Monday, May 31, 2004

You Don't Work the Ref When a Bad Call Goes Your Way

You've probably read about a minor tempest working its way around the Internet, where the warbloggers are claiming that the media is exaggerating problems in Iraq and ignoring the good news, and that people may turn against the media and First Amendment because the media will be responsible for our "defeat" by not supporting the war sufficiently. We have the mightiest military in the world, but it's no match for CNN, or something.

The right-wingers are trumpeting a picture of a New York Times newspaper vending machine with "LIES" spray painted on it. But how do they know that the spray painter was someone who supports the war who's upset by what they think is The Times' bias against it? What if it was painted by someone who opposed the war who is convinced that the WMD stories gave the Bush administration crucial cover in the march to war? The word "LIES" could mean either opinion, why theirs--other than because they say so?

Newspaper version available here (for about 30 days).

East Valley Tribune, May 30, 2004

We got more proof last week that the “media bias” debate is simply each ideological side trying to “work the ref.” The New York Times published an “editor’s note” reviewing its overly credulous, and overstated, pre-war reporting of claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The Times admitted it overemphasized evidence of a threat, and undervalued skeptical analysis and contrary reports.

Key stories about Iraqi weapons -- the aluminum tubes, the chemical weapons facilities, the terrorist training camps, the Iraqi “Dr. Germ” -- can’t be verified. In the note, The Times essentially apologized for its reporting, which helped provide a major, and inaccurate, justification for war.

Liberals probably read about The Times note, but conservatives might have missed it, which is strange indeed. Conservatives have made Times-bashing part of a daily unbalanced ideological diet. Any error, no matter how minor, in the nation’s leading newspaper is proof of liberal bias and moral rot.

When reporter Jayson Blair invented stories and plagiarized others and his editors didn’t catch him fast enough, conservatives said that wasn’t just one reporter failing. It was an institutional failure, and not only showed that The Times was corrupt -- but so were affirmative action and all liberals. The top two editors resigned; right-wingers chortled gleefully.

All that bloviating over Blair must have exhausted the right-wingers, because a couple weeks later, when reporter Jack Kelley of USA Today was unmasked as a bigger liar, there wasn’t nearly as much outrage. Kelley caught a break; it’s not that was he older, whiter, and more Christian than Blair, but rather his misdeeds were discovered second, and our collective attention span couldn’t handle it.

So conservatives have had it in for The Times for years. But when the newspaper gets Iraqi WMD wrong, and admits that its reporters and editors let its readers down, people who have built entire careers screaming about bias and error have absolutely nothing to say. To these critics, any mistakes The Times made in running dozen of stories helpful to the Bush administration’s desire to topple Saddam Hussein weren’t evidence of bias or institutional error. Conservatives can easily forgive mistakes -- when they’re useful mistakes.

Similarly, one boring staple of Arizona Democratic politics is counterproductive griping about ideological bias in the local newspapers (pointless, because it’s not like voters read anymore). But when critics, on both sides, talk about “bias,” what they really mean is “articles that we don’t like.” Conservatives enjoyed The Times articles that said Iraq had WMD, so the fact that the articles weren’t true isn’t evidence of bias. You don’t “work the ref” when a bad call goes in your favor.

If there’s bias in most of the media, it isn’t ideological; it’s a bias toward power, toward accepting the official view and not taking as seriously view of those lacking power or money. That’s how The Times got the Wen Ho Lee and Iraqi WMD stories so wrong -- reporters got exclusive “inside” information from key sources, and never evaluated whether the sources might be wrong, or, more perniciously, were using the reporters for the sources’ own ends.

Reporters are paid to “get” stories, and the usual “get” is reporting (preferably exclusively) what someone in power thinks. Arizona Republicans used to enjoy those stories, because most everyone in power was a Republican. But now an active Democratic governor can create news that Republicans just don’t like nearly as much. So GOP partisans also claim “bias,” because they’re seeing stories they don’t like.

