The Lonely Centrist

A place for reasoned debate about the issues of the day.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

And Now for Something Completely Different (and Nice): A Possible Ivory sighting

Back in 2005 there were reports of a confirmed sighting of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker in Arkansas. The greatest of American woodpeckers was long thought extinct. Now there is much doubt about that sighting. But researchers in the Florida panhandle are building a good case that the Ivory Bill still exists along the Choctawatchee River. Hope so.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Lobbyists in the Room: The McCain-Feingold-McGehee Bill

The Denver Post offers this article about how the "Stand by Your Ad" provisions of McCain-Feingold - you know, the "I'm your friendly neighborhood congressman, and I approve this message" you now see tagged on to the end of all these campaign ads - may determine the outcome of a congressional race in Colorado. Not because voters care about the candidate "standing by his ad," but because the law is about to give a huge financial advantage to Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave's challenger.

But while the "Stand by you ad" stuff is interesting, what caught the Centerman's eye was this passage:
Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., said she was in the room when the statute was drafted four years ago.
Four years ago, McGehee - according to her own biography - was "Chief lobbyist" for Common Cause - indeed, "one of the top nonprofit/grassroots lobbyists in Washington." What the heck is a lobbyist doing in there drafting legislation? I thought we were supposed to be outraged at the idea of lobbyists drafting legislation. I mean outraged. In fact, "It's almost as if legislators are outsourcing one of their primary duties."!

Common Cause likes to refer to itself as the "citizens' lobby," and seems to think that makes them special. Of course, they represent about one-tenth as many citizens as the National Rifle Association. Heck, they represent a fraction of the number of citizens who hold stock in, and work for, most publicly traded corporations. In other words, they represent a fraction of the citizen's that many, if not most, other lobbyists represent.

Well, maybe McGehee was just standing around wasting time, not really contributing anything. Yeah, that's probably it. 'Cause we couldn't have lobbyists drafting legislation.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

War for Oil?

One-time Presidential candidate Gary Hart is huffing away that the U.S. will launch a preemptive war in Iran before the election. This seems more than a little far-fetched to me, since it is the war in Iraq that will probably prevent the GOP from steamrolling to victory in November. Hart, like many Democrats these days, seems to think that every American hates the war, but would support a new one.

Anyway, Hart says that when the President goes on national TV to justify the assault, he will not say, in Hart's words, "and besides, we need the oil."

Now, two thoughts emerge.

First, if we need oil, why would we attack Iran? The immediate consequences would be to shut off oil supplies from Iran. Even in the event of stunning success by the American military, as we have seen in Iraq, it is not so easy to keep oil supplies flowing. It seems to me that if a president wanted to exacerbate oil shortages around the globe, there would be few better strategies than attacking Iran. Conversely, if we actually wanted oil from Iran, it is easy to get - raise any and all sanctions, and send them some nuclear plant technology. We might toss our ally Israel over the side if we're really looking for oil, but that may not be necessary to get much of what we want. So Hart isn't thinking, and I suppose we can all be glad that Donna Rice, who is much prettier and living a better life now than she was then, killed his chances of becoming president.

But let me ask the unaskable question: what would be so inherently bad about a "war for oil"? Let us suppose, counterfactually, that a "war for oil" could lower the price of oil worldwide to $35/barrell for the next 20 years. What enormous good would that do for the world economy? How many people, especially in the developing world, would be lifted out of poverty? How many unemployed would become employed, in this country and elsewhere? How much of the world's natural wealth would be taken from the hands of brutal dictators, secular and religious, and transferred to the democracies? How many terrorist groups would lose a major funding source?

Throughout history, nations have often gone to war for control of natural resources. Arguably, a war for oil - sacrificing our national treasure and blood for something that would yield tremendous benefits for the world, and especially for many of the world's poorest people - would be one of the great self-sacrifices of history.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Voter ID: Basing Policy on Appearances

Yesterday the House passed a national voter ID bill. Naturally, both sides said silly things, because it was, after all, a congressional debate. Republican Vern Ehlers said the bill making it marginally harder for a relatively small number of people to vote would increase turnout, insulting our intelligence. Democrat Steny Hoyer called it "tantamount to a poll tax," insulting our knowledge of history and the memory of real civil rights pioneers.

Bob Bauer, a Democratic lawyer always worth reading on election issues, had some harsh words for the bill. Bauer suggests that for many Republicans, voting is a "privilege," not a "right," and that this shapes their attitude toward the franchise. In doing so, he references a discussion on this list of election law observers, which you can browse.

While the idea that voting might be a "privilege" of living in our society seems abhorent to Bauer and to most of the aforementioned list discussants, I suspect it rings true to most Americans, which may be one reason why polