, Abramoff's kickback schemes, bribes to high-level congressional aides, fraudulent use of nonprofits, and other actions were beyond the pale of the lobbying profession at large. The transgressions that Abramoff and his former lobbying associates -- Michael Scanlon and Tony Rudy, two ex-aides to onetime House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Tex., and Neil Volz, a former chief of staff to Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio -- have pled guilty to are expected to keep investigators and prosecutors busy through much of 2006 and perhaps into 2007 as they attempt to ferret out how far the corruption went.

Just last month there was more evidence of how far Abramoff's corruption schemes went. In his own plea deal with Justice Department, Ney admitted that he accepted tens of thousands of dollars in favors from Abramoff -- including a golf junket to Scotland, free meals at the lobbyist's Signatures restaurant, tickets to sporting events and more -- in exchange for promises to help some of Abramoff's Indian casino and other clients. Before the influence-peddling probe winds up, it's likely to snare several other GOP lobbyists and public office holders -- and perhaps even a few and current and ex-members such as Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., and DeLay who remain under scrutiny.

"Abramoff wasn't just pushing the envelope," quipped Larry Noble, a former counsel at the Federal Election Commission who later ran the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, a nonpartisan group tracking the influence of money in politics. "He was shredding the envelope."

Nonetheless, there's another way to interpret Abramoff's remarks that reveals some interesting broader truths, not only about the lobbyist's rise and fall but also about the way that Washington works -- specifically, how the connections between lobbyists, money, and politicians have tightened considerably over the last decade. "Lobbyists are afraid if they don't give, congressmen won't talk to them much," former representative William Frenzel, a Republican from Minnesota who is now with the Brookings Institution, told me. "I think Congress has been merciless in their fund-raising. I think it's a form of extortion. Congress treats the lobbyists as though they're sheep to be fleeced."

Frenzel wasn't talking about the K Street Project directly, though his remarks seem apropos in regard to that operation. The K Street Project owed much to Abramoff, whose extraordinary fund-raising for DeLay and his pet projects, as well as numerous conservative causes, long made him a role model and hero for many conservatives. As Abramoff's old political ally Grover Norquist, the head of the powerful Americans for Tax Reform, once told National Journal, "What the Republicans need is 50 Jack Abramoffs. Then this becomes a different town." What Norquist and others appreciated so much about Abramoff was that he provided a complete financial concierge service for his Capitol Hill allies and right-wing redoubts. Abramoff persuaded his Indian casino clients, his clients in the sweatshop ridden Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, and others to part with millions and millions of dollars-in campaign cash, junkets, meals, skyboxes, and more -- to ingratiate themselves with the GOP and conservative power brokers such as Norquist and former Christian coalition leader turned consultant Ralph Reed, another old Abramoff friend whose Atlanta based consulting firm raked in close to $6 million from the lobbyist's casino clients.

The zeitgeist that Abramoff reflected so well was promulgated by DeLay and the K Street Project. When the GOP captured Congress in 1994 and in the years directly after, the word went out from DeLay and Norquist that if you wanted access on Capitol Hill and if you wanted to have influence with these and other leaders, you'd better hire Republicans. "We're just following the old adage of punish your enemies and reward your friends," DeLay famously said in the mid 1990's.

The GOP effort to establish its own pay-to-play rules and its own spoils system was an updated, more aggressive, and more far-reaching version of what Democrats had developed when they controlled the House. Trade groups all over Washington felt pressure from the DeLay and Norquist machines to hire more Republicans and did so overwhelmingly. An official of the Republican National Committee in 2003 was cited in The Washington Post observing that all but three of some three dozen top slots at leading business trade groups had been recently filled by Republicans. But sometimes DeLay's heavy-handed tactics provoked ethics storms on the Hill. In late 1998, for instance, DeLay attacked the Electronic Industries Association for having had the temerity to hire former representative Dave McCurdy, an Oklahoma Democrat, rather than a GOP candidate. In response, the House Ethics Committee issued a private letter rebuking the Texan for going too far.

But the reprimand didn't do much to slow down DeLay's hard-driving, push-the-envelope style of remaking K Street, a style that not incidentally benefited Abramoff. On their highly publicized trip to the Marianas over New Year's in 1998 when DeLay famously and publicly called Abramoff "one of my closest and dearest friends."

Several of the lobbying tools -- including junkets, free meals, and subsidized sporting events -- that Abramoff took to extremes are institutionalized in Washington and are now integral to the ties that bind K Street with Capitol Hill. It's become standard operating procedure in the lobbying world to wine and dine members and staffers away from Washington and to lavishly entertain decision makers on Capitol Hill and at political conventions. Lobbyists also have emerged in recent years as chief fund-raisers for many campaigns and leadership PACs.