Conservatives didn’t bash The Times over its WMD stories. Sure, those stories were wrong -- institutionally wrong. But those stories agreed with conservatives’ own biases, so they couldn’t be biased.

Monday, May 24, 2004

The Moderates Win One, For a Change

My column ran, for some reason, on Monday instead of Sunday. I was supposed to be paired with Tom Patterson and the Goldwater Institute view of the world, but I guess they couldn't ghost-write it for him in time. The newspaper version is available here for the next 30 days or so.

Battle of the Budget
Right-wing exclusion of GOP moderates drove them into an alliance with Dems

East Valley Tribune, May 24, 2004

The good guys finally won at the state Legislature. The House GOP leadership, always rather detached from reality, lost control of the process, and when last Wednesday’s session ended, they’d accomplished something even the Diamondbacks bullpen hasn’t managed: Blow an 18-run lead.

The House has a 39-21 GOP majority, but a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats assembled a moderate majority to pass the 15 budget bills over the ineffectual protests of House Speaker Jake Flake, Majority Leader “Not So Fast Eddie” Farnsworth, and the rest of the Far Right-East Valley crowd.

The budget passed with support of some 15 Republicans and 20 Democrats, so naturally conservatives are upset about (gasp!) bipartisanship. Every time Rep. Carole Hubbs voted for the budget, Rep. Linda Gray took her picture, for use against Hubbs in the upcoming GOP primary. See, when Republicans complain about “partisanship,” what they really mean is “insufficiently Republican.”

Yes, that Rep. Gray -- who heads the House Education Committee, who led the fight against all-day kindergarten. Only in Arizona would the chair of the Education Committee oppose more education.

The moderate "R's" didn’t let the conservatives down. It was the conservative leadership, hamstrung by their own ideology and bullheadedness. Two weeks ago, the moderates proposed a budget $40 million under the Senate version, but leadership wouldn’t even talk. By refusing to negotiate, leadership instead got a budget $33 million higher than the Senate’s. Playing hardball badly cost the ideologues $73 million -- and their authority.

Flake and Farnsworth don’t negotiate; they’re both so convinced they’re right, they don’t understand why they should bother. Now they’re both lame ducks; Flake’s term-limited, so crossing him carried little risk. Farnsworth lacks the votes to return as Majority Leader, and might not run again just to be a backbencher next year.

Essentially, Flake and Farnsworth got deposed by Acting Speaker Tom O’Halloran and De Facto Majority Leader Pete Hershberger. Flake had stripped them of their committee chairs earlier in the session for the mortal sin of working with a Democratic governor. Flake and Farnsworth keep their titles, but by mistreating much of their own caucus, lost their power.

These wackos don’t learn, either. Last year, a few moderate "R’s" forced leadership into a budget compromise with Gov. Janet Napolitano. This year, instead of talking to the moderates constantly and making them key players -- in politics, you keep your friends close, and your enemies closer -- House leadership excluded the moderates and Democrats from everything. So the mods and "D's" used all that free time to work out their budget plan and tactics.

And their plan worked perfectly; they didn’t just run over leadership, they left tire tracks on their shirts. House rules required having a session Wednesday, which leadership kept delaying to start because they lacked the votes. But the mods and "D's" got their 31 votes on the floor -- and under the rules, the session had to start.

Flake holed up in his office with Stan Turley, Jeff Groscost, and Ken Bennett, but even those ostensible luminaries couldn’t put Flake back on this horse. It took until 3 a.m. to pass the 15 bills, because each time the acting chair (Rep. Tom Boone, a Flake guy) would rule against the majority, forcing a vote by division, and then a roll call, before anything could happen. But all the mods -- except for Rep. Philip Hanson and Rep. John Nelson (a real disappointment; John Nelson didn’t used to be a wimp) -- hung tough, and by 3 a.m., the bipartisan moderate budget had passed.

