Sunday, June 26, 2005

Does Gen. Abazaid Know Something We Don't?

Absolutely I think this war [in Iraq] has made us safer. Look, we are fighting the same people in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and our partners are fighting the same people in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that brought us 9/11. We should never lose sight of that.

-- Gen. John Abazaid, Commander of U.S. Central Command, on Face the Nation, June 26, 2005

The reports describe friendly contacts and indicate some common themes in both sides' hatred of the United States. But to date we have seen no evidence that these or the earlier contacts ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship. Nor have we seen evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States.

-- The 9/11 Commission Report, section 2.5, July 22, 2004.

Lt. Col. Frederick P. Wellman, who works with the task force overseeing the training of Iraqi security troops, said the insurgency doesn't seem to be running out of new recruits, a dynamic fueled by tribal members seeking revenge for relatives killed in fighting.

"We can't kill them all," Wellman said. "When I kill one I create three."

-- "Officers Say Arms Can't End Iraq War" by Tom Lasseter, Knight Ridder Newspapers, Monday 13 June 2005

The [Congressional and intelligence] officials said the [CIA] report spelled out how the urban nature of the war in Iraq was helping combatants learn how to carry out assassinations, kidnappings, car bombings and other kinds of attacks that were never a staple of the fighting in Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet campaigns of the 1980's. It was during that conflict, primarily rural and conventional, that the United States provided arms to Osama bin Laden and other militants, who later formed Al Qaeda.

The assessment said the central role played by Iraq meant that, for now, most potential terrorists were likely to focus their energies on attacking American forces there, rather than carrying out attacks elsewhere, the officials said. But the officials said Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other countries would soon have to contend with militants who leave Iraq equipped with considerable experience and training.

-- "Iraq May Be Prime Place for Training of Militants, C.I.A. Report Concludes" by Douglas Jehl, The New York Times, June 22, 2005

Does Gen. Abazaid claim to know something that the 9/11 Commission didn't? Like, for instance, does he know of the existence of evidence that al-Qaeda was operating in Hussein-controlled Iraq before our invasion? If so, he should really consider sharing this evidence with someone.

Or perhaps he doesn't really know of any evidence that would counter the 9/11 Commission's conclusions, and isn't really saying that al-Qaeda was in Iraq before we invaded, but is instead citing some version of the so-called "flypaper" theory, according to which the Iraq war is helping us to win the war against jihadist terror by drawing foreign jihadists into Iraq where we can kill them? In that case, does Gen. Abazaid know something that Lt. Col. Wellman and the CIA don't know? Because, according to them, it sure sounds like we're making more terrorists than we're killing.

Or does the General know of some exotic system of logic according to which the way to really solve a problem is to first make it much worse, and then struggle for years to recover from the effects of having made it worse?

How To Negotiate With Terrorists

Let the Bush administration show you how: The increasingly indispensible Times of London has the story and Billmon has the first extended commentary. Here's the gist:
After weeks of delicate negotiation involving a former Iraqi minister and senior tribal leaders, a small group of insurgent commanders apparently came face to face with four American officials seeking to establish a dialogue with the men they regard as their enemies.

The talks on June 3 were followed by a second encounter 10 days later, according to an Iraqi who said that he had attended both meetings. Details provided to The Sunday Times by two Iraqi sources whose groups were involved indicate that further talks are planned in the hope of negotiating an eventual breakthrough that might reduce the violence in Iraq.

As Billmon points out, this is a good thing. We already knew, from both the top U.S. commander (Gen. George W. Casey) and the chief U.S. military spokesman (Brig. Gen. Donald Alston) in Iraq, that a military solution of the insurgency was out of the question. We also knew, from Gen. Abizaid's recent testimony before Congress, that the insurgency has lost none of its potency in the last half year, and that it is now buttressed by a greater number of foreign fighters than ever before. We also learned, from a classified CIA report whose existence and contents were leaked to the New York Times, that the insurgency is proving to be a training ground for foreign terrorists, similar to what Afghanistan provided in the 80's and 90's, but with a potentially even more dangerous emphasis on urban warfare.

Given that the most our armed forces can accomplish is to maintain the current military stalemate, while Iraqi politicians negotiate a constitutional settlement that bleeds off sufficient Sunni support to undermine the insurgency; and given that speed is of the essence, since the longer it takes the politicians to do this, the more American troops will die (at the rate of over two a day), and the more foreign terrorists will get trained for eventual urban Jihad in their home countries; -- given all that, negotiations are probably a wise and (dare I say it?) realistic thing to be doing.

It's clear from the details of the Times story that a principal aim of the U.S. negotiators is to try to convince the insurgency's leadership to in effect give up the Zarqawi group. At the moment, the insurgency leaders are primarily demanding a timetable (in the 1 to 5 year range) for a full U.S. withdrawal. The outlines of a possible deal seem to be coming into focus -- one that would purge the hard core of foreign terrorists from the insurgency, and guarantee an end to the occupation, but without necessitating an immediate U.S. withdrawal that would leave the fledgling Iraqi state helpless. Of course, neither side is ready to sign onto anything like such a deal yet, but the path to it has been opened.

All in all then, this news looks like a genuine cause for hope. But, of course, it is also an occasion for richly-deserved ridicule.

Because, in the first place, it is the White House itself that has assiduously refused to distinguish between any type of insurgent activity, on the one side, and terrorism, on the other, and that has insisted on labeling the entire insurgency as simply "the terrorists." And, in the second place, it was only a couple of days ago that President Bush's top political and policy advisor Karl Rove was publicly denouncing liberals for being soft on terrorism (specifically, for desiring a non-military reponse to 9-11 -- an obvious lie), so soft in fact that they would rather harm our own troops than let them fight the enemy (not just a lie, but an indecent slander).

And now here is the Bush adminstration, doing the very reality-based thing of trying to split the insurgency by appealing to the relative moderates within it, to those with limited, concrete, non-nihilistic political goals, against the true Jihadis. It is a good play, but one that, if the shoe were on the other foot, if it were being recommended by Democrats, would call down on their heads a veritable torrent of denunciations and fiery imprecations from every corner of rightwingerdom. And so we are now entitled to ask the following question of those same right-wing pundits:

Where is the outrage?!

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Last Throes

The New York Times finally picks up on a story that Knight Ridder Washington Bureau first reported over a week ago: Sunni insurgents in central Iraq are getting better at killing U.S. troops. How? By building a better Improvised Explosive Device (IED).