"I think the underlying cause of all these problems is the amount of money that has to be raised and how it is raised," former senator Warren Rudman, a Republican from New Hampshire, told me in a telephone interview. "By necessity it means going to people who need access, who want to be heard, and who want to influence policy."

Ironically, even as DeLay was stepping down permanently from House leadership early in 2006, the two leading candidates to succeed him were Roy Blunt of Missouri, his top deputy, and John Boehner of Ohio, a longtime rival, both of whom boasted their own sizable networks of Washington lobbyists and fund-raisers. Consider Blunt's leadership PAC, Rely on Your Beliefs, which long employed Jim Ellis, who was indicted in Texas along with DeLay on money laundering and conspiracy charges and used to run DeLay's ARMPAC too.

For his part, Boehner hosted weekly meetings with top Washington business lobbyists and conservatives for a few years right after the GOP won control of Congress in 1994. Boehner, who like DeLay boasted very strong ties to the tobacco lobby in Washington, once earned notoriety by handing out checks from the industry on the House floor.

Ultimately, in the struggle to succeed DeLay in early 2006, Boehner won out largely because the ties between Blunt's world and DeLay's seemed more obvious. But Boehner, who briefly talked tough about lobbying reforms in early 2006, soon backed away from almost all stringent measures to reform the pay-to-play system, as did many of his colleagues in the House. One perk that Boehner was particularly concerned to preserve was the ability of members to take privately funded junkets, not unlike the kind that Abramoff was so good at organizing. According to an independent survey done by the Campaign for a Cleaner Congress, Boehner had taken 180 trips since 1999 outside his district -- including quite a few to such golfing destinations as St. Andrews in Scotland and Pebble Beach in California -- ranking him among the ten most prolific travelers in the House.

Boehner's views about the importance of preserving private travel ultimately prevailed. At the start of 2006, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert publicly proclaimed that he favored putting "an end" to private travel because of abuses. But the very weak lobbying reform bill that passed the House -- but never was enacted -- included a much-watered-down provision that only suspended such trips and only until June 15, 2006, a token gesture at best.

Ironically, just as they were caving on the idea of banning private travel, studies showed such trips proliferating. PoliticalMoneyLine in early 2005 revealed that some 600 members of Congress since the year 2000 have gone on 5,410 trips that were privately funded at a cost of $16 million.

Likewise, Abramoff 's prowess at raising big bucks for DeLay's political operations and ARMPAC was part of a broader trend on K Street. According to the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington watchdog group, the number of lobbyists who served as treasurers for members' reelection committees or leadership PACs soared from fifteen in 1998 to seventy-one in the 2004 election cycles.

Similarly, the relationships between lobbyists and members have become tighter through the use of earmarks, another tool that Abramoff liked to employ. One of Abramoff's fortes was prodding members of Congress to insert appropriations earmarks into bills quietly, at the last minute and with little scrutiny. A prime example of this was a $3 million school grant that Sen. Conrad Burns R-Mont. helped Abramoff's client, the Saginaw Chippewas of Michigan obtain.

During the lobbying reform debates in early 2006, John McCain and other members pointed out how earmarks had proliferated. Overall, according to the Congressional Research Service, earmarks mushroomed from about four thousand a year in the mid-1990s to more than fifteen thousand in 2005. Earmarks, as McCain put it, have "bred lobbyists, which has bred corruption."

The poster boy for the corrupting potential of earmarks was former representative Randall "Duke" Cunningham of California, who in late 2005 pleaded guilty to accepting some $2.4 million in bribes from defense and other government contractors. In exchange for these extravagant bribes -- which included cash, antiques, and yachts -- Cunningham helped steer hundreds of millions in defense contracts and other federal business to three defense and technology firms, including MZM Inc. In March of 2006, Cunningham was sentenced to eight years and four months in prison.

Abramoff and Cunningham are "indicative of a broken system that people have taken advantage of," McCain told me. The Senator stressed too that the "Campaign contributions coming very close to the time that earmarks are inserted in bills may not meet the technical definition of bribery, but it's the moral equivalent."

Republicans, to be sure, weren't the only abusers of the earmark process. The Wall Street Journal has reported that federal investigators in April 2006 were probing the financial dealings of Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the House Ethics Committee who also served on the Appropriations Committee. In the latter post, Mollohan reportedly steered some $250 million in earmarked appropriations to five nonprofit groups in his district, one of which was run by a former top aide in his office. Mollohan denied doing anything improper, but soon stepped down from his ethics committee post.

