The Lonely Centrist

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Friday, July 29, 2005

Friday Night Video: El Norte Shines

CAFTA - the Central American Free Trade Agreement - passed the House this week by the narrowist of margins, 217-215. Now it heads to the Senate, where it no certainty to pass, but is generally considered to have more support. Though elements of both the far left and the far right rail against "globalization," there is little doubt that free trade has enriched both America and the world, and is a key component of any serious effort to raise living standards in the third world.

The week's focus on Central America caused us to pick up, for the first time in 2 decades, a stunning movie made back in the 1983, El Norte. It's our Friday night video pick for the week.

El Norte is the story of two Guatemalans who immigrate (illegally) to the United States. The 1980s, you'll recall, were a very difficult time in Central America. The Sandinistas, having ousted the corrupt Somoza dictatorship, were trying to impose a one-party communist state in Nicaragua. Their foreign policy included lending support and havens to communist guerillas seeking to overthrow the elected, moderate left government of Christian Democrat Salvadore Duarte in neighboring El Salvador. Panama was under the sway of the unpredictable strongman Omar Torrijos, and Honduras was struggling to reestablish democratic government. Then there was Guatemala, ruled by a series of brutal right wing dictators and, more importantly, a ruthless ruling class. Both Soviet and U.S. money flowed into the region. Ultimately, Ronald Reagan's policies of combatting dictatorship and promoting democracy were largely successful. But the journey has been long and arduous for all these countries, and in none are democracy and human rights yet secure. But despite the hot wars Nicaragua and El Salvadore, in 1983 no place in Central America was more chaotic and oppressive than Guatemala.

Against this backdrop, Arturo Xuncac is a Guatemalan peasant who picks coffee beans on a large plantation, under the watchful eye of an armed overseer. His family speaks their native indian language at home, not Spanish, and wears traditional dress. Arturo is also becoming a leader in organizing the local Indian peasants - what his exact goals are, we don't know. He seems to simply want some vague measure of relief from the difficult, sometimes brutal system. He tells his son Enrique, a young man of about 20, that to "the rich," people like they are nothing more than "brazos fuertes," - "strong arms." There is no indication he is a communist - or even knows what a communist is. But Arturo does want to make contact with the guerillas (who in Guatemala, as elsewhere in Central America, were largely communist), hoping to find assistance.

Soldiers attack the meeting of Arturo's small group of peasant workers, and kill all in attendance. As the ringleader, Arturo's head is hung from a tree. The wives of those in attendance are rounded up and led from town. We do not see them again. In the chaos, Enrique accidentally kills a soldier. In fear, he and his sister, Rosa, visit their godmother Josefita, who urges them to flea to "el Norte" - the United States. Their knowledge of the U.S. is based on a few tattered copies of Good Housekeeping that Josefita has collected. Josefita has long dreamed of going to the U.S. She also gives Enrique and Rosa the money she has spent years saving for the journey.

At this point, the movie becomes a classic "road buddy" film, as Enrique and Rosa make their way north. They leave the lush green landscape of Guatemala, with its gentle pan flute music, and head to the more chaotic, brown countryside of northern Mexico, with its endless traffic and lively mariachi. They attempt to pose as Mexicans from the Southern state of Oaxaca, with mixed success. This is necessary because Mexico rigidly enforces its immigration laws - the Mexican government is irritated whenever the U.S. attempts to close its southern border to illegals, but it is not about to open its own southern border to the impoverished and oppressed of Central America. It is also an important ruse because, if caught crossing the U.S. border, Mexicans are merely set back down on the other side, to try again. But if Enrique and Rosa are caught and identified as Guatemalans, they will be deported home, to face the long, arduous journey again - if they can try again at all. To pass as Mexicans, they play off their own stereotypes of how Mexicans behave - including lacing their sentences with the Spanish for "f**k."

Naivete, ingenuity, and pluckiness combine to get Enrique and Rosa to the border. There they attempt to hire a "coyote" to take them across. Asked how much money they have, Enrique recalls Josefita's stash and says, "a lot." The coyote tries to rob them at the first opportunity, and can't believe these hick Guatemalans are so stupid that they thought this paltry sum was "a lot of money." (Those who think prejudice and racism are uniquely American traits will benefit from seeing the racism of the mestizos and Mexicans towards the Indians Enrique and Rosa). Enrique manages to retain their limited stash.

Their first effort to cross fails. In a humorous scene, an American immigration officer has suspicions that the pair are really Guatemalan. Enrique begins to use the f word unsparingly. "I guess they are Mexican" says the border patrol officer with a shrug.

The pair finally make it to the United States, in a horrific crossing through an abandoned sewer. Their coyote drops them in a shabby residence motel - he collects a fee from the innkeeper, in addition to all of Josefita's meager savings - where illegals hole up and look for day labor. Through luck, Enrique lands a job as a busboy, and Rosa as a housekeeper. Through hard work, they keep their relatively cushy jobs and become favorites of their respective employers. In the evenings, Rosa works to turn the little apartment motel into a home. They remain incredibly naive, but the States seem to offer much of what they dreamed of, from running water to opportunity. Eventually, Enrique is offered an opportunity to go to Chicago to work as a domestic for a wealthy matron. The job holds out the opportunity of a green card. But Rosa is not part of the deal. Enrique decides not to leave her behind, at the enormous cost of foregoing the green card and legal status. Things sour fast: Rosa falls ill from typhoid, picked up from rats in the sewer through which they crossed over. Rosa dies from the illness, and Enrique tries to claim the job in Chicago, but it is too late. Moreover, from staying home with Rosa, he has lost his position as busboy. As the movie closes, Enrique is back at the motel, seeking day labor. The foreman pulls up in his truck and says he needs workers, and the young men vie to be chosen. Enrique, suddenly no longer reticent, elbows to the front: "Yo, Yo. Yo tengo brazos fuertes." "Me, me. I have strong arms."

The movie is beautifully filmed, from the lush jungles of Guatemala, to the filthy chaos of the Mexican border cities, to the pools and manicured lawns of southern California. It combines the elements of any great road movie - humor, adventure, hardship overcome. Director Gregory Nava clearly hopes to focus on the plight of indigenous central Americans, and the movie suggests in no uncertain terms that whether in Guatemala, Mexico, or the U.S., these Indians are exploited and abused. But it is not a shallow left wing tale. The characters are deep and developed, not simple stereotypes, and Nava wisely avoids overt preaching or any long soliloquoys intended to hit us over the head with the message. What we really see are ordinary people trying to cope with life, not, with rare exception, evil people. Even Enrique and Rosa have their stereotypes of Mexicans, no less than the Mexicans (and Americans) hold stereotypical views of the Guatemalan Indians. The border patrolman would like to do his job more efficiently, but is overwhelmed by lack of time, language barriers, and sheer volume; what, in the end, is one or two more - "I guess they are Mexicans." Even the theives and coyotes of Tijuana get a fair treatment. They are not devoid of humanity; their own situation is desperate, and their behavior in some way understandable if condemnable. The rich Americans simply cannot be bothered. Along with the Guatemalan landlords and military, they come across the worst in the film, as Nava undoubtedly intended. But even they are not cardboard villians.

In short, the plight of the poor is complex, and the answers are not easy. El Norte's left leanings are obvious, but it is no film of leftist social cant. It is a complex, moving, story that treats its characters fairly. The photography is at times stunning, and the film was nominated for an Oscar for best screenplay.

With CAFTA bringing Central America back to the forefront, however briefly, it is a good time to pick up this magnificent film.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Here's a stupid column by Sidney Zion of the News York Daily News. Zion, whom the Daily News identifies as an old (John F.) Kennedy Democrat, claims that what we need to know about John Roberts is how he feels about Bush v. Gore. The column drips with typical left-wing cynicism about that decision. Of course, Bush v. Gore is not pretty, and is certainly open to attack. But for Democrats to continually call it a travesty, while overlooking the decision of the Florida Supreme Court that threatened to give the election to Gore, is pure hypocrisy. After all, to put the worst face on it, the Supreme Court had a nasty choice - look for a basis to overrule the Florida court, or allow the Florida Court to steal the election for Al Gore.