Congratulations to the moderate "R’s". Maybe at the legislature we’ll start seeing the real majority start getting its way more often.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Clinton vs. Bush: Which Lies Matter More?

My column ran this week on Tuesday, not Sunday. You think the headline might raise some hackles? (Newspaper version available here.)

East Valley Tribune, May 18, 2004

Liberals never had to work as hard as conservatives did this past week. We only had to excuse a tawdry affair with an intern. Conservatives have had to excuse abuse, torture, and complete mismanagement of the Iraq war.

Sure, Clinton besmirched the Oval Office, but not nearly as badly as Bush has screwed up Iraq, our standing in the world, and our military. Conservatives were absolutely outraged about stains on a dress, but they’re accepting calmly stains on our national honor.

Donald Rumsfeld tried to distinguish between “mistreatment” and “abuse” and “torture,” and how the Bush administration always follows the Geneva Conventions -- except when it doesn’t. Rumsfeld did something I didn’t think possible. He was more pathetic than when Bill Clinton distinguished between what was “sex” and what wasn’t.

The nation has recovered from Clinton’s infidelities. Older married men, Democrats and Republicans alike, had tawdry affairs with younger women before, and will continue having them -- even so far in the future, that if the guy tries to blame Bill Clinton, of course the ingĂ©nue will say, “You mean President Clinton’s husband?”

But it’s not clear how we’ll recover from Bush’s terrible policy choices -- to fight a “war of choice” on borrowed money, and with too few resources, personnel, and allies to accomplish anything worth a mere fraction of the cost.

It’s no justification to say that whatever our faults, our enemies are worse. Somebody always is. Last week, Sen. Jon Kyl -- he of the two Vietnam War draft deferments -- said that while abusing Iraqi prisoners was wrong, at least we weren’t beheading them. Yes, let’s certainly keep that prisoner abuse “in perspective,” while hoping that our enemies don’t start justifying their own brutality by noting that unlike those really terrible terrorists in Papau New Guinea, at least they’re not cannibals.

Of course it’s an outrage. But if a brutal murder shows that some Iraqis, or all Iraqis, or all Arabs, or all Muslims deserve exactly whatever they’ve got coming to them, why did we decide to spend billions and sacrifice our military to liberate them? Maybe war supporters should stop changing the subject and explain exactly what we’re trying to accomplish, for whom, and why.

The people who should be absolutely outraged aren’t liberals; we never expected much from this administration (but we’re still flabbergasted by how bad they’ve been). It’s you libertarians. You used to mistrust the government, and now you’re slavishly accepting whatever they tell you.

The Bush administration refuses to allow any oversight of its actions, by either the courts or the Red Cross -- because we’re at war! The Deputy Solicitor General tells the Supreme Court that the executive would never torture anyone -- the same week CBS airs the first prisoner-abuse pictures.

Sen. Kyl says people shouldn’t call for Rumsfeld’s resignation because they’ll give comfort to our enemies. Never mind that the military screwed up and Rumsfeld is in charge, you can’t hold him accountable -- because we’re at war!

Republicans now claim any criticism of the government is unpatriotic -- because we’re at war! That’s their tactic now, because it’s not like they have any answers to the criticism.

Conservatives once knew that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Bush administration is occupying Iraq without oversight and outside of both military regulations and international law, and gave poorly-trained and poorly-supervised amateurs absolute power over enemy prisoners. But instead of being outraged, conservatives complain only that Bush wasn’t “manly” enough to brag about how powerful we are.

You right-wingers thought we liberals sold our principles too cheaply in supporting Clinton? You guys make us look like Warren Buffett.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Enron Goes To War

In this week's column, I was limited by both time and space so I couldn't make all of the potential Iraq-Enron analogies. One that got cut was that in addition to treating Iraqi prisoners as off-balance-sheet entities, the Bush administration's defenders, by trying to justify the prisoner treatment by comparing it to far worse abuses under Saddam Hussein, are engaged in what can only be described as "mark-to-market morality."

The newspaper version of the column is available here. The Digby blog entry first comparing the Bush administration to Enron is from April 18, 2003, and it's far too long but is obviously seminal to my column. You can read about The Smartest Guys in the Room here.

East Valley Tribune, May 9, 2004

The four phases of Bush’s war in Iraq:

One: It’s all about the imminent threat of Iraq’s terrifying weapons of mass destruction.

Two: It’s all about liberating Iraqis from a brutal dictatorship which engaged in torture and prisoner abuse.

Three: It’s all Donald Rumsfeld’s fault.

Four: America -- We’re really not as bad as Saddam was!

The Bush administration is managing its war as a business school case study. Unfortunately, the company is Enron. It’s “Kenny Boy Goes to War.”

(Google reveals that Digby at Hullabaloo compared the administration to Enron back in April, 2003, way before the peace started turning out so well.)

Consider the parallels. Enron’s CEO, Ken Lay, cast himself as a national and world leader. As his company’s stock rose, he was featured as an avatar of the New Economy -- the man who, with his team of brilliant, no-nonsense dealmakers, would create an entirely new economic world order, where really smart people would do really important things with Big Ideas and made-up markets that would be far more important (and profitable) than such humdrum activities as finding and delivering natural gas.

Lay did the business equivalent of landing on a carrier to give a speech in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner. He stayed overnight at the White House (during the first Bush administration), and even got one of those cute nicknames from the current President Bush, “Kenny Boy.”

Lay appeared on the covers of business magazines -- to their later embarrassment, as Business Week had to airbrush him out of a picture of leading executives attending a Business Week conference at some post resort.

But as authors Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind describe Lay in The Smartest Guys in the Room, Lay was “the genial but clueless CEO who reveled in the trappings of his office but ducked the responsibilities.” Just like George W. Bush.

In truth, Lay was a bad CEO, and Enron a terrible company. Lay was in charge, but when Enron collapsed he claimed not to know what was really happening. Lay thought that delegating a task was the same as completing a task -- and that his good intentions mattered far more than his sorry results. Just like George W. Bush.

Lay refused to make decisions or to resolve disputes among his subordinates. Jeffrey Skilling and Rebecca Mark let their personal rivalries hurt the company -- just like George W. Bush, as the feud between Rumsfeld and Colin Powell and their teams is interfering with what the United States is trying to accomplish in Iraq. (Rumsfeld is Skilling; both were hailed as brilliant and dynamic leaders, but now they’re out-of-the-loop fall guys. Anything to protect the clueless CEO!)

Enron refused to let traditional accounting rules get in the way of its supposedly new “business model.” It manipulated mark-to-market accounting and used off-balance-sheet entities to hide the economic realities. Just like the Bush administration, which classifies prisoners in Iraq, Cuba, and military facilities here as off-balance-sheet entities, not entitled to protections offered either criminals or prisoners of war.

The Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq is another off-balance-sheet entity, as the Bush administration claims that it is, and isn’t, a federal agency, whichever allows it to avoid audit and oversight at that particular moment.

Bush is Enron, except for one truly vital difference. When Enron’s misleading accounting and self-righteous belief that they were all just too smart and too good for such mere trifles as rules finally caused the company’s collapse, lots of people lost money -- but only money. The Bush administration’s misleading accounting and disregard of rules has cost 767 Americans their lives.

So far.

Monday, May 03, 2004

The DLC Visits Phoenix

My pals from the Democratic Leadership Council are coming to Phoenix this Thursday for their annual "National Conversation," and I thought it would be the least I could do to give the DLC a newsprint welcome in this Sunday's Tribune "Lack of Perspective" section. Not the best headline, but I don't write those. Newspaper version available here. Of course, Al From found a way to take in a baseball game (D'Backs vs. Cubs!) as part of the conference.