Still, some moderate GOP members saw scant prospects for far-reaching lobbying reform anytime soon, with Republicans in control. "For whatever reason, the GOP Congress that got elected in 1994 is not the same Republican Congress of today," Representative Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, told me in early 2006 after the Abramoff plea deal. "We're not a reform-minded Congress. This is a Congress that belittles reforms, that thinks the public doesn't care. We're more like the Democrats of 1994 . . . I think we set out to change Washington, but Washington has changed us."

For more, go here.

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Richard Gallagher
Hometown: Fishkill, NY

Dear Eric,

This seems to have slipped under everyone's radar, but it's being reported that a verdict and sentencing in the Saddam Hussein trial will be announced on Nov. 5, two days before the mid-term elections. Coincidence?

Edward Furey's comments on gerrymandering are well-taken, at least in part. In some sections of the country population shifts are happening so quickly that Elbridge Gerry himself couldn't keep up with them.

I live in Dutchess County, N.Y., which has been safely Republican for years. Board of Elections statistics show that Republicans had a registration edge of 8,000 voters three years ago. Today that edge has shrunk to 5,500 voters, mostly because New York City residents who want to live in the suburbs have to move here to find relatively affordable housing. Consequently, the Republican representative Sue Kelly, who easily won re-election two years ago, is in the fight of her life with John Hall. I don't know if Hall will win, but he's certainly giving Kelly a scare.

Name: Charles Perez
Hometown: Marion, NY

Who should we trust on the number of Iraqis killed thus far in the Central Front of the Neverending War on Terror? If the public would just think about it (how many times I've said that over the past 6 years!), there would be no doubt.

MIT brought us pin-point lunar landings, LED lasers and advanced computing languages among thousands of other things all based on the latest in physics and mathematics. We can thank Johns Hopkins for numerous life-saving or enhancing advances and an almost uncountable number of epedemiological studies.

With what can we credit BushCo. and supporters - who disparage either the numbers or the methodology of the study? Lies about going to war, no plan for after the war, failed international policy all over the world (Darfur, Korea, Afghanistan...) and oh yeah, and a growing body count in Iraq.

But this disgrace is met with the same bored yawn and blank looks as the rape of our Constitution by the Military Commissions Act.

Name: John
Hometown: Los Angeles, CA

Dr A., I'm not one to media-bash or blame the ills of society on journalists and newscasters, but the more I read of your research on the various issues of the day, I'm beginning to agree that the Media is failing the public horribly. This Johns Hopkins Iraq Mortality study is yet another prime example. Why is it that journalists allow politicians to throw out statements that are complete bull-shit, instead of challenging their truth? Usually, I read up a good amount on whatever the issue, to try and get as many perspectives as possible (your site is a great help!) but I was extra busy this week so I came away with only the MSM-fed notion that the Hopkins study claimed huge losses (roughly 600,000), and that the methodology of the study is questionable. Granted, I fully expected that response from Republicans so I didn't give it much weight, but the media did. In fact it gave the GOP talking point, equal weight to that of the study and would obviously cause a huge number of people to be, how do we say ... misinformed. And this wasn't Fox News but MSNBC and even NPR. I'm all for explaining/exploring every side of an issue, but this trend is deeply disturbing to anyone who values truth. Next thing we'll be told that there is a significant "debate" about global warming and evolution in the scientific community, and Iraq had WMD. Ugh...

Keep up the fine work. Habeas corpus, we hardly knew ye.

Name: Pete
Hometown: Evergreen, CO

Eric,

In reference to Dale's letter, here in Colorado, on the local NBC affiliate 9News they do dissect political ads. Here is a link to the website. The reporter tries to be objective and is most times. Both sides have their ads disected.

Name: Marilyn King Reece
Hometown: Rainsville, Alabama

Thanks for the Moyers/Fogdall quote about the immeasurable significance of the Internet. Let's remember the senator who shepherded the legislation that opened it up, correctly imagining all the Information Superhighway could do to promote the general welfare. Let's also remember how that fact was buried under ridicule when we had the chance to elect him president.

WLM? (And thanks again, Ralph.)

Name: Michael Rapoport
Hometown:

Eric:

Not a bad choice at all. I have a 1993 Corolla with 90,000+ miles on it, and while I haven't always been thrilled with it, the damn thing has just lasted and lasted. Every time I think "well, let me just get one more year out of it," it keeps running well enough to get me to put off buying a new car yet again.

Name: Janice Halperin
Hometown: New York City

Mr. Alterman,

Mark Halperin is a very nice boy. Please leave him alone.

Eric replies: You know, I tried, I really did. But every time I think I'm out, he pulls me back in. That David Halperin, however -- now, there's a young man in whom all Halperins the world over may justly take pride ...

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