But let us not put the worst face on it. Let us actually try to consider the Court's arguments in good faith. No, what we see from Zion is what we so often see in debate nowadays: Zion doesn't even make an attempt to understand Bush v. Gore on its own terms, or to deal seriously and in good faith with the arguments made by the Court majority. For Zion, if Roberts says he supports Bush v. Gore, that is ipso facto proof that Roberts would "legislate from the bench." (For a succinct if controversial defense of Bush v. Gore, see Harvey Mansfield, quoted in the Jan. 5, 2001 . A subscription is required, so here is the quote:

"This decision saved the country from possible turmoil and a good deal of further partisan confusion. In this election, there seemed to be more partisanship after people voted than before. I heard hardly anyone agreeing with the thesis of the person he didn't vote for in the matter of the Supreme Court. So I voted for Bush, and I very much supported the final decision made by the U.S. Supreme Court. It very correctly overruled the Florida Supreme Court, which had gone much too far in the direction of judicial activism. And it took an activist majority in the U.S. Supreme Court to correct an even more activist one in the Florida Supreme Court."I don't think it was a violation of principle by the U.S. Supreme Court. It's true they mainly support states' rights, but I don't think that's a principle that people can hold to on every occasion. I think they would have made a grave mistake and looked quite foolish if they had held to the right of the Florida Supreme Court to abuse its discretion in this matter. It would have been better if Florida had been able to decide its own affairs constitutionally, but states' rights are not an absolute -- we live under a constitution that also has a federal government. It's good for Republicans and conservatives to remember this. But it's not inconsistent or malicious of them to resort to the final constitutional power of the U.S. Supreme Court."It was unfortunate that the majority of the court had to go to the equal-protection clause, which hasn't been applied in voting cases before this and has potential for future mischief if it comes to be supposed that equal protection requires each vote to have the same power. That would run counter to our federal system. But I think the five conservative justices agreed to using the equal-protection clause in order to get two more votes, from Breyer and Souter, and that was a reasonable and statesmanlike thing to do in the circumstances."The two parties were very much themselves throughout. The Republicans stand for the rule of law, and the Democrats for the rule of the people. And the Democrats, because they stand for the rule of the people, believe that rule should be paramount, and that technicalities are subordinate to that will. Whereas the Republicans believe in doing things properly or legally. It really was a contest of principle between two parties.")

Anyway, if you really want to know what you need to know, how biased this article is - and it is worth noting, because I could see the left picking up this line - just catch this bit: Zion describes University of Chicago Law Professor Cass Sunstein, a very partisan Democrat, as, "a supporter of the Rehnquist court." Thus, Sunstein's searing verdict on the decision - "an embarrassment" - is given extra force. But here is how Sunstein actually described the Court in Senate testimony: "It is fair to say that it has a heavy right wing, a heavy center, but no left at all.... the Supreme Court has moderates but no liberals." He goes on to describe Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for example, as "represent[ing] centrist thinking." Sunstein actually testified that, "it is hard to think of any non-centrist appointment by President Clinton within his eight years in the White House." He concluded that, "Justices Scalia and Thomas have been distinguished members of the Court, and their voices deserve to be heard. But a federal judiciary that follows their lead would make unacceptable inroads on democratic self- government. The Senate should not permit this to happen. "

I think it fair to say that anyone who would describe this Supreme Court in such terms is probably pretty far out on the left.

So either Zion is either ignorant of Sunstein - unlikely, since he knows of Sunstein's quotes - or mendacious.

Democrats can't figure out why they are losing the center. Many of us would be in play if they would offer a credible alternative, based on serious presentation of facts.

Social Security Reform: MIA

Heard much about social security reform lately? I didn't think so.

This is unfortunate, because this is a problem that needs solving. The contours of the problem are obvious: sometime around 2040 (we don't need to argue over precise dates) the social security trust fund will run out of money, and there won't be anything there to pay benefits. 2040 - hey, make it 2050 if you want - isn't far off. Most workers age 30 and under can expect to be retiring then, and most workers 40 and under can still expect to be receiving benefits, along with lots of folks now in their 40s and 50s.

But wait: the problem is worse than that. For years the federal government has borrowed all of the trust fund surplus every year, in order to reduce or eliminate the federal deficit. All that is in the "trust fund," therefore, are IOUs from the government - government bonds. Sometime between 2015 and 2020, social security benefits paid each year will exceed social security taxes coming in. At that point, the government will have to turn to the trust fund. But all they will find there are IOUs. I have heard some people argue that this is fine - that the government is legally bound to redeem the bonds. How silly. The government has a certain amount of money. It doesn't really matter whether you say it is "social security" revenue or general revenue. If the government honors the social security IOUs, it can only do so by dramatically cutting spending elsewhere or by raising taxes other than social security taxes.

But wait: the problem is worse than that. Within the next 5 years, the social security annual surplus will begin to shrink. In other words, there will be less social security annual surplus to mask the deficit. Thus, either deficits will grow, or other government spending will have to be cut, or taxes raised. So where do you want to cut spending? And do you really think raising taxes is a good idea, and won't damage the economy?

What is the answer? President Bush put forward a very simple, practical solution. First, we protect all existing retirees and those near retirement. Next, we tell young workers - those with time to adjust - that their social security benefits are going to be reduced in the future. This hardly seems fair, but the alternative - significant tax increases - isn't fair either, and would do much more harm to the economy. So how do we make this a little more palatable? We allow these younger workers to divert some of their taxes to private accounts. In essence, they get a social security tax reduction - with the stipulation that they save their tax cut for retirement.

But how can this work? If we reduce their taxes, don't we merely offset the benefit reductions needed to bring the system into balance? No. The reason is because, social security taxes not being invested, the system gives young workers a rate of return of approximately 0%. (Some say a bit more, but others claim it is actually a negative number. Either way, it is palty - again, we don't need to quarrel over details). Thus, if private accounts can get a 5% annual return over one's working life - no trick to that, historically that is a very low number - then it works this way. The government cuts benefits by more than it cuts taxes, but the private savings accounts grow even faster - fast enough to more than offset the difference. Let me illustrate simply:

You pay $5/yr. taxes for 20 years, a total of $100.
The government then pays you $5.10/yr for 20 years, or $102.
That's the current system.

Now let's say that instead the government promises to pay you only $18/yr., or $90 over your 20 year retirement. But it will only charge you $19 a year, or $95 total, instead of $100. It seems like you are behind - your taxes are cut by $5, but your benefits by $12.
But suppose that over those 20 years, the $5 you save has grown to $10. Now, you will have a total of $105 over the course of your retirement. You are $3 ahead, and the government is $7 ahead. Simply because the returns in the private sector are better.

This is an eminently reasonable approach. It avoids the tough libertarian approach of complete privatization, or just cutting off current retirees, or even means-testing. It avoids economy-crippling tax increases. It requires some sacrifice by younger workers, but they are best able to adjust, and the sweetener of the tax cuts makes it likely that they will actually come out ahead. It solves the problem.

Unfortunately, the President has been stymied by a campaign of demgogery from the Democrats. They have refused to even discuss reform so long as one of the most obvious and practical alternatives - a limited use of private accounts, is on the table. In other words, the only solutions the Democrats are even willing to discuss are tax increases and benefit cuts - the most unpalatable solutions. Their other alternative is to do nothing, and to make ridiculous comments about how the trust fund IOUs really have value., and 2040 is a long way off (from the same people who complain that deficits are robbing our children).

This stubborn, head-in-the-sand approach explains why the Republican Party is slowly winning over the American center. For now, the Democrats seem to have killed social security reform, and they think this will help them at the ballot box in 2006. But it will not. Bush may not have convinced most Americans that his solution was the right one, but he did convince them that this is a problem that must be addressed. What I predict is that centrist voters will remember that Bush tried, and the Democrats offered nothing - not even a willingness to talk. And the center will keep moving to the GOP, cementing a new Republican majority.

Johnny Comes Marching Home...

Switching the "Reform Institute" for the reliable old "Straight Talk" Express. The Skeptic has more on John McCain's rather sleazy political machine. For my earlier post outlining the sham that is John McCain's Reform Institute, see here.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Reform Lobby Freaks Out

Fred Wertheimer, arguably the most naive man in America and the acknowledged godfather of the campaign finance "reform" movement, is freakin' out these days. The problem appears to be that there are 4 vacanices on the six member Federal Election Commission, and President Bush is refusing to nominate the people Wertheimer wants to fill those seats.

A quick word on FEC appointments - there are 6 Commissioners, by law 3 Democrats and 3 Republicans (many other bodies, such as the FCC, also have a certain number of seats reserved for the minority party). When Democratic seats come up in a Republican administration, or Republican seats in a Democratic Administration, the President typically defers to the congressional leaders of the minority party for nominees. So here, there are 2 GOP seats open, and 2 Democrat seats open. As usual, the President is defering to Democratic congressional leaders for the Democratic seats.

According to Roll Call (subscription req'd) Wertheimer is unimpressed with all 4 prospective appointees. He calls it, "a scandalous effort to throw Democrat Scott Thomas off the Federal Election Commission, the only Commissioner who has consistently supported the proper implementation and enforcement of the nation’s campaign finance laws." Thomas, who has been on the Commission since 1986, is regularly outvoted by his fellow commissioners, who, like Thomas, have taken an oath to properly enforce the law and the Constitution. His aggressive regulatory approach has frequently been rejected by the Courts, as well as by his colleagues, to which Thomas once responded simply by calling the Court "goofy" and "nonsensical." (See p. 4, second paragraph of link). But he does what Wertheimer wants, so he is OK.

Warming up, Wertheimer added of Steve Walther, a respected Nevada Attorney slated for one of the Democratic seats, that his "basic qualification for the job appears to be that he served as an attorney for Reid."

According to Roll Call, "Wertheimer also accused the Nevada Senator of going back on his support for the 2002 law and those that it preceded it." (Reid voted for McCain-Feingold.) Added Wertheimer, with what seems to be a bit of hysteria, "These four Commissioners are being chosen by Democratic and Republican Congressional leaders with the clear mandate to protect the interests of the leaders and their Congressional colleagues. If President Bush proceeds with these four appointments to the FEC, he will make the FEC a complete captive of the Congressional incumbents the agency is supposed to regulate, and the President will give the back of his hand to the interests of the American people in honest elections and government decision."