There's an interesting Ruy Teixeira column on Arizona--spurred by a recent KAET poll which shows Bush only 3 points ahead of Kerry, 41-38 (Nader gets 3). The column is available on his blog; the poll itself is here. Yes, it's Bruce Merrill and yes, it's registered voters without any screen for likely voters. But the point of polling now is to help with the determination of whether Arizona is on the list of swing states. Maybe it's a GOP swinger watch: George Will! Bruce Merrill! Who's next?

East Valley Tribune, May 2, 2004

This week, the “politics of ideas” visits Arizona -- the new “swing state” for the new century.

Beginning Thursday, the Democratic Leadership Council holds its eighth annual “National Conversation” in Phoenix. The DLC, the national organization for New Democrats, was founded in the 1980’s, when the party seemed rooted in the past and, at the presidential level, doomed for the future. Since then, the DLC has helped modernize the party through a potent combination of ideas, innovation, and values. And today, it’s not your father’s Democratic party anymore.

The DLC brings together elected officials, party leaders, and policy wonks who know that at its best, politics is about ideas and principles. (I’ve belonged since 1992.) We understand that if elections depend which candidate is the coolest or most charming, that America usually loses -- and that if voters decide elections on policies and values, that Democrats can win.

This year’s National Conversation has the theme “Real Reformers, Real Results.” Perhaps the DLC can help rehabilitate that phrase; it got badly abused in 2000 when the Bush campaign, panicked after losing New Hampshire, cynically deployed it against John McCain -- for a week.

Since then, however, the Bush administration has worked tirelessly to prove that when it comes to making government ineffective, undisciplined, and deficit-ridden, nobody’s better than the Republicans.

Meanwhile, DLC members in state and local offices are innovating, reforming, and making government work better. It’s a second full-time job, proving wrong those outdated right-wing stereotypes about Democrats.

In Virginia, Gov. Mark Warner forged an alliance with Republican business leaders, moderates, and independents to pass a breathtaking reform of the state’s tax system. Right-wing Republicans decided not to help improve Virginia’s schools and services; like a lot of Arizona’s anti-tax zealots, once they’d paid their own salaries, they can’t find anything else worth funding. But a majority of Virginians recognized that Warner’s DLC-style policies will promote strength, values, growth, and reform, and make their state a better place to live, work, and learn.

Interesting concept: Republican leaders moved so far to the right that a smart, articulate, and moderate Democratic governor could create a bipartisan majority dedicated to improving education, children’s services, and healthcare. Perhaps that’s happening in Arizona, too?

The DLC meeting will recognize the group’s long-standing Arizona roots. Former Gov. Bruce Babbitt was a founding member, and Gov. Napolitano, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, and state Sens. Gabrielle Gifford and Ken Cheuvront are leading members today. About 250 elected officials will join DLC members for the National Conversation to hear from national leaders, including Sen. John Kerry on Friday.

The DLC’s ideas have become the party’s mainstream. Today, Democrats support policies encouraging private sector economic growth, fiscal discipline, and balanced budgets. The DLC propounds policies that truly support middle-class values and economic aspirations -- unlike the Bush administration, which officially defines “hardworking individuals and married couples” as people making over $200,000 who get much of their income from dividends and capital gains. To them, “middle class” means wealth between Dick Cheney and Jessica Simpson.

It’s not just George Will (!) who sees Arizona as up for grabs in November. And these days, the GOP is helping make the DLC’s case. As Republicans compete over who has the more extreme positions on social and fiscal issues, they leave more of the mainstream to the DLC and the New Democrats.

The DLC isn’t out to create some liberal nirvana, and its innovations and reforms may seem small when compared to the overblown rhetoric of a Grover Norquist. But the DLC is working hard to find enough moderates -- in both parties -- to repair the dire consequences of GOP extremism, both nationally and here in Arizona.