The insurgency continues to adapt to U.S. countermeasures faster than we can come up with new ones. Now that armored Humvees are finally getting to Iraq in significant numbers, the insurgents are starting to deploy IEDs with shaped charges capable of piercing such armor. And now that our forces are jamming radio signals to foil detonators made from cell phones and garage door openers, the insurgents are turning to infrared detonators that are impervious to radio jamming. Most disturbing of all, these adaptations aren't just keeping the insurgency lethal -- they are actually making it more lethal than ever before.

The result? IEDs now account for 70% of U.S. casualties, and the death toll from IEDs reached a new high in May and June. This, in turn, helps account for why the U.S. death toll is currently running at 2.13 per day in the period since the Iraqi elections -- as against 1.89 per day in the period between the "end of major combat operations" [sic] and the "handover of sovereignty" [sic]. All of which, in turn, helps explain why (as the increasingly indispensable Knight Ridder service also reported about a week ago) top U.S. military officers in Iraq are now openly saying that the insurgency cannot be ended by military means.

Maybe this is the kind of complication that the head of MI6 had in mind when he expressed his now famous worry that, "There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action." In any case, if these are, as the Vice President would have it, the insurgency's "last throes," I'd hate to see what the damn thing looks like in the full bloom of health.

Monday, June 13, 2005

How to Bribe a Member of Congress

Special San Diego edition. Sweetheart defense contract deals, real estate speculation as a form of money laundering, and our very own Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R - Escondido). The San Diego Union Tribune has the scoop, and Josh Marshall has the executive summary. My favorite Cunningham line: "I feel very confident that I haven't done anything wrong." Um, Duke, if you didn't do anything wrong, wouldn't "feeling confident" about it be beside the point?

Sunday, June 12, 2005

The Grammar of Life

I thought that the strongest passage in this post by Majikthise, offering a philosophical defense of the pro-choice position, was one that came almost as an aside, in a footnote:

We don't ordinarily describe a woman as a mother until she gives birth to at least one live baby.

That strikes me as entirely correct, and extremely pertinent, but it is undercut by what Majikthise says in the very next sentence:

It's interesting how the anti-choice bias permeates our language.

I have always been struck, on something like the contrary, by the myriad ways that ordinary usage undercuts the strict "pro-life" position, and tends rather to call attention to the overwhelming significance of birth, in marking the beginning of a person's life. Majikthise gives what amounts to one example of this, but coming up with many more is trivially easy:

-- When we ask someone "How old are you?" we do not ordinarily expect that person to respond by giving the years since her conception (or quickening, or viability).

-- To mark a person's passage through life, we do not ordinarily celebrate days of conception (or quickening, or viability, but I won't keep repeating that part). We celebrate "birthdays."

-- When we tell a person's life story (or when someone tells us theirs), the event with which it ordinarily begins (perhaps after some "family background") is that person's birth, and not (unless he is Tristram Shandy) his conception.

-- We often ask people "Where were you born?" We do not ordinarily ask them, "Where were you conceived?" nor even expect them to know the answer to such a question -- although, in a certain kind of company, it can be odd fun to speculate.

-- Tombstones and other ceremonial markers, when they have dates on them, ordinarily give, in addition to a date of death, a date of birth, not a date of conception.

-- We do not ordinarily expect there to be a "funeral" to mark a miscarriage, nor do we ordinarily speak about a miscarried zygote or embryo or fetus the way we would about someone at their funeral, e.g., as "the deceased," "the loved one," and so on.

-- When we ask "How many are there in your family?" we do not ordinarily expect zygotes or embryos or fetuses to be counted, although it is quite ordinary to hear something like "and one on the way," or "and soon to be one more."

In addition to looking at ordinary usage in this J. L. Austin sort of way, it can also be quite useful to do some modest Heidegger/Nietzsche type of linguistic operations on heavily freighted terms such as these. For instance, I think it is philosophically (and morally) significant that the use of the word "conception" in this context is much more abstracted from the primary and direct human experience out of which it arose, than is the use of the word "birth," and that, if we trace both words back to their most primitive meanings, we find that only one of them is directly and aboriginally associated with the beginning of a unique human life.

"To conceive" comes from the Latin concipere, whose root meanings describe commonplace acts such as to take in (or up), to receive, to catch. From those humble beginnings, the verb was carried over into many other realms, including purely mental operations such as imagining or understanding, as well as both mothering and becoming pregnant. It's easy to imagine how the latter two meanings arose: The root meanings describe acts that could easily be related metaphorically, not to the beginning of life, but to (part of) the (hetero-)sexual act, in particular as seen from a female point of view -- hence the association, by extension, with both mothering and pregnancy. The association with the beginnng of a unique human life, however, is nowhere to be found in the word's long history.

"To be born" comes from Scandanavian roots, by way of Middle English, and seems to have always meant what it means for us -- the act or event of coming into the world, of being seen, as it were, for the first time. The Latin equivalent, nasci, likewise has as its primary meaning to be born or begotten. Other meanings include to rise or dawn; to start or originate; to be produed by spontaneously; to come into existence or being; to spring forth or grow; and, simply, to live. Note the striking absence from these meanings of any imagery associated with parental figures or originating causes, and the exclusive focus on the being which (or who) is making its first appearance, its beginning in the world.

To conceive, we might say, is something that is done (in both its biological and other senses) by those who are already in a position to make a beginning of their own. It is the taking in of the seed that is necessary for that beginning. A philosopher might call this seed an intuition; an artist might call it an inspiration; a biologist or a farmer would probably be thinking of more literal inseminations.

To be born is something else entirely. It is (to borrow a little from Hannah Arendt, who was borrowing from Augustine) the actual beginning of something new in the world. And if it happens to be a human birth, it is the begnning of one who is himself or herself a beginner -- one capable of beginning things anew. It is then the appearance in the world of an original who is also, potentially, an originator.

In sum, there is something in language, deeper even than the legacy of patriarchal institutions, that resists every attempt to divorce the beginning of personhood from that momentous first appearance in the world, as one unique being among others, that we call birth.

Kinsley Misses a Memo

Kevin Drum get this one exactly right: Michael Kinsely's op-ed piece in this morning's L.A. Times ("The Left Gets a Memo") is a puzzlingly self-contradictory attempt to discount the significance of the Downing Street Memo.