As I've noted before, Wertheimer has got to be one of the dumbest, or more likely most naive, men alive. (A third possibility, I suppose, is that he's just a demagogue). He seems to genuinely believe that every member of Congress is so desperate for re-election that they will sell out for a campaign contribution - but then believe that we can trust these same men not to use the power to regulate speech to help assure their re-election.

Note to Fred - of course members of Congress (and the President) are going to appoint people loyal to them. How stupid do you think they are?

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Is John McCain Corrupt?

Redstate and the Skeptic are noting that John McCain's leadership PAC, the "Straight Talk Express," is back in business, and that something smells rotten in Phoenix.

A leadership PAC is a political action committee controlled by an officeholder. It allows him or her to raise and spend money for a whole variety of political activities, other than directly on his own campaign. In other words, for incumbent officeholders, it doubles their contribution limits, vis a vis what challengers can do. And they serve as general travel slush funds for officeholders.

In 2003, after passage of McCain-Feingold, and drawing some rare criticism from the media for his hypocrisy (Leadership PACs, especially McCain's, are, after all, quite hypocritical: if soliciting money above a certain level is "corrupting," then why should the officeholder be able to effectively solicit twice that amount? Only incumbents benefit; McCain's PAC was one of the largest, etc.), McCain shut down the "Straight Talk Express."

However, this week the PAC was reestablished. What is equally interesting is that the phone number listed is also that listed on the web page of the "Reform Institute." Now, what is the "Reform Institute?" It's a group of which McCain is Chairman. Read their press releases, and you'll see he is listed in the first paragraph, if not the first sentence, of every one. And who staffs the Reform Institute? The President is Rick Davis, McCain's 2000 presidential campaign manager. The legal counsel is Trevor Potter, McCain's 2000 presidential campaign legal counsel. The finance director is Carla Eudy, formerly McCain 2000 National Finance Director. Crystal Benton, the Insitute's Communications Director, used to be a McCain press secretary. You get the picture. Some of these people have earned big bucks for this - see here (you'll need to register, which is free, then search for Reform Institute in Alexandria, Virginia, and call up their form 990, an IRS form non-profits must file. You'll learn, for example, that Davis was earning over $100K in 2003, - even though, as his staff entry at the Institute's site notes, he also has another job. 2003 is the last year for which reports are available).

Although the Reform Institute claims it was founded to "represent[] a thoughtful, moderate voice for reform in the campaign finance and election administration debates," in October 2004 it suddenly decided - at the same time that Sen. McCain was pushing his global warming legislation - that it should be involved in global warming issues - a natural partner to "campaign finance and election reform," as anyone can tell you. To manage this new initiative - its only initiative other than campaign finance and elections, and coincidentally McCain's top legislative concern after campaign finance - it tapped John Raidt, a former McCain staffer on the Senate Commerce Committee.

Meanwhile, Davis writes articles touting McCain and talking about how wonderful he is, and how horribly he was smeared by the Bush people back in 2000. Virtually every news story posted on the site is about McCain, or a speech by McCain, and as noted, all of the press releases highlight Senator McCain.

And how is the Reform Institute funded? By large contributions from corporations and others. As the intrepid Ryan Sager of the New York Post noted in a column at Tech Central Station, the cable giant Cablevision alone twice gave $100,000 to the Reform Institute, the first right after its CEO testified before McCain's Commerce Committee, the second shortly before McCain wrote that CEO about an issue pending before his committee, suggesting he should "feel free to contact me [McCain] and discuss these issues further.

Certainly all this shows great hypocrisy on the part of the famously "straight talking" Senator, but the Skeptic and Red State are beginning to ask if there might be anything illegal in this cozy set of relationships. After all, the Federal Election Commission has detailed regulations on "testing the waters" committees by officeholders considering a run for another office, such as President. Has the Reform Institute been playing that role? The FEC also considers "coordinated" activity by a group to count as a campaign contribution - did the Reform Institute coordinate with McCain? And if the Reform Institute was acting as a Leadership PAC - carrying on the functions that Straight Talk temporarily abandoned because it was getting embarrassing to McCain - that would appear to be illegal, too.

Illegal or not, this thing stinks.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Roberts Outed!!

Gasp! John Roberts may have been a member of the Federalist Society, reports the Washington Post in an agitated front page article. The Progress and Freedom Foundation's Randy May does the take-down here.

This is the type of ridiculous substitution for debate that I think is slowly driving most centrist Americans - and I think most Americans are centrists - to give up on politics. And it is also the type of stupid, politically motivated reporting that is slowly making most centrist Americans give up on traditional press entities like the Post as well.

Neither trend bodes well for our Republic.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Here's Hoping Bush Isn't Led by the Polls

The Drudge Report (like anyone needs a link for Drudge) is blasting this headline: Poll: Americans Say World War III Likely.

Well, that settles that.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Friday Night Video: "Heartland" Inspires

This Friday we're watching "Heartland," a 1980 film based on the real life diaries of Elinore Stewart. This is an inspiring flick that both sexes enjoy - the men for its frontier setting and the hardy role played by Rip Torn, the women for its strong heroine and quiet, yet moving story of a different kind of love then we usually see today.

In the film, Stewart (played by Conchata Ferrell) , recently widowed in Denver, responds to a newspaper ad for a housekeeper for flinty Scottish farmer Rip Torn, in the wilds of Wyoming. The year is 1910. Stewart is accompanied by her 10 year old daughter. The movie is unhurried and often sparse in dialogue - it seems to be true that on the frontier they didn't waste many words - and simply tracks her first years in Wyoming. Besides keeping house, Stewart attempts to homestead, but struggles. Torn helps her through the first winter, which she barely survives. Over that winter, Torn and Ferrell also fall in love, in that old fashioned way that is more a mixture of loneliness and deep respect for the other person's inner most qualities rather than any bodice-ripping passion, and marry. Ferrell is nearly late for her own wedding, for which she bakes her own cake and makes her own dress, because of the never-ending chores.

Meanwhile, nature continues to take its toll. The couples' first child dies; when Torn refuses to sell his cattle at what he feels are unfairly low prices, and a hard winter follows, the couple lose most of their herd and starvation becomes a real possibility. Yet throughout, the film remains calm and understated - my favorite scene is when Torn sees his first motor car, and silently checks it out.

This film will make you appreciate, if you don't already, what has been made in America, through the hard work and sacrifice of so many who came before us. It is a moving story about real people facing real trials without glory or notice, and rising to meet them in the harshest environment. It is a true pioneer story, with an inspiring ending that makes you want to bust out singing "America."

It's very hard to find these days, but is available on DVD if you look.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Fred Wertheimer, the Most Naive Man in America?

Fred Wertheimer is the President of a tax-free group called Democracy 21, which relies on large donations from the Pew Charitable Trust, George Soros's Open Society Institute, and a few other large foundations for its funding. With this money, it lobbies extensively for restrictions on people's rights to participate in political campaigns and to talk about politicians and issues, or what is euphemistically called, "Campaign Finance Reform." Before that Wertheimer was President of Common Cause, another group which lobbied extensively for limits on everyone else's right to participate in politics. Strange, perhaps, but neither Common Cause nor Democracy 21 have ever proposed regulations limiting their own right to speak.

The Wall Street Journal once called Wertheimer, "the man who ruined politics." For Wertheimer, as much as anyone in America, even John McCain, is responsible for the political catastrophe that is called "campaign finance reform." And since the passage of the Federal Election Campaign Act in the early 1970s, what a disaster it has been. Campaigns are longer, nastier, they cost more, incumbents have more advantages and win more, and by bigger margins, no one thinks our politics are "less corrupt" or "more equal," and Americans now have to hire a lawyer if they want to do more than talk politics by the water cooler.

Anyway, yesterday the Capitol Hill magazine the Hill had an article about the body that enforces Wertheimer's monstrosity, the Federal Election Commission. The Commission is governed by six Commissioners, by law no more than 3 from any one party, meaning 3 Republicans and 3 Democrats. By tradition, although it is a presidential appointment, each party picks its own commissioners. It seems that no fewer than 4 of the 6 Commissioners on the FEC - two Republicans and two Democrats - have completed their terms. Republican Commissioner Bradley Smith has announced that he will leave the Commission on August 21 to return to teaching law at Capital University. Smith, who has become something of an underground hero, see here, here, here, and here, was always an unlikely Commissioner - he once wrote a book called, "Unfree Speech: The Folly of Campaign Finance Reform." Three other Commissioners, Republican David Mason and Democrats Scott Thomas and Danny McDonald, are continuing to serve even though their terms formally ended months, or in the case of Mason and Thomas, more than two years ago. Under the law, they can serve until replaced.

Anyway - really, this time - what the Hill tells us is that replacements have been selected, though not yet nominated. On the Democratic side, a lawyer named Steve Walther, who was Minority Leader Harry Reid's lawyer when he won his 1996 election in a recount, will replace McDonald, and Robert Lenhardt, former general counsel at AFSCME, a key Democratic-oriented labor union that spends big time on politics, will get the nod to replace Thomas. On the Republican side, Mason will probably be reappointed, but two candidates are mentioned for Smith's seat (and it's still possible one could replace Mason, I suppose) - Don McGahn, General Counsel to the Republican National Congressional Committee, and Craig Burkhardt, former President of the Republican National Lawyers Association and General Counsel to the Illinois Republican Party - which just happens to be the home state of House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Wertheimer is shocked by this. In a Democracy 21 Press Release, (not up on their web site yet, but sent to media, from which the Lonely Centrist received a copy) Wertheimer says, "Democratic and Republican congressional leaders... are working to make the Federal Election Commission a wholly owned subsidiary of Congress, with an overriding mandate to protect the members, at the expense of the public. ... President Bush appears ready to take a lead role in this outrageous effort."

A friend passes on this note from another friend:

Dear Fred,

You've worked for years to put control of political speech into the hands
of politicians, and you thought it would turn out well?

Sums it up pretty well, I think.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

No Apology Necessary

So there was Ken Mehlman last week, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, falling all over himself to apologize to the NAACP for the fact that, 37 years ago, Richard Nixon actually sought to make the deep south a two-party state. In his mea culpa, Mehlman bought into the view that Republicans tried to benefit from "racial polarization."

I reject that view, frankly. It seems to me that Republicans tried to heal "racial polarization" in the South. Here's the history: After Grant's presidency, the North had been worn down by southern intransigence on the race issue - northerners were simply tired of fighting the fight. No credit there, but at least they weren't the oppressors. As part of the deal to put Hays in the White House after the disputed election of 1876, U.S. troops were pulled out of the South and black Americans were left to their fate. For the next century, southern Democrats, and criminal elements allied with them, did everything they could, legal and illegal, to deny blacks the vote and most other basic civil rights. The South was a one party state precisely because of race - for a white to vote Republican was to betray one's race.

This began to change with Franklin Roosevelt, but while the northern Democrats developed a civil rights record of which to be proud, Southern Democrats remained segregationists. The Northern Democrats were willing to maintain this alliance in order to maintain their majorities in Congress. By the mid-1960s, it was clear that the only reason southern whites were not voting Republican was because Democrats - in the South anyway - were the party of segregation. On most other issues, Southern voters were more in tune with Republicans than with Democrats. Nixon never endorsed segregation, and as his running mate intentionally sought out a southern integrationist (that Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew is the best he could come up with is another story). By campaigning in the South, against the renegade Democrat segregationist George Wallace as well as Democrat Party nominee Hubert Humphrey, Nixon helped to open up the Southern electoral system, break the monopoly of the segregationists, and advance the civil rights revolution.

In any case, now that Mehlman has apologized, I look forward to hearing Howard Dean apologize to blacks for the near century of segregation that Democrats placed on the region.

More on this tomorrow.

A Standard to which we can all aspire...

Now, you know that I think the Karl Rove/Valerie Plame/Scooter Libby "scandal" ("RoPlambygate?") is the kind of non-story - or better put, "Beltway" story - that makes the eyelids of the average centrist American get very heavy.

Nonetheless, surely I am not the only one who found the President's Monday press conference less than inspiring: "if someone commited a crime, they will no longer work in my administration." That's it? If they've commited a crime, while working at the White House, they'll be fired? Be still my little good-government heart!

Rove is being treated unfairly, and I think most Americans know that. It ought to be possible for the President to stand by his man, and still set the bar a little higher - i.e. closer to where most Americans think it should be set.

Speaking of the President's News Conference Monday, don't you agree with India Globe and Asia Today reporter Raghubir Goyal that the U.S. press corps is an embarrassment? Here stands the President with the Prime Minister of India, the world's most populous democracy and a major U.S. ally in a crucial region, and not even for a minute can the U.S. press forget about current scandal politics and ask some real questions about foreign policy.

All I'll Say About John Roberts

... is that it is a shrewd move. Roberts should be conservative enough to satisfy the GOP's religious conservative voters, but he's very mainstream, and with a recent overwhelming confirmation behind him, he'll be tough for the Democrats to block. His appointment would move the Court to the right while avoiding an all-out war. There will be a lot of noise and dirt from the left wing of the Democratic Party, but nothing compared to nominating someone such as Michael Luttig or Janet Rogers Brown or Edith Jones.

That leaves Bush lots of room on the expected 2nd appointment - assuming Rehnquist must step down sooner or later. Depending on how the political terrain looks at that time, he can tack further right, with one of the real hard core conservatives named above, or come back with Gonzalez.

Beyond that, others will have far more to say than I.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Officer, I'd Like to Report Some Illegal Activity at This Very WebSite.

Courtesy of Ryan Sager, we learn that the anti-tax folks in Washington State, having been victimized by the shameless desire their political opponents to silence them and a horrible decision by a local judge, are striking back - and having fun at it. They've complied with the judge's order that they list media support as "campaign contributions" by listing every media organization that has mentioned the campaign.

I started this post with the intent to note that, of course, all of us who have commented on-line (and you know who you are Skeptic, Tapscott, Democracy-Project, Cap'n Ed, Sharkansky, and others) may also have also made undisclosed (and therefore illegal?) contributions, but it looks like Ryan caught that himself, down at the bottom of the post, where he even includes a little disclaimer. Anyway, if you want to turn yourself in, go here.

Who Cares! One Small Way in Which Campaign Finance Reform and "Gotcha!" Journalism are Harming Democracy

Well, Friday marked that wonderful deadline for political candidates to file their quarterly reports with the Federal Election Commission. Of course, this always leads to stories in newspapers around the country, such as this one from Saturday's Columbus Dispatch:

It's more than a year before the fall election of 2006, but a number of
Ohio members of Congress already have amassed significant amounts of money for
those races. At the head of the pack in campaign cash among central Ohio
lawmakers is Rep. David L. Hobson, a Springfield Republican. He had more than
$1.3 million as of June 30 in his re-election committee, according to a report
filed with the Federal Election Commission. Hobson, a senior member of the House
Appropriations Committee, raised more than $395,000 during the previous three
months. The most recent quarterly campaign-finance reports were supposed to be
sent to the election commission by midnight yesterday. Rep. Pat Tiberi,
R-Columbus, had nearly $1 million on hand after raising more than $230,000 since
April 1. Rep. Deborah Pryce, R-Upper Arlington, had more than $642,000 in her
campaign committee. She took in nearly $187,000 during the quarter. Pryce, the
fourth-ranking House GOP leader, had about $475,000 in her leadership political
action committee, Promoting Republicans You Can Elect, according to a report
filed by her committee. Rep. Bob Ney, R-St. Clairsville, had about $471,500 in
his campaign account, reaping nearly $405,000 in contributions during the
previous three months, according to his report....

My response to this type of story is: BORRRING! WHO CARES! Who can read this stuff without their eyes glazing? Is this what people care about in politics? We've got soldiers dying in Iraq, a colossal battle brewing over the Supreme Court, Social Security Reform hanging by a thread, and this is what the newspapers think is of interest?

These campaign finance reports are not the only type of insider mumbo-jumbo the public could not care less about. Look at all the ink spilled in the last week on the Karl Rove/Valerie Plame saga. WHO CARES! It seems obvious no law was broken, no damage to an agent's security was done, nor was there any malicious attempt to endanger an agent. All the charges and countercharges are exactly what turns off the public.

Thirteen years ago Ross Perot emerged on the scene and was a national phenomenom. Running as an independent for President, he took nearly 20 percent of the vote, more than any such candidate in nearly 80 years.. "Let's look under the hood and fix it," was his simple cry. Of course, it turns out not to be so easy - issues and ideas matter. But Perot struck a chord with Americans precisely because he seemed to break free of all this inside-the-beltway "gotcha" game playing and posturing. People don't want to be bored to death with raw numbers, put in no context, about political fund-raising. They want to know what Deb Pryce or Bob Ney have done and intend to do in Washington. And people can be foregiven for thinking, as Perot seemed to think, that it was all simply a matter of willpower. After all, if you read the papers you'd hardly believe that ideas matter, and that candidates often do have differing positions on issues.

In his book, "The Enduring Revolution," Major Garrett argues that Republicans won control of Congress in 1994 when they focused on issues - the "Contract with America" - and lost ground in the ensuing elections when they seemed more concerned with lynching Bill Clinton than discussing issues. This is exactly right, I think. Americans want intelligent political debate. But papers don't report on issues any more, and so naturally candidates and politicians themselves discuss issues less and less. It all becomes posture and pose, insider stories that distance most Americans from politics and leave them feeling that they've got no stake in what goes on in Washington.

Want to know why Americans don't vote? Read that intro from the Dispatch story again, and tell me if it makes you feel like discussing politics.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

I Love American Daughter

American Daughter was the first person ever to write a comment on my little blog. Is she great or what! Seriously, for people who want to keep tabs on what is really going on with our soldiers - their trials, their morale, how you can help - American Daughter is a fine web page. Check it out.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Crunch: An Ominous Court Decision for Free Speech

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has upheld a lower court ruling in a lawsuit (Shays v. FEC) brought by Congressmen Chris Shays and Marty Meehan, and supported as amici by Senators Russ Feingold and John McCain, that struck down several Federal Election Commission regulations interpreting the McCain-Feingold bill on the grounds that the regulations are too lenient.