Depending on which paragraph of Kinsley's column one reads, the Memo's revelations -- that the Bush administration had decided on war in advance of going to the U.N., and that such a diplomatic effort was being urged by the British as a way to create the legal justification required for their own participation in that war -- are either an overblown part of a "paranoid theory," or else so obvious that "you don't need a secret memo" to know that they are true.

But Kinsley's column looks even more foolish in light of the latest leaked memo, the one Kevin called our attention to yesterday, namely the Cabinet Office briefing paper that was circulated to participants in the same meeting, the minutes of which the Downing Street Memo records. Two paragraphs from the London Times own coverage of the newly leaked document stand out:
The suggestions that the allies use the UN to justify war contradicts claims by Blair and Bush, repeated during their Washington summit last week, that they turned to the UN in order to avoid having to go to war. The attack on Iraq finally began in March 2003.

The briefing paper is certain to add to the pressure, particularly on the American president, because of the damaging revelation that Bush and Blair agreed on regime change in April 2002 and then looked for a way to justify it. [emphasis added]
So here is the London Times saying that the new memo is evidence that Bush and Blair are lying right now, in real time, about what really took place back in 2002, and that the President and the PM had agreed, at least in principle, on an unprovoked war to remove Saddam Hussein in April 2002. And, indeed, a look at the opening paragraphs of the briefing paper itself strongly supports such a reading:
1. The US Government's military planning for action against Iraq is proceeding apace. But, as yet, it lacks a political framework. In particular, little thought has been given to creating the political conditions for military action, or the aftermath and how to shape it.

2. When the Prime Minister discussed Iraq with President Bush at Crawford in April he said that the UK would support military action to bring about regime change, provided that certain conditions were met: efforts had been made to construct a coalition/shape public opinion, the Israel-Palestine Crisis was quiescent, and the options for action to eliminate Iraq's WMD through the UN weapons inspectors had been exhausted.

3. We need now to reinforce this message and to encourage the US Government to place its military planning within a political framework, partly to forestall the risk that military action is precipitated in an unplanned way by, for example, an incident in the No Fly Zones. This is particularly important for the UK because it is necessary to create the conditions in which we could legally support military action. Otherwise we face the real danger that the US will commit themselves to a course of action which we would find very difficult to support.
I wonder if the meaning of these words is plain enough for Kinsley's taste? To my eyes they seem to say rather plainly that:
  • The PM pledged his support in April 2002 for a war whose purpose was the removal of Saddam Hussein from power;

  • That he however attached certain conditions to this support, some of which, in the event, were clearly met (the shaping of public opinion), and some of which, just as clearly, were abandoned mid-stream (the exhaustion of the diplomatic option of using UN inspectors to disarm Saddam); and

  • That the PM's inner circle was deeply concerned that the Americans were in such a hurry to get to the battlefield that -- unless they received sufficient British prodding -- they might not get a legal justification in place before the shooting started, and that the U.K. would then be drawn into an undisguised war for regime change, which would be legally and politically unsupportable for the British government.

Whether or not the cutting-short of the inspections process, and the launching of the war on the basis of UNSCR 1441, without an additional resolution authorizing force, satisfied the legal and political requirements of the British government, is of course subject to interpretation -- and a lively debate among British politicians. What isn't, I think, subject to interpretation is that the Americans wanted a war to remove Saddam, whether it could be legally and morally justified, or not, and that the British, who did care about justifiability, were playing catch up.

It could also be argued, I suppose, that the new memo supports the theory that, had the British withheld their support, the war might have been averted. Perhaps yes, perhaps no -- we will probably never know, as I suspect the British didn't know, but could ultimately only guess, like everyone else in the world, at the depth of Bush's determination to go it alone, if need be. But in any case, this hardly diminishes what the new memo confirms: Justification or no justification, the Americans were set on making war to change the regime in Baghdad. It merely means that their intentions might still conceivably have been frustrated -- which is precisely what hardliners like Cheney feared might happen if the UN route was taken.

In the end, of course, Cheney needn't have worried: Success in meeting one of Blair's conditions in particular (namely, the shaping of public opinion -- at least in the US and the UK) made up for any failure in meeting the others. The Bush/Blair team's success on this front was, in all senses of the word, spectacular: They managed to convince a majority on both sides of the Atlantic that, in effect, the UN inspectors' work could only be trusted if it shored up the case for war -- since the "right" answer about Saddam's possession of WMD had become, by then, a foregone conclusion. Given that "reality," why lose valuable time waiting around to find out what the inspectors might say?

But perhaps Mr. Kinsley believes that a more innocuous interpretation of these new revelations is possible? Or perhaps he concurs with the London Times' sinister reading of them, but thinks that the American people have already absorbed the news that they were (and are still being) lied to by their President about when and why he decided to make war Iraq? Or indeed perhaps -- to judge by today's column -- he believes both of these things simultaneously?

Friday, June 10, 2005

The Bush Sag is Overdetermined

Depending on whose polls you believe, President Bush's approval/disapproval ratings are either just barely above the worst numbers he's ever had, or else they've just hit a new low.

What could be the explanation for this "conundrum," as Alan Greenspan might put it? Let's try out some theories:

Perhaps Americans are worried because the all-volunteer Army fell short of its recruitment goal in May, for the fourth month in a row, this time by 25% -- after having lowered that goal by 16%. [Link]

Or maybe they are disturbed by that fact that, despite an extensive effort to reduce the risk to our troops in Iraq from Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), the insurgency seems to be getting steadily better at using them to kill American soldiers trying to get from point A to point B. [Link]

Or else it might be that people are growing more skeptical about our ability to train enough Iraqis to replace the American forces there -- especially after hearing about Iraqi army units that sing ballads to Saddam Hussein, and Iraqi national guard units that refuse to take training from U.S. troops at all, for fear of being assassinated when they return to their homes. [Link] [Link]

Or maybe it's not the Iraqi news so much as the sour economic news, like the fact that every time the pace of job creation seems to be picking up, it subsequently tanks -- as it did in May. [Link]

Or perhaps people are getting nervous about the economy because the trade deficit is ballooning again, putting us on track for beating out 2004 as the worst year ever. [Link]

Or maybe, like Alan Greenspan himself, they're puzzled about the ever-narrowing gap between short and long term interest rates, but more worried about it than he is, because they know that, if this keeps up, we'll eventually reach an "inverted yield curve" -- one of the most reliable harbingers of a recession. [Link] [Link]

As you can see, there are many plausible candidates for the underlying cause of the decline in Bush's popularity. In such cases, it is rare for a single theory to to explain the phenomenon completely. On the contrary, indeed: Managing to get yourself reelected, only to plummet in the polls within six months of your second inauguration, probably requires screwing up on multiple fronts simultaneously.

The Bush sag is overdetermined.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

One Step Closer to Disaster in Iraq

On a day that cost the lives of four more American soldiers, Iraq takes one more step toward open civil war.

To understand what is going on, it helps to remember (or learn) that Abdul Aziz al-Hakim is a very important figure in the new Iraq. He is: the head of the Shiite coalition that controls a majority in parliament (the Iraqi Alliance); the leader of one of the two major parties in that coalition -- namely, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI); and the former leader of SCIRI's armed wing, the Iranian-trained Badr Brigade -- in which capacity he succeeded his brother, Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim, who was assassinated in Najaf in 2003. He is, in other words, probably the second most powerful man in Iraq at the moment -- deferring only to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most senior and revered Shiite cleric.

What happened is this: At a conference marking the second anniversary of the Badr militia's establishment inside Iraq, the Shiite Prime Minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and the Kurdish President (and Peshmerga militia leader), Jalal Talabani, got together with their host, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, to praise one another's militias, and to announce that those same militias (specifically, the Peshmerga and the Badr Brigade) should be allowed to continue to exist in the new Iraq, and should moreover be used in operations against the (largely Sunni-based) insurgency.

American officials have openly opposed the continuation of the militias, or their use in the counter-insurgency. It seems likely, however, that retention of the Peshmerga was a non-negotiable demand for Kurdish participation in government (since it is the ultimate guarantee of their independence), and that the Shiites resolved, perhaps partly in response, to retain theirs as well. So the political stars have aligned to give the new Iraq, in addition to a Sunni insurgency, two private armies -- one for Shiites, and one for Kurds. If one were aiming to start an all-out civil war, this wouldn't be a bad way to arrange for it to happen.

The Times coverage mentions that the statement of support for the militias was intended to rebut Sunni criticisms of them, but fails to note, as Knight Ridder does, that many Sunnis are convinced that Badr death/torture squads are already operating inside the Iraqi army and police.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

A Reform Agenda for the Democrats

Here are a few modest items the Democrats should consider, if they are serious about proposing a powerful reform agenda for the next midterm elections:

The Executive Summary:
  • End pork-barrel spending by eliminating the use of the "legislative rider"
  • Restore fiscal sanity by making (structurally) balanced budgets mandatory
  • Secure, by constitutional amendment, the right to vote in presidential elections
  • Link radical tax simplification to restored tax progressivity
  • Equalize the treatment of earned income and (amortized) capital gains
  • Link continued support for free trade to the passage of single-payer health insurance

The Long Version:

1. End pork barrel spending. This one will be tough, since both parties are deeply culpable in it, incumbents are dependent on it for rewarding local notables and campaign contributors, and it provides much of grease for the many wheels that must turn to pass bigger pieces of legislation. But the public interest case against such spending is ironclad: It is, almost by definition, spending directed at private or partial interests. There may be some ceremonial attempt to dress it up with a public purpose, but the spending itself is always targeted so as to benefit a narrow constituency. Rousseau made the case long ago--no act can be just for the whole community, that treats a mere part of it directly. Such acts lack the generality that legitimacy demands. They also, of course, erode political responsibility. Influential constituents are effectively paid off, helping to ensure that they and others will not judge the performance of the representative by asking themselves public questions about that performance--questions about whether this or that action was good for the whole constituency.

But how to break the hold that such spending has on congress--and more to the point how to convince a deeply skeptical public that either party is truly prepared to do so? The mechanism responsible for most of this kind of spending is the legislative "rider"--the spending amendment tacked onto a larger, and necessary appropriations bill. (Such riders are also often used, these days, to subvert regulations on behalf of special, local interests--especially corporate interests in the extractive industries seeking "relief" from environmental laws.) The line-time veto was supposed to be the cure for the legislative rider, but, first, the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional, and, second, the line-item veto probably would have encouraged the president to pare the pork very selectively--favoring legislative friends and punishing foes. Better to attack the problem at its source.

Democrats should pledge to do three things:

* Stop all attempts to attach riders of their own to appropriations bills. This is comparatively easy to give up anyway, when you are out of power, but the gesture is an important one from the public's perspective. People are far more likely to believe you are sincere about forcing all politicians to give up some goodies if you have already given them up yourselves.

* Reintroduce the strictest possible "germaneness" rules in both houses (currently the Senate is the worst offender), as soon as Democrats are once again in the majority. The publicly-circulated drafts of these rules should contain provisions requiring super-majorities to overturn them. Even such provisions can be abolished by a narrow but determined majority that wants to bring the riders back, of course, but they put one more stumbling block in the way of such a majority and the more, the merrier.

* Support a constitutional amendment banning the practice for all time. Democrats have, and the whole, been loathe to propose constitutional amendments to accomplish what amount to relatively mundane legislative purposes. Such tactics smack of grandstanding and can easily be used to cover up an intention to do nothing substantive in the meantime. We should get over it. The amendment signal is one of the most effective that a party can send, for it can serve as a powerful wedge, even for a party out of power. The Donkey needs to learn from and emulate, not scorn, successful Elephantine strategies.

2. Restore fiscal sanity. A balanced budget amendment once seemed more trouble than it was worth -- a hamfisted approach to a complex problem. But no more. The fiscal madness of the present regime knows no bounds and it must be stopped cold. There is no way for a party out of power to even begin to fight for this in the context of the budget process, and there is great danger that if it is confined to a mere list of the opposition's legislative priorities, it will not be taken seriously by anyone in the media, and therefore make no impact on the public mind. Reviving this old PR weapon and turning it against the GOP -- but this time backed by a real commitment to enacting it -- is just the ticket.

The amendment's permitted exceptions to budgetary balance should be very strictly defined: Only *declared* war, or official economic recession (as defined, say, by the National Bureau of Economic Research) should justify new borrowing, and then only with the concurrence of both houses of congress and the president. Since both war and recession can have lengthy aftermaths that might justify continued deficit spending, that should be permitted as well, provided congress and the president continue to certify that there is residual need.

More importantly, the amendment should require scrupulous accounting of the amounts involved, meaning that the deficit spending should be authorized under a separate, special appropriation, containing spending for the permitted purposes only. And that spending authority, being essentially temporary in nature, should be subject to more frequent renewal than normal appropriations -- say, once every quarter. This would have the extra advantage of encouraging economic stimulus that is as immediate and direct as possible, while the combination of a required declaration of war and the quarterly appropriations would restore to congress some of its lost institutional responsibility for foreign policy matters.

By being the ones to put this back onto the public agenda, we can frame the debate in such a way that it leaves ample room for (and even encourages) the kind of Keynesian fiscal policies that Democrats have long known are sometimes necessary to combat economic downturns. Meanwhile, the requirement of structural fiscal balance would both cement the popular image of the Democrats as the party of fiscal responsibility (fostered under Clinton but dissipated somewhat since we have been out of power) and force the GOP to abandon its policy of slowly starving popular middle class entitlements it cannot destroy through frontal assault, while rewarding upper-income taxpayers with endless giveaways of borrowed money. What could be better?

3. Secure the right to vote in presidential elections. This is one that has almost no hope of passage, due to resistance by the smaller states, but that is bound to have widespread popular appeal once the stakes are made clear. Since the bulk of those states are among the staunchest Republican strongholds, and since the case for reform is overwhelming, the Democrats have little to lose, and much to gain. Small-state conservatives will scream bloody murder, but they will also have to put themselves on record as opposing the principle of one person, one vote, and the idea that the American people have a right to select their own president for themselves. All the historical resonances of the great struggles to expand the franchise will be called up, and we can honestly say that the purpose of the amendment is to secure once and for all one of the most sacred things in a democracy--the people's confidence in the integrity and meaning of their ballots.

As matters now stand, there is no right to vote for president of the United States. The ascendant interpretation (since Bush v. Gore) holds that the legislatures of the several states could, in principle, appoint their electors in any way they see fit. Meanwhile, the scrutiny occasioned by two close elections in a row have revealed what a mess our presidential balloting process is, with a bizarre patchwork of better and worse systems that Bush v. Gore would surely invalidate as an unconstitutional violation of equal protection--had that decision not arbitrarily declared itself without authority to serve as a precedent. Lastly, partisans of both sides now have ample reason to distrust the way the electoral college distorts the popular vote: Bush won the former in 2000 despite losing the latter, while in 2004 a swing of a bit more than a hundred thousand votes in Ohio would have put the shoe on the other foot. With the country so closely divided along party lines, we can expect to see more of the same.

It's time to end this farce, before it leads to a genuine constitutional crisis. The Democrats should propose a very simple constitutional amendment, modeled after the Seventeenth, along these lines:
The President and Vice-President shall be elected by the people of the United States. The electors shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of members of the House of Representatives.

The presidential ballot shall be conducted by a uniform mechanism, to be determined and overseen by a Federal Election Commission composed according to the statute in force when this amendment was proposed, and to be implemented with all deliberate speed.

This amendment shall not be so construed as to affect the election or term of any President or Vice President chosen before it becomes valid as part of the Constitution.

4. Link radical tax simplification to restored tax progressivity. Republicans are getting set to exploit a confusion they have worked hard to foster--between tax simplification and the reduction of progressivity. Democrats need to severe these two issues in the public mind, and the way to do it is simple: turn the Republican framing of the issue on its head.

The Democratic party should go on record as supporting the complete elimination of all non-standard personal income tax deductions, save two. The two are, obviously, home mortgage interest and state and local taxes. Eliminating the latter is a clear violation of federalism--and one that would hurt Democrats (in high tax states) more than it would Republicans. Eliminating the deductibility of home mortgage interest may make abstract economic sense but, I suspect, is politically fatal. Millions of Americans have made their most important investment decision (in effect) on the basis of that deduction. Killing it would probably devastate the housing sector in the short term, and would certainly piss off legions of homeowners and aspiring homeowners. We don't want to go there.

But everything else is fair game. The key to making this a just set of changes, of course, is retain, and even enhance, the progressive structure of marginal rates. Keep the proposal revenue neutral, but use higher top brackets, a bigger standard deduction, and an expanded ERTC to shift as much of the burden as possible off the shoulders of everyone making less than $200,000 per year.

This is reminiscent of the Kerry plan in the use of that cutoff, but it should be a real simplification scheme. Besides the marginal rate structure, only four components would remain--the (higher) standard deduction, the (higher) EITC, and the deductibility of state and local taxes and home mortgage interest. All the rest of the code, goes. Make sure the resulting bill is small enough to print as a sidebar in a major daily newspaper.

5. Equalize the treatment of earned income and capital gains. Okay, so it's not that simple. We also need an answer to the question of what to do about capital gains. Millions of Americans confront this when dealing with a home sale (though there is not much for them to worry about under current law) as well as with the treatment of retirement income.

Obviously, existing tax sheltered investments have to be grandfathered in. It wouldn't be fair to change the tax treatment of Roth IRAs, let's say, for funds already invested there.

But the treatment of capital gains going forward needs to be put on a clearer and more reasonable basis--one that everyone can understand, one that encourages national savings, and one that is fair to taxpayers who don't have a lot of (or any) capital gains to worry about.

The easiest way to accomplish all this is to amortize capital gains tax rates over the life of the investment. In a nutshell, a taxpayer who realized capital gains would pay at the rate that corresponds to their average annual gain. The calculation is trivial: Divide your total gains by number of years you've held the asset. Add this to your current year taxable income. Consult the tax table to get your effective rate. Done.

It will be objected that adding the average annual gain to current year income could introduce all sorts of distorted incentives. First, decisions about when to sell would hinge on finding a tax year when other income was lower than normal. This doesn't seem like much of a distortion though--it is basically a slight additional incentive to sell in a year when you aren't already flush. If it were the other way around, then we might have a problem. More seriously, one could argue that the effective base rate in the year of sale is likely to be much higher than the average of earlier years, since taxable income was probably less during those years. That's true, and if it becomes a serious objection, then a slightly more complex calculation would be needed, whereby one would have to find that average taxable income, and add the average gains to it instead of to current-year income. This still seems pretty simple: Add up all taxable income for the period of the investment, divide by the number of years held, add the average annual gain from the investment itself, look up the rate, done.

Obviously the main advantage here is that capital gains are treated just like earned income (taxed at the same rate) and, at the same time, massive incentives are created for holding lucrative investments for the long haul--as well as disincentives for liquidating them quickly. It's hard to imagine that kind of investment bias in favor of long time horizons doing anything but good for the economy, on balance.

6. Link support for free trade to single-payer health insurance. Under Clinton, the Democratic party began to take some serious steps toward acknowledging the Law of Comparative Advantage--that expanded world trade is not zero sum, and that it can benefit both Americans and the millions of foreigners it helps lift out of poverty. This dose of neoliberal seriousness about the realities of wealth creation was overdue. But there is also no denying that expanded trade puts enormous economic and social pressure on constituencies the Democrats still consider part of their natural base, especially workers in industrial manufacturing. And if those same groups don't always reciprocate by giving Democratic presidential candidates overwhelming support, that may in part be because they don't perceive Democrats as offering a serious alternative to slow death by foreign competition. It is probably the case that the national party's support for free trade has cost Democratic candidates at all levels some opportunities to credibly attack their Republican opponents as callous and out of touch with manufacturing workers' real concerns. What to do?

The usual Democratic and progressive response has been to link continued support for free trade policies to expanded labor and environmental standards. This is admirable in intention, but it is probably not nearly a serious enough response to the way expanded trade is reshaping the economic landscape for American workers. Fighting a rearguard action on behalf of embedding such standards in trade agreements is likely to run up against the hard reality that many of our trading partners' competitive advantage consists entirely in cheaper labor and greater willingness to accept higher levels of environmental degradation in the short run, in exchange for faster wealth creation. A serious, as opposed to a cosmetic effort to raise labor and environmental standards probably just translates, for the foreseeable future, into opposition to expanded trade. This sets us at odds with (some of) the conditions for rapid wealth creation in developing countries, and forces us to tack continuously against the prevailing winds of economic change here at home. Globalization is not going away, but the effort to humanize it by exporting our social standards to national economies unready to assume their burdens, is probably doomed to failure. So, to ask it again, what to do?

The core problem is that the benefits and costs of expanded trade are unfairly distributed within our national economy. More opportunity for some (e.g., those working in rising industries and enjoying cheaper imports) is purchased at the expense of much more economic insecurity for others (job losses, downward pressure on wages, vanishing benefits). The country as a whole may benefit, but too many of us get hurt along the way.

This is a job for what the welfare state does best--the socialization of economic risk. Job training for displaced workers is fine, but that is at best doing something for the losers in the game. What we need are policies that help everyone weather economic storms. The fact that those policies will be relied on more often or more heavily by workers displaced by trade need not, and shouldn't, set such workers apart from the rest of us. After all, no one really knows what industries will be next to wind up on the short end of Schumpeter's "creative destruction" (as evidenced by the somewhat surprising recent surge in the outsourcing of highly skilled software programming jobs).

It is crucial that the argument here be made in a moral register: Expanded trade benefits the country as a whole (by further enriching both us and our trading partners, whose prosperity is important to us for moral and national security reasons). But exposing ourselves more and more to the world market also means making our economy even more dynamic than it already is. And that means more risk for everyone. Since the country as a whole is enjoying the fruits of this transformation, it is only fair that the country as a whole should pay the price of the ticket as well. It would be immoral to force certain groups and individuals to bear all the costs, just because they happened to be unlucky enough to be doing a job that economic logic says is more efficiently done elsewhere. This a matter of communal responsibility -- if we are all going to win from expanded trade, then we have to treat everyone like winners, and not create a class of outcasts that we shun and forget about.

In order for this to lead to something more than rhetorical flourishes and more two-bit retraining schemes, it needs to be done on a big scale. Imagine a grand bargain: The Democratic party pledges itself to the most dogmatic adherence to free trade principles (and this means the elimination of all subsidies as well as a negotiated end to all tariffs) in exchange for a firm commitment to single-payer national health insurance, based on the universalization of Medicare, but financed out of the general fund (i.e, from the progressive income tax), rather than payroll taxes. No single aspect of economic risk is so threatening to most Americans than the loss of health insurance. No single cost of employment is so onerous to employers. Relieving both burdens would go a long way towards ameliorating the loss of "good jobs" to outsourcing (since "good jobs" often mean in practice jobs with benefits, the key one of which is health insurance) and encouraging the rehiring of workers who need new jobs.

We would need a mechanism to link the two commitments to one another, since there is no chance of accomplishing all this in any one legislative package in any single congressional session. One way to do it would be to offer the GOP a public pact--agree to support single payer, and we will agree to support every free trade measure that comes up for a vote. What could be fairer?

Now of course they won't go for it--not least because the GOP's own commitment to free trade is not especially popular with much of its white working class base. But that simply means that the Democrats will have handed themselves a powerful potential wedge issue, one potentially capable of forcing pro-business Republicans to choose between their interest in expanded trade and their ideological aversion to socially shared risk. In the meantime, the Democrats would have both an economically and a morally rock solid position on trade. They could honestly say--we stand ready to do the right thing for America, but it won't be the right thing, unless the other side is willing to meet us half way. Having taken that position, they should then loudly proclaim it on every occasion they can. This puts the onus where it belongs, on the most directly interested advocates of expanded trade, to agree to a fair distribution of the costs and benefits.

Such a stance would have enormous educational value. The "grand bargain" aspect would attract plenty of press attention, giving the Democrats the opportunity to make their case about why expanded trade and shared risk go together.

How to Make a List of Evil Books

Kevin Drum (to his great intellectual and human credit) has trouble entering into the spirit of Wingnut mockery. In trying to come up with a counter-list with which to mock the Human Events hit parade of harmful 19th and 20th century books, he fails to appreciate that the original list was, itself, a pure mockery.

That list set outright quackery (Mein Kampf, Mao's Quotations) -- books one forces oneself to read, if at all, purely out of historical interest, to better understand the events they so disasterously influenced -- alongside some certifiable classics (The Communist Manifesto, Beyond Goood and Evil, Keynes' General Theory), plus some distinctly more minor classics (Kinsey, Friedan), any or all of which might be found among the furniture of a well-educated mind, and which remain readable for their intrinsic value as books.

The mockery comes, of course, from having selected all the non-quack books from among those that various segments of the left would have some sentimental attachment to, or identification with. Once one understands this modus operandi, it is actually quite easy to reproduce an equally-mocking counter-list.

The formula is simplicity itself: Take one piece of vile and dangerous quackery, then add one minor classic beloved by adherents of the conservative movement. Repeat as often as desired. Bonus points if the conservative-beloved book actually has a fair amount of enduring, redeeming value. Let's try a quick exercise in the application of the recipe:
  • Hitler's Mein Kampf
  • William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale
  • The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
  • Barry Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative
  • de Gobineau's Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races
  • Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind
  • Thomas Dixon's The Clansman
  • Whittaker Chamber's Witness
And so on and so forth, until you have the number you need -- ten, twenty, a hundred, whatever it may be.

It's understandable that the formula is a bit uncomfortable for a good liberal to apply, even when mockery is the intention. Most liberals probably realize that most good books, like most good ideas and words, are a little rank. Part of what makes a book a classic -- something worth reading past its historical pull date -- is its ability to continue prompting new questions, and giving new answers, for new generations of (very different) readers. In that process, there are bound to be accretions of interpretation that are mutually incompatible, even hostile. But the classic keeps getting read anyway.

For instance: Nietzsche made the Human Events list, and J.S. Mill got honorable mention. Mill's On Liberty (the book cited) is a foundational text for modern liberalism, while most liberals won't have much direct political use for anything of Nietzsche's. But those same liberals might still be inclined to admit him as one of the greatest philosophers of the last two centuries, and read him with avidity and pleasure (perhaps as the greatest exponent of Emersonian ideas writing in German, for instance).

So Kevin, back to your list-drawing board. But, this time, remember: Try just this once to think more like a Wingnut.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Patriotism vs. Nationalism

Responding to a Matthew Yglesias post that also caught my eye, Digby nails one:
...I suspect that what people really want from liberals is not patriotism, but chauvinism, one important facet of which is characterized in this context by the belief that your national culture and interests are superior to any other. (Our vaunted "exceptionalism" is not made up of a whole lot more than that simple definition.) And, yes, some liberals do not sign on to that, for good reason. Because it's bullshit. And America, the home of mutts from all over the world, the give-me-your-tired-your-poor immigrant nation, should be more aware of the shallowness and idiocy of this than any other country in the world. It's not as if we are Germans trying to preserve the fairy tale of a thousand year Reich. It's one of the good things about not being European, with all that baggage --- or would be if we thought about it for half a minute.
This doesn't settle the issue Yglesias raised, of course. But I do think it opens the issue up in the right direction.

The issue is this: What do we do about the fact that the equation of patriotism with mindless nationalism is deeply entrenched in today's conventional wisdom? There is obvious cause for celebration here, if you happen to be a movement conservative, since criticism of the present order of things is, indeed, an integral part of what it means to be liberal or progressive in any sense. Lefties, therefore, who are forever criticizing this or that aspect of American life, will always sound "unpatriotic." The equation dictates that their very lack of satisfaction -- their lack of recognition of America's unsurpassed greatness -- translates directly into a diminished love (or even an active hatred) of their country.

That the left so often finds itself fighting from a conservative standpoint these days only shows that the right is now bold enough to attempt to undo the fruits of past progressive changes, not that left and right have fundamentally changed ideological places. There certainly have been changes in what we might call the ideological temperature of the two sides of the spectrum. But the left, however weakly, is still more likely to want to use government power to redress the inequalities that are generated as a natural byproduct of capitalist development. Fighting for equal liberty remains, in a profound sense, what "the left" is for -- why we so much as have a left -- as Michael Walzer recently reminded us.

To return to the main point, I don't think Yglesias and Digby really disagree that the patriotism/nationalism equation is both wrong and deeply entrenched, and that something needs to be done about that. But purely on the level of tactics, Yglesias seems more willing for Democrats to try and conform themselves to the equation (at least rhetorically or stylistically), while Digby seems to think that tactic has, and will continue to backfire, until we find a way to break the equation itself.

If that is a right reading of their relative views, then I'm with Digby on this one. Precisely because a true lover of this country will always want to see it made better -- to see its enormous promise increasingly fulfilled -- we must shatter the notion that love of country requires the feeling of national superiority or preeminence. Indeed, I would go further and say that we need to do all we can to fashion and promote a competing alloy of sentiment and principle -- that to be a sound lover of one's country is to seek out, and be able to see its flaws, as much as to enjoy and celebrate its blessings.

We need to do this both because it is the right thing to do (such a feeling of uncritical superiority is ultimately incompatible with the kind of love that seeks the good of the beloved), and also because there is no way we could convincingly give the appearance of a party that is comfortable with equating chauvinism and patriotism, without actually becoming such a party -- and thereby losing the will or capacity to change things for the better, even should we happen to win back power. We would then have fooled only ourselves. The substantive philosophical question and the tactical political question are, in this instance, but two sides of the same coin.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Not Dead, Not Even Past

Billmon has the toughest, most cynical, but also by far the best post I've read yet on the self-revelation of Mark Felt as Deep Throat. See Sore Throat for the whole text. Here is a quick summary of the main points, plus a longish quote that deserves wider circulation:

Against the nostalgic trend in much left-of-center blogging about Felt's coming out (as in: Too bad we don't have our own Deep Throat to expose the Bush White House's secrets!) Billmon points out that we have had, in fact, no shortage of whistle-blowers and truth-tellers, anonymous and otherwise, over the last four years, and that most of the major media have responded no more (and perhaps somewhat less) half-heartedly than they did to the initial Watergate revelations.

He next points out some highly pertinent institutional reasons why none of this whistle-blowing and investigative work is likely to lead to justice being done for the multitude of crimes and misdemeanors racked up by Bush and company -- highlighting the significant degree to which the Bush regime is more heavily insulated against scrutiny and criticism than Nixon's could ever hope to be. The American people have had, he insists, "plenty of opportunities to learn the filthy truth about this administration and this war," but, in their majority at least, have refused those opportunities. And he's right: even more than was the case in Vietnam/Watergate, the most damning secrets are the open ones.

Billmon concludes with three paragraphs that make for hard reading, because of their bitterness, but necessary reading too, because the indignation behind them is a democratic and patriotic emotion in desperately short supply these days:
What the health of the Republic requires, in other words, may not be a new crop of leakers and whistleblowers, or a fresh young generation of Woodwards and Bernsteins -- or even a more independent, aggressive media. What it may need is a new population (or half of a population, anyway), one that hasn't been stupefied or brainwashed into blind submission, that won't look upon sadistic corruption and call it patriotism, and that will refuse to trade the Bill of Rights for a plastic Jesus and a wholly false sense of security.

That's a much taller order than asking the Gods to send us another Deep Throat -- or even a Luke Skywalker. It's also not an easy thing for liberals, with their old-fashioned faith in democracy, to face: That the Evil Emperor might have a majority (a narrow one, but still a majority) on his side. But a truth isn't any less true for being politically unpalatable.

Which is why right now it's easy for me to imagine Richard Nixon, looking up from the inner circle of hell and lamenting his immense bad luck in being elected to the presidency 30 years too soon.
Indeed. A paranoid person might even think of the secret (but hardly hidden) political history of the last 30 years as a systematic effort to see to it that the remaining vulnerabilities of an executive controlled by the extreme right -- the vulnerabilities that permitted Nixon's downfall -- were all removed, one after another; an effort to ensure that, the next time they had a shot at presidential power, there would be no turning back from where the conservative movement has, since its inception in the late forties, always wanted to take the country.

Nixon disappointed them, in part because of his ideological deviations (often they were just sensible compromises with contemporary political reality), but mostly because of his failure to hold onto power. As Billmon points out, one party rule in congress, along with the presidency's enhanced war powers, and a greatly expanded facility in the use of both secrecy and propaganda, have given the right the tools to protect their leaders, once in office, in a way that movement conservatives circa 1974 could hardly have dared hope for.

So instead, I would add, they turned on him -- but only after it became clear that he was a goner. Nixon had spent his whole career building up credibility with the extreme right, so he could afford a few deviations from the party line -- even major ones like detente and Sino-American rapprochement. But he could not afford to lose his grip on power, which is exactly what started happening in an accelerated way in the lead-up to the 74 mid-term elections. In the end, even his resignation couldn't stave off a devastating series of political blows in 74 and 76.

The right never forgot that shellacking, and you might say that it determined, as a collective entity, never to let it happen again. In addition to the institutional matters Billmon cites, a highly organized and well-financed ideological effort to make the premises of right-wing politics into the new, post-Vietnam/Watergate conventional wisdom, succeeded beyond all expectations, forging a new, post-liberal consensus -- if not on the details of public policy, then certainly on the symbols of popular anxiety and the targets of popular resentment.

Perhaps just as important, the winds of history were at the conservative movement's back -- with the largely one-party white South shifting its regional loyalty, year by year, election by election, from the original defenders of their uniqueness (the Democrats), to their new-found ones (the Republicans), a shift that probably reached its apogee until the 94 mid-term election.

In short, Billmon has been one of the few major bloggers who have dared to consider that we have not so much fallen from the heights of Watergate, as that we have advanced that much further along the downward trajectory Watergate helped define.

Watergate Hauntings

I joined the new community blog fest over at TPM Cafe today, essayed my first comment (to a post by Josh Marshall) and then followed that up with an initial blog entry, the title of which is reproduced above, and the content of which is reproduced below. Clicking on the title should take you to the original over at TPM Cafe.

I'm not sure about this whole double-posting business. For now, at least, I'm going to confine what I post over there (meaning, my "reader blog" page at TPM Cafe) to items like this one -- essentially extended commentary provoked by something I read specifically on the TPM Cafe site. And -- again, for the time being -- I'll cross-post those same items here as well. We'll see where this goes and whether all the extra furniture moving is worth the trouble. Anyway, here's the post:

I posted a comment today to Josh Marshall's Fair and Balanced post, regarding media reaction to the revelation of Deep Throat's identity, and whether that reaction tells us anything about where we are now, politically or journalistically.

I suggested that maybe the consulting of Watergate-era thugs for their opinions on Felt, and the shift in the use of anonymous sourcing from a tool of investigative journalism to one of (in effect) court politics, have a common root our not having ever quite acknowledged, as a country, what Watergate did to us -- or rather what we did to ourselves in those years.

The picture I had in mind is one I think a lot of people still share -- that of Watergate as having been a time when "the system worked." And if that is your picture of what Watergate ultimately meant, then surely the media and political present looks like a pretty steep drop by comparison.

My thought was that maybe this drop (or at least its steepness) is largely an illusion. Maybe the "system," in the case of Watergate, "worked" just enough to stave off constitutional disaster, but the outcome of those events left us far more profoundly diminished than most of the stories we tell ourselves about Watergate would encourage us to believe.

I wanted to check my impressions, so I went googling around a little, and came across these remarks by Bill Moyers, circa 1989, in which he, too, tells the "system worked" story of Watergate. But he then sharply contrasts that story with the story that had become Iran-Contra, which was at the time still in its drawn-out denouement. Says Moyers:

The lessons of Watergate were clear: the Constitution worked, and presidents tampered with it at their peril. Now the lessons of Iran-contra are also clear. We have learned this: that a president who lies to Congress and to the people will feel free to joke about it. A vice president who lies to Congress and to the people will be elected president. A White House aide who lies to Congress and to the people will be hailed as a hero until the time for a reckoning comes. High State Department officials who lie to Congress and to the people will still get news space as credible sources, huge fees for lobbying in Washington, and ambassadorships. An administration, in short, that lies to Congress and to the people is the accepted order of things. And a Constitution designed to prevent exactly that order is a mere scrap of paper.

At a minimum, this suggests that, if there has been a drop in political and journalistic standards since Watergate, that drop happened quite some time ago. It is not a phenomenon of the present administration (I do not say it has not been made worse by it).

But given the persistence of the "system worked" picture of Watergate, I would read Moyers' remarks quite a bit more ironically than that. For if the institutional fail-safes that "worked" during Watergate had already utterly failed us in the Reagan years, then why in the world would we expect them to function during the reign of Bush the Younger?

It seems at least as persuasive to turn it around and say something like: The outcome of Watergate beguiled us (that is to say, of course, that we beguiled ourselves with the outcome of Watergate) into thinking that the system had worked, when in fact, certain terribly dangerous red lines were crossed, without anything like a full public acknowledgment that this had happened. Despite the magnitude of the events and revelations, there was no equivalent of a "truth and reconciliation commission" whose conclusions all could, and really would have to share as a condition, in effect, of considering the institutions of the Republic repaired and renewed.

To be sure, the Ervin Committee hearings gripped the nation, and proved a sufficient venue, in the end, to undo a presidency before its bearer could undo any more of the Constitution. But that success (like the journalistic triumph of Woodward and Bernstein and the Post) turns out to have been a very different kind of a thing than posing (much less answering) the question that really needed to be asked by the citizenry of its institutions, and of themselves, namely: How did it come to this?

So we took away (instead of something like truth and reconciliation) our familiar, comforting picture of the system having worked. And we continue to be shocked every time it subsequently seems very much not to work -- in fact, to fail miserably -- either by failing to punish genuine scandal (Iran-Contra), or by ginning up false scandal (Whitewater), or by surppressing so much as the possibility of a scandal, when the plain facts all but scream that possibility in our ears (the selling of the Iraq War).