My initial response to just one part of the decision:

Bloggers Beware: When the Reform Advocates Claim that they don't want to get you, they are probably not telling the truth. As I noted here, groups that support McCain-Feingold have claimed that they only want to regulate "paid ads," and here (see p. 8) they claimed to believe that the FEC only regulated money - if there was no money spent, then the FEC had no authority to regulate. But in the Shays case, the plaintiffs argued that even if an ad was broadcast for no fee, it was regulated. See p. 53 and following. The Commission, on the other hand, argued that if there was no fee, there was no expedenditure. The Commission lost. It now must regulate unpaid broadcast ads. The issue on the internet is a different part of the statute, but like the portion of the statute at issue in Shays, it makes no mention of being limited to internet communications that are made "for a fee," only that they be "communications to the general public."

So when the reform community - including Representatives Shays and Meehan, and Senators McCain and Feingold, claim that they only want to regulate paid ads, they appear to be talking out of both sides of their mouths. They have already sought - successfully, now - to regulate unpaid ads. This case strongly suggest that the mere fact that bloggers may not spend any money to blog does not insulate them from regulation - or even give the FEC the authority to ignore their activities.

And Another Thing...

Still need to know why campaign finance reform is a bad idea after reading my erudite posts here, here, here, and here? Well, you gotta love Ken Mehlman, Chairman of the Republican National Committee. Per the Hill,
During yesterday’s meeting, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken
Mehlman warned members that Democratic 527s have been aggressively raising
money in anticipation of the 2006 midterm elections. He told the attendees
that Democrats have an “institutional advantage” in raising money through
527s because of the labor unions and special interest groups that line up
behind them, attendees said

Or as Roll Call put it (subscription required, so we'll dispense with the link):

The chairman of the Republican National Committee talked to GOP lawmakers on
both sides of the Capitol this week about the strategic importance to the party
of “addressing” the role of 527 organizations through legislation.
In separate meetings with Republicans in the House and Senate, RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman outlined why he believes the independent political organizations pose a
threat to GOP election prospects in 2006 and beyond if they are left unchecked.

Well, there's an inspiring message that liberals, conservatives, and centrists, Republicans and Democrats, can all rally around. We need more campaign finance reform because it will hurt Democrats!

Not that the Democrats are any better. Here's Democrat Al Wynn, promoting his campaign finance bill last month, again according to Roll Call:

“Leadership says, ‘Democrats have stood proudly as the party of reform. We
must continue to do so,’” Wynn wrote. “We’ve stood proudly as the minority party
for 10 years. Must we continue to do that too?”
Wynn reminded that House leaders promised the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act would lead Democrats to take back the House, telling his colleagues: “Funny, this doesn’t feel like the majority to me.”


Remember: One of the Problems with Campaign Finance Reform is that it will always be used for partisan purposes. Bob Bauer, whose firm represented John Kerry's presidential campaign, which was not hesitatant to use the rules available for it's partisan ends, talks more about that problem here. Note that Bauer doesn't hold anything against Mehlman, who is just doing his job. Rather, it is the regulatory regime that makes such actions possible that Bauer condemns.

Friday Night Video: "High Noon," a Film for These Troubled Times

Near where I live there is an NPR station that plays old western music on Saturday mornings. By old western music, I don't mean something like Crystal Gayle, but real classics, such as the Texas Playboys, Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers. Apparently the marketing strategy goes something like this: on Saturday morning, the typical chamber music fan suddenly wakes up and thinks, "Man, I could go for some yodeling!"

Anyway, a couple weeks ago I caught Tex Ritter singing the title song to the movie, "High Noon," this week's Friday night video.

Even those who have never seen the movie know the basic plot, so we can recap it quickly here:

Will Kane (Gary Cooper), for the past 6 years or so, has been Marshall of the small town of Hadleyville. The movie opens at 10:30 a.m. on a beautiful Sunday morning. Kane has just married Amy (Grace Kelly, one of the two most beautiful women ever to grace the big screen). It is his last morning as Marshall - he has resigned, and he and Amy will leave town for a short honeymoon, and then open a store in Clarksburg, 100 miles away. But their honeymoon is interrupted before it begins: word arrives that three members of Frank Miller's gang are waiting at the train station. The Miller gang had terrorized the town until 5 years before, when Kane, with the help of six professional deputies and several of the townfolk, had captured him. Miller was sentenced to death, but up in the state capital his sentence was first commuted and now he has been pardoned. He is coming into Hadleyville on the noon train for the explicit purpose of seeking his revenge on Will Kane.

The townfolk urge Kane to go, assuring him that they will be alright, and that the new Marshall will arrive the next day. Amy also urges Will to leave. Will starts to go, but realizes he cannot. "They'd come after us," he tells Amy, "and we'd have to run again, as long as we live." Amy, a pacifist Quaker, finally makes an ultimatum - he must leave, or she will leave without him. Over her protestations, he returns to town and dons his badge. Amy heads to the train station to buy a ticket out of town, abandoning Will.

Over the next 75 minutes - with the time in Hadleyville passing at almost exactly the real time of the film, Kane tries to find support to take on the four outlaws. But his lone deputy Harvey, angry that Will did not support his application to become the new Marshall, demands that Will recommend him as permanent Marshall as the price of his support. This Will refuses to do - obviously, he knew Harvey's weaknesses, so clearly on display, long before. Harvey walks out, heading to the saloon where he gets drunk.

One citizen, Herb, quickly responds to Will's call for special deputies. But elsewhere, Will meets only rejection. Some citizens wear their cowardliness as a badge of honor, and call Will a fool for not leaving. Others are more ashamed, and literally hide from Will to avoid making the choice in public. But some have motives even more venal. Trying to recruit men at the local saloon/whorehouse, Will discovers that there are many who are not so concerned about the Millers' return, in fact looking forward to it - when the Millers ran the town, there was always action, and business in the vice industry was good. But it is not just at the saloon that this attitude holds. The town's more respectable businessmen also urge Will to leave, and to make sure he does, they tell him they will not aid him if he stays. They note that business has been good in recent years; a nasty shootout will only ruin the town's image; if Kane will just leave, the Miller boys probably won't stay anyway, and everything will go on as usual, really. The only ones who offer to help are a boy of 14, and Jimmy, the town's one-eyed drunk. Will gently sends them away.

Reciting the realities of the situation, even Will's old mentor, ex-Marshall Matt Howe, too old and ailing to help in the confrontation himself, urges Kane to flee. Kane starts back to his office, and runs into Harvey again, who tries to force him to leave - it is now important to Harvey that Will be seen as no braver, and no better, than he. The two fight, and Will eventually knocks Harvey out. Sore and dejected, Will returns to the office, where the loyal Herb waits. But when Herb finds out it is just he and Will to face the Millers, he too begs off in this exchange:

Herb: I volunteered. You know I did. You didn't have to come to me. I was ready. Sure, I'm ready now - but this is different, Will. This ain't like what you said it was gonna be. This is just plain committing suicide and for what? Why me? I'm no lawman. I just live here. I got nothin' personal against nobody. I got no stake in this.
Kane: I guess not.
Herb: There's a limit how much you can ask a man. I got a wife and kids. What about my kids?
Kane: Go on home, Herb. Go on home to your wife and kids.

And so, abandoned by all, Kane listens as the noon train arrives, and then walks into the street to meet his probable death, leading to the climactic showdown.

It's been said that the movie was intended as an allegory for Hollywood blacklists and the activities of the House UnAmerican Affairs Committee. If so, it's hard to see. But whatever its original purpose, to me it seems like a wonderful allegory for the current state of world affairs.

The terrorists vow to kill us and destroy our society. The pacifists refuse to face this reality (though in the movie Amy returns at the last moment and provides crucial aid to Will in his struggle); there are the businessmen, the Chiracs and Schroeders of th world, eager to avoid anything that interferes with their commercial arrangements; there are the Spanish, like Herb, ready to face the foe, but only until it looks too risky; and there are the Harveys of the world (Michael Moore?), hoping for Will's humiliation to mask their own cowardice. Each group works to convince themselves that things won't really be so bad if evil is allowed to triumph. Why, people even start to talk fondly about the Millers. Soon, it's Will himself who is the villain - he's the one who is cutting into the saloon's business; he's the one whose refusal to run away is going to lead to a showdown that will hurt the town's image; if he gets hurt, or even killed, he deserves it, and its totally wrong and unfair of him to demand that others take risks too.

And of course, the wonderful touch - this all comes about because Miller, a known killer, is pardoned by unnamed politicians in the far off capital, those who never actually have to live in danger of people like Miller. His first act after being released is to go to Hadleyville to kill Kane.

Meanwhile, throughout the film, Ritter's plaintive voice carries the title tune. It is a tune that is terribly hokey, almost laughably so, and yet at points incredibly moving, for in its kitschy way, it is a wonderful song about courage and honor.

I do not know what fate awaits me
I only know I must be brave.
For I must face a man who hates me,
or lie a coward,
a craven coward,
or lie a coward in my grave.

When was the last time you heard someone use a phrase such as "craven coward?" Or consider that reputation worse than death? When I heard those words while driving that recent Saturday morning, I thought about our soldiers in Iraq: the valor they show; their determination even as, sometimes - like after a Dick Durban speech - they must feel somewhat abandoned; the desire of so many of the wounded to return to active duty. And I thought, next, of how little our society - except in the military - any longer incubates such values. Will Kane understands that evil must be faced sooner rather than later, and that one certainly can't hide from it. And it matters not to Will that the townfolk urge him to leave, and make clear that they won't think the less of him for it (whether he really believes their protestations on this point is irrelevant) - Will cannot live with himself if he runs away. Some things are more important even than life itself.

A great film. The dialogue is superb, as it used to be in films. The tension builds slowly and palpably. If you've never seen it, if you haven't seen it in years, watch it.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Saga of Dr. Noe is No Reason for More Campaign Finance Reform

Dan Tokaji is a professor at Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. Tokaji is a smart guy, but he has written an article for FindLaw that displays the kind of goofiness that besets the campaign finance reform community.

Tokaji is writing on a current scandal in Ohio politics, that can be briefly summarized as follows:

A dealer in rare coins named Tom Noe (que the Bond theme) made a lot of campaign contributions to Republican candidates over many years. As a well known Republican activist - both he and his had chaired the Lucas County (Toledo area) Republican Party - and successful businessman, Noe was appointed to the Ohio Turnpike Commission in 2003, to the board of Bowling Green State University in 1991, and to the Ohio Board of Regents in 1995. These latter two appointments seem to particularly irk Professor Tokaji, as Noe dropped out of Bowling Green to start his coin business. In a manner typical of how reformers feel compelled to talk about these issues, Tokaji makes much of the fact that Noe and his wife also contributed to George W. Bush in 2004, and that Noe intervened on the side of Republican Secretary of State Ken Blackwell in a suit filed by Democrats regarding the counting of provisional ballots in Ohio - a suit in which Noe's legal position was upheld by the 6th Circuit - even though the events underlying the scandal occured long before 2004 and involved interactions with state, not federal officials. In the late 1990s, the Ohio Workers Compensation Bureau gave Noe a contract to invest state funds in rare coins, baseball cards and the like. Now it turns out that Noe is unable to account for nearly $12 million in state money. Some coins, valued at several hundred thousand dollars, were literally lost in the mail.

Not a pretty sight. I think the lessons that most of us would draw from this are:

1. State funds should probably not be deposited into more esoteric investment forms such as rare coins;

2. Voters need to hold elected officials who make appointments responsible for the actions of those appointees - and Ohio voters will get that chance;

3. Laws against malfeasance and misuse of public funds should be enforced - as seems to be happening here, as Noe may go to prison.

But Tokaji's conclusions are quite different. He concludes:

1. Contributors to political campaigns should not be eligible for government appointments to things such as the Board of Regents;

2. The Supreme Court should uphold the constitutionality of campaign finance reform; and

3. Campaigns for judge should be paid for by the government, not through private fund raising.

Hmm. Let's consider these:

1. Who does Tokaji think a Governor should appoint? I think a governor should appoint people who share his ideas. Most of these people will have supported his campaign, many of them with monetary contributions. The idea that contributors should not be appointed to government would separate campaigning from governing, something that is both impractical and undesirable.

2. Ohio and the Feds both have in place the campaign finance restrictions that Tokaji wants the court to uphold, and neither stopped this scandal. But Tokaji goes further. He calls for prosecutors and investigative agencies to be "more vigilant in investigating large fundraisers, "to determine whether these fundraisers are in fact making an end-run around campaign finance laws." Whatever happened to "probably cause" and the like? And he headlines the recommendation, "Federal campaign finance laws should be enforced," even though the scandal revolves around state laws, and those laws are being enforced.

3. Tokaji's third recommendation hardly merits comment, given that the scandal has nothing to do with judges.

This is how restrictions on political activity have always advanced - any time a scandal comes along, reformers tie it campaign finance, whether or not doing so makes any real sense. Tokaji is trying to do that here, and the good voters of Ohio will find themselves all the poorer if they let this be an excuse to pass more campaign finance reform, restricting their own freedom, rather than to punish those responsible at the ballot box.

Play a Few Holes for Jerry Today

Happy 92nd Birthday to the 38th President of the United States, Gerald R. Ford.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Who is Randall Gaylord?

Who is San Juan prosecutor Randall Gaylord, who brought the case against the Washington talk show hosts for speaking in favor of an initiative to repeal a gas tax increase, on the grounds that their broadcasts opinions were campaign contributions? Most disturbing, Gaylord appears to have acted on the recommendation of a law firm, Foster, Pepper, that is active in the effort to defeat the initiative.

According to his resume, Gaylord is a 1980 graduate of Utah State, and a 1985 graduate of University of Utah College of Law. He then clerked for Justice Christine Durham of the Utah Supreme Court, an appointee of former Democratic Governor Scott Matheson. Prior to being elected Prosecutor in 1994, he was an environmental law attorney in Spokane, and then ran a general practice on Orcas Island in Puget Sound. A Democrat, he claims to be an avid cyclist and birder. He is married with two teen-age children. His major reported cases appear to be the type of run of the mill litigation - criminal appeals, environmental regulation disputes - that one would expect a county prosecutor to handle. It's hard to find an ideological agenda there.

In short, nothing unusual jumps out in his career prior to this time. He will be up for re-election in 2006, and this case alone is grounds to defeat him.

Who is Judge Chris Wickham?

Washington State Superior Court Judge Chris Wickham is the man who has recently held that talk on the radio is a campaign contribution subject to Washington's campaign finance laws. A distinguished looking man, Wickham was first elected to the Court last fall, after a career as a legal services, labor, and family law attorney, and 13 years as juvenile court commissioner. He is a graduate of Cornell University and Hastings College of Law.

He was endorsed in his race for judge by, among others, Republican State Representative Gary Alexander, Democratic State Representative Sam Hunt, and former Republican Secretary of State Ralph Munro. Judicial races in Washington are officially non-partisan.

Given his brief tenure on the Court, he's had few interesting rulings. Perhaps the most controversial, before this, was rejecting an attempt to recall Republican Secretary of State Sam Reed over Washington's disputed governor's election. Those seeking to recall Reed claimed that his failure to prevent felons and dead people from voting, among other things, led to the victory of Democrat Christine Gregoire.

In short, nothing in a quick check of his background shows Wickham to be a party hack, or a man without a serious background.

This makes this case all the more alarming for the Lonely Centrist.

Of Campaign Finance Reform, Bloggers, and "the Press"

Where to begin? ...

No, it was not my intention to make this a campaign finance blog. But so much is going on out there, it is hard not to post at length on the issue. For if the Center doesn't hold on campaign finance, long after Karl Rove and the great Valerie Plame scandal have faded pale pastels, the damage being done to the First Amendment in the name of "reform" will live on, wrecking out politics and threatening our freedom as a Republic.

What prompts such apocolyptic words is the story coming out of Washington state, thanks to the work of Ryan Sager. To recap, a Washington State trial court judge, Chris Wickham, has ruled that time spent by radio talk show hosts arguing for an initiative to repeal a state gasoline tax increase constitutes a "campaign contribution" subject to regulation under Washington law. Pursuing the case, San Juan (WA) County prosecutor Randall Gaylord has subpoenaed a variety of documents from the local Fox News affiliate, prying into their internal management and editorial decisions. (A copy of the subpoena is included in the Sager post.) Worse, Gaylord apparently took this action on the recommendation of a law firm, Foster, Pepper, and Shefelman, which is one of the businesses that makes up the pro-gas tax group Keep Washington Rolling. Sager claims that Foster Pepper hopes to do bond work for the state if the tax increase is not repealed.

One of three things can happen here. Either Judge Wickham is reversed by a higher court; or the principle of his decision must also be applied to other news organizations, including newspapers that editorialize on the initiative, biased reporters, and the like, or the law is simply enforced selectively, against disfavored speakers such as radio talk show hosts.

All of which brings us back to the question of

Bloggers and the FEC:

Remember when the flap over possible Federal Election Commission regulation of blogs first arose in March, with the publication of this interview, we were quickly assured by the "reform" community that they only wanted to regulate "paid advertising" on the internet. See here (Money quote: "...The issue the FEC - and the courts - are grappling with is how to deal with online political ads by candidates and parties, and with paid advertising that is coordinated with those groups... These laws are decidedly NOT aimed at online press, commentary or blogs")
and here (Money quote: "There is NO REASON AT ALL that this FEC rulemaking should attempt toregulate bloggers." - emphasis in original. The author of this public letter is Trevor Potter, a lawyer for Senator John McCain, among other things).

Yet now these same "reformers" seem to be fighting tooth and nail against extending the protections of the press to bloggers, as these pieces in the Washington Post and Salon demonstrate [Note: It appears the Salon article is no longer available - I couldn't find it with a search of their site]. Why? If they don't want the law to apply to bloggers, why this resistence to a clear exception for bloggers? Of course, we know why - it's because they do want the law to apply to bloggers, but they know that politically they can't say so.

You might think that "the press" would be all over this issue, but they are not. They don't like bloggers, and they don't like talk show hosts, and they don't think of either as "real journalists." But this is almost certainly short-sighted on the part of the press. In his dissent in McConnell v. FEC, the case that upheld the constitutionality of the McCain-Feingold law, Justice Thomas (joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist) warned that nothing in the decision precludes regulation of the press in the future. It is worth noting that the majority did not dispute the point, except to say that the mere fact that the press is influential could not be the "sole basis" for such regulation (though that appears to be the sole basis for the judge's decision in Washington state).

Why has there been so little outcry that a radio station in Washington state is in hot water merely for broadcasting political opinion? Well, why should there be an outcry? Why should the American people support a First Amendment that only applies to some vague entity called "the press," which may or may not include me but almost certainly doesn't include you? If there is no press exemption for blogs, why should there be one for radio talk hosts? But if radio talk hosts aren't protected, why should Chris Matthews, Tim Russert, and George Stephanopolis - all former Democratic Party operatives now working as "mainstream" journalists, be protected? Indeed, why should any journalists have protection. And why should the American people support a rule that gives rights only to a small group of people, the most influential of whom attended elite colleges and earn several times the national average income? Support for the First Amendment, which is always somewhat precarious, won't remain solid for long.

These are dangerous times. The First Amendment is under attack from the left and right - in this case from the left, in the name of campaign finance "reform." Will the Center hold?

SCOTUS Games: The Magnificent 7 Ride Again?

Will there or won't there be a filibuster of the President's nominee to replace Sandra Day O'Connor at the Supreme Court? Democrats refuse to rule it out. The seven Republicans who signed the famous "no filibuster except in extraordinary circumstances" have been pretty tough in saying that a Supreme Court appointment is not inherently extraordinary, and that they expect an up or down - at least McCain, DeWine, and Graham have been.

But is a filibuster the only danger for the President's eventual nominee? With that in mind, I thought that this quote from Lindsey Graham (scroll to last item) was interesting:

"Every Republican is united around this fact -- we're going to give the nominee an up-or-down vote, [though] every Republican may not vote for this person."

Of course, in a normal world, it makes perfect sense to not commit oneself, let alone one's fellow senators, to vote for someone who has not even been nominated. But the Senate these days is not operating as a normal body. Rather, it has become a totally polarized body in which there is little room for compromise, so every word by people such as Graham is parsed for what it might mean for party discipline.

By stressing that Republican senators may vote against the President's nomination, Graham essentially makes it possible for the seven Republicans in the Gang of 14 to keep their pledge to use the so called nuclear, or constitutional, option of doing away with filibusters on judicial nominations, while not assuring that Bush can put a conservative nominee on the court. What do I mean? Well, if there aren't 51 votes to confirm a nominee, then no filibuster is necessary. The seven Republican signatories could vote to end filibusters, then turn around and vote against the nominee, preventing his confirmation (assuming a united Democratic Party block). In such a scenario, the nomination might never even come to a vote - surely the White House, and Bill Frist, can count votes.

Is this likely? Probably not. Given that Vice President Cheney can supply the 51st vote in the event of a 50-50 tie, the a united group of Democrats (and the nominally independent Jeffords) would need to pick off six GOP senators to defeat a nominee. The Republican 7 would be under enormous pressure to support the president's pick. On the other hand, Snowe, Chaffee, and Collins are hardly reliable votes if the president nominates anyone to the left of where O'Connor has been the last few years. McCain is McCain. Arlen Specter, not a member of the Gang of 14, might vote not to confirm. That would be 5, and the Democrats would need just 1 more - or 2, if McCain decides his presidential ambitions demand that he support a conservative nominee. But there are others who could be peeled away from a nominee in the right circumstances - gang of 14 members Warner, DeWine, and the aforemention Graham; Hagel, Coleman, Murkowski, and Voinovich; maybe even Elizabeth Dole or John Thune, the latter of whom has shown he is not afraid to play hardball with the President, and use nominations as a bargaining chip in doing so.

It's not likely, of course. But it's worth keeping in mind, given that so much of the coverage seems to assume that the only real issue is whether or not the 7 Republicans in the Gang of 14 will vote to break a filibuster.

So who should the President nominate anyway, and who should Centrist Senators be prepared to reject? The Centerman hopes to address those issues in the next several weeks.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

A Prominent Islamic Cleric in London Speaks Out On Targeting Civilians - and Says It's OK

If you want to know what they are actually saying in the Arab world -including mosques in America and Europe - when away from Western ears, you have to read the Middle East Media Research Institute, which translates the speeches and interviews of Muslim leaders into English.

And this interview (from Al Jazeera) with Hani Sibai, the Director of London's Al-Maqreze Centre for Historical Studies, is must reading. The key exchange:

Host: "The question, in short, is whether the religious scholars... Sir, the religious law assembly in Mecca at the end of last month issued a fatwa forbidding the killing of civilians. Should we follow it?"
Al-Siba'i: "The term 'civilians' does not exist in Islamic religious law."

Does it make one a "neo-con" to point such things out?

Monday, July 11, 2005

Let's pull the plug on Sandra Day worship

Yes, I want this to be a site for "reasoned debate." But that doesn't mean I have to tolerate foolishness. The Sandra Day O'Connor worship that has been bubbling over ever since she announced her impending retirement reached true heights of absurdity on Sunday, when Arlen Specter suggested she be talked into staying as Chief Justice if, as expected, Justice Rehnquist retires. There are some who speculate that Specter was of the mistaken belief that O'Connor is a Scottish name, but I think the truth is that he was just caught up in moment, like so many other normally sane people.

Let's cut to the chase. Were it not for the overall make-up of the Court, which has often left her the deciding vote, and thus made her inscrutible jurisprudence a source of endless scrutiny by lawyers and lower court judges desperately trying to figure out the law, O'Connor would be a very forgettable justice, a footnote remembered only for being the first of her gender to serve on the High Court.

Let's see, according to Justice O'Connor:
- you can have affirmative action, and you can't have affirmative action, but if you have it you might only be able to have it for another 25 years;
- You can display the 10 Commandments outside a courthouse, but not inside a courthouse, unless you remembered to display them in the courthouse a long time ago;
- You can have a Christmas creche on government property, so long as you have lots of Santa Clauses, too, although the precise number of Santas necessary remains in doubt;
- A legislative district that, when reduced to an 8 1/2" by 11" map, looks something like a Octopus violates the equal protection clause, but if it looks more like a giant squid, it's OK (actually, Justice O'Connor never really endorsed the octopus/squid standard, which is too bad, because it would have lended clarity to her jurisprudence in the area.)

Back in the 1980s, O'Connor was generally a sensible, moderately conservative justice. Still capable of periodic moments of brilliance, as in her Kelo dissent, over the last decade she has become, sad to say, a running gag among lawyers, law professors, and law students. Many years ago, a noted law professor, attempting to add some emphasis to his point that the law was often uncertain, claimed that legal principles no more controlled the outcome of cases than "what the judge had for breakfast." This may have illustrated an important point, but of course everyone knew it was hyperbole. O'Connor, however, seems determined to show that it is literally true.

President Bush can appoint a conservative; he can appoint a moderate; we know he won't, knowingly at least, appoint a liberal. But whomever he appoints, please, can we hope for someone who understands that his or her role is to decide legal cases in accordance with statutes, the common law, and where applicable, the Constitution, not to split the baby like some latter day, poor man's Henry Clay accidently stumbling onto the bench instead of into the Senate floor.

I probably shouldn't let this bother me - after all, some of the accolades are just people being nice to an elderly woman who will no longer hold power, and O'Connor, as noted, did have her moments that merit praise. Others are patently insincere, mainly Democrats hoping that by singing O'Connor's praises, they can influence President Bush to pick someone more like her than like Clarence Thomas. But there's a point at which you just have to say, "Enough already!"

They're Partying in Quincy

Happy Birthday to the 6th President of the United States, John Quincy Adams.

The Meaning of Campaign Finance Reform: Part III: Bloggers and the Press Exemption

A big story in the blogoshpere over the past few months has been the Federal Election Commission's (FEC) coming "crackdown" on bloggers. If you've missed it, there's been good coverage at RedState, the Skeptic, More Soft Money Hard Law, the Democracy Project, and Daily Kos, among others. Basically, the FEC is preparing to start regulating the internet, and a key question is whether or not blogs get the exemption from the law that normally goes to the press.

Now comes Zachary Roth, writing at the on-line publication Salon. Roth is concerned that if any old blogger can get the press exemption, then we'll all be press, and pretty soon free speech will be busting out all over. You might think this would be a good thing, but think again. You see, if any old blog site gets the press exemption, then Halliburton could spend "millions" on a blog to try to influence elections. Holy Confidential Sources, Batman! The campaign finance system would fall apart. Chaos would reign.

Or would it? It may come as a surprise to Mr. Roth, but major corporations such as GE, Turner, Time-Warner, and Disney already own big press outlets. Others, such as Sinclair Broadcasting and Rupert Murdoch, own numerous broadcast stations or newspapers across the country. Nothing prohibits Halliburton today from buying a newspaper, or radio or TV station. (Ever wonder why it's always Halliburton? Would they be so concerned if it were, say, Ben & Jerry's that started a blog?) The only difference with the internet is that anyone can afford to blog, and to be just as influential as a Halliburton blog - or even a Ben & Jerry's blog.

Besides, I've got news for you. Corporations - and unions - can and do spend millions to influence elections now. They can spend all they want to campaign in favor of candidates for their membership (or in the case of a corporation, management employees and stockholders), and both corporations and unions spend millions on this type of activity. Of course, Aunt June can't spend millions to send campaign info to tens of thousands of union members or shareholders and employees. Nor, for that matter, can Pete's Pizza, Inc. But with blogs, they can compete - if given the freedom to do so.

Large corporations and unions have other ways to influence elections. They have large political action committees (PACs), which take voluntary contributions from members and shareholders/managers, and then make contributions directly to candidates. Many corporate and union PACs distribute over $1 million a year in direct political contributions. They can spend millions on get out the vote activities. And of course they spend even more on lobbying - their lobbying expenditures dwarf their direct campaign activity.

In short, corporations and unions spend millions now. There is no "ban" on corporate or union activity, only limits on certain types of activity. And no one seriously thinks we can limit all private political participation and still have a democracy. So the question is, what type of activity should be allowed, and what should be limited. Once we understand that that is the question, the case for construing the press exemption broadly to include bloggers is overwhelming.

First, efforts to limit who gets the exemption, to "professional journalists," are contrary to the First Amendment, which makes no such distinction. Second, such distinctions will inevitably lead to inconsistent and biased enforcement. Third, such distinctions will tend to favor the already rich and powerful. Surely the New York Times website will get the press exemption. Probably Zach's site, Salon, will get it. Slate probably will, too, even if it was started by Microsoft, which I understand is a very large corporation. How about Andrew Sullivan? After all, he's an Ivy Leaguer who also writes for "real" publications. But Aunt June? Not under Roth's rationale. So the result would turn the law on its head, giving power to those already powerful, and denying it to those without big budgets and power. Finally, holding that the "press exemption" is the exclusive preserve of a few professional journalists, who on the whole earn more than the average citizen, is a sure way to undercut popular support for a free press.

A final word - Roth argues that bloggers don't need the press exemption, because they have an exemption already for "volunteer" activity. The Skeptic takes this argument apart, but beyond the points she makes, why shouldn't Aunt June be allowed to try to make a little money on her blog. We know Salon is.

In short, the "Halliburton blog" scare is just that - a scare tactic by the "reform" lobby. The "reformers" always like to pose as "good government" types who want reason and debate, not money, to dominate politics. They would help their case with a little intellectual honesty.

The Meaning of Campaign Finance Reform: Part II

During last year's North Carolina gubernatorial campaign, the Republican Governor's Association (RGA) began running advertisements that talked about GOP candidate Patrick Ballantine's "solid values" and "a new, positive momentum to help make North Carolina competitive again" that he had allegedly created in his career in the state senate. The ads did not mention that Ballantine was a candidate for governor, but you can't fool North Carolina's bureaucrats. The State Board of Elections ruled that these were campaign ads, and that, being unreported and financed by contributions far in excess of those allowed by North Carolina law, they were illegal. The Board, made up of 3 Democrats and 2 Republicans, voted 5-0 to fine the RGA $196,260.

Meanwhile, at the same time, a group of Democrats called the "State Capital Media Project" ran ads critical of Ballantine's record in the state senate. Well, you might think, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. At least you might think that if you are a naive political rookie. The Board of Elections voted 3-2 that the ads by the State Capital Media Project were not campaign ads. You can probably guess how the partisan votes broke down on the Elections Board, but if not, here's a hint: all 3 Democrats on the Board also contributed to the campaign of Ballantine's Democratic opponent. See the Charlotte Observer, Oct. 23, 2004 (sorry, no current link available).

This is another problem with campaign finance "reform." It is, inevitably, a tool that parties will use to try to harm the other side, and partisan enforcement will always be a problem. That is why the authors of the Bill of Rights sought to prohibit the government from regulating speech, and why the Supreme Court's decisions that allow such regulation (as the cliche goes, what part of "Congress shall make no law" don't they understand) are a travesty, a blight on our Republic, and a betrayal of the Constitution.

It may be worth noting here that Ballantine's campaign was outspent almost 2-1 by his opponent, incumbent Democrat Mike Easley, and that's another problem with these laws - they always seem to favor the incumbent.

On the plus side, a state Administrative Law Judge has ruled that the Elections Board was wrong. On the downside, the Elections Board - at least the Democratic majority - remains defiant and will probably take the matter higher in the court system.

The case is described here.

The Meaning of Campaign Finance Reform: Part I

Campaign Finance Reform has always struck me as a remarkably bad idea. First, I've seen no evidence that it works. Have you? But beyond that, it is dangerous.

Exhibit 1: Washington State. A state judge out in Seattle has held that comments by radio hosts in favor of a state ballot initiative to repeal a state gas tax increase are campaign contributions regulated by state law. Does the danger here even need explanation? Well, yes, maybe it does.

The judge claims that on-air comments by the radio hosts are "in-kind contributions" to the Initiative 912 campaign that had to be reported to the state Public Disclosure Commission (as if listeners didn't know that the hosts were arguing in favor of Initiative 912!). And why not - surely having the press on one's side is a valuable political asset. The purpose of campaign finance laws is - is it not? - to prevent corporations, such as that which owns the radio station, from exerting "undue influence" on public policy. But of course, that would apply to all press - it will be interesting to see if the Judge will apply the same logic to the inevitable Seattle Post editorial arguing against the initiative. At that point, one of two things will become obvious - either we no longer have press freedom to write and say what we want, or the law is applied with no obvious logic against disfavored entities - which it seems are almost always those that favor less govenment.

Remember that the Philadelphia Inquirer actively solicited contributions for John Kerry in the last election. What are newspaper and broadcast editorials worth to a candidate or campaign? In this case, the judge seemed to be concerned that the talk show hosts had worked directly with the pro-initiative campaign on strategy. But how is that different that many newspapers, which meet with the candidates and then plan their editorials - of which the candidates are then told in advance. More ominously, is there any reason to limit this logic to editorials? What of news coverage, which is what most people are really complaining about when they mention "media bias." Take last year's flap with CBS and Dan Rather's fraudulent documents "proving" that GW Bush was AWOL back in his National Guard days. CBS actually worked with the Kerry campaign in developing the story; Kerry was ready with speeches and ads to take advantage of it within hours of the story airing; there seems to be little doubt that Rather and certain other CBS News persons wanted to help defeat the President.

And if disclosure doesn't seem like such a big deal - of course, I'm not disclosing who I am, just as the authors of the Federalist papers did not - why would the same logic not apply to directly limit the activity in question. That is, if the value of a news endorsement or slanted reporting is $50,000, and the state limits campaign contributions to $1000, why should we not ban the endorsement or reporting outright?

It really is time that we ordinary citizens got serious about the assault on our First Amendment rights that takes the name, "campaign finance reform." As they say at weddings, it may be time to "speak now, or forever hold your piece." Of course, the church won't fine you or even throw you in jail if you later state your piece, and the government will.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

My friend Alberto

Should Alberto Gonzalez be appointed to the Supreme Court? Mr. Gonzalez is obviously a very talented man, but his career has mainly consisted of a series of brief stays in jobs to which he was appointed by Governor and then President Bush, including a brief stay on the Texas Supreme Court, which is his only experience as a judge. The two most noted qualifications he brings to the job are that he is Hispanic, and that the President likes him a great deal.

These are not trivial qualifications, but if the President wants to appoint the first Hispanic justice, there are several candidates with superior qualifications on paper, including Judge Emilio Garza of the Circuit , and a name that has not been mentioned much if at all, the Chief Judge of the 6th Circuit, Judge Danny Boggs. And while the President should appoint people whose judgements he trusts, this President seems to view his personal relationship to Gonzalez as something of a trump card. Should it be?

In Federalist #76, Alexander Hamilton argues that one of the primary purposes of the "advise and consent" clause is to prevent cronyism - that is, to prevent the President from filling the ranks of government with someone "who had no other merit than that... of being personally allied to him." I wouldn't go so far as to say Gonzalez has no other merit - he has a great deal of merit, and indeed he may well be a great justice. But the question almost begs to be asked.

I see here that Redstate beat me to it on this one by a mile.

The Lonely Centrist

Is there a middle ground in politics anymore? I don't mean a place where people stake out mushy moderate opinions. Rather, I mean a place where people engage in independent thinking, treat each other with courtesy, and debate the merits, rather than engage in ad hominem criticism and speculation about the motives of the speaker. Some place - unlike, say, Democratic Underground, Daily Kos, or Free Republic, where name calling quickly replaces debate. A place where reason rules over emotion.

Why is it that when I talk with my conservative friends I feel so liberal, and when I talk with my liberal friends I feel so conservative? It is not, as I think readers will soon find out, that my opinions lack definition. It is, I think, more a tone of debate, a tone of good faith. Can it be restored to the blogosphere. I don't know, but I figured I may as well try. So I decided to start my own little blog, the Lonely Centrist, and here it is.

  • The Skeptic
  • Andrew Sullivan
  • Michael Barone
  • The New Republic
  • National Review
  • Democracy Project
  • Bob Bauer
  • Center for Competitive Politics
  • Ryan Sager
  • Going to the Matt
  • Professor Bainbridge
  • Volokh Conspiracy
  • Mystery Pollster
  • Amitai Etzioni
  • Alexander Chrenkoff
  • Middle East Media Research Institute
  • Right Democrat
  • Democrats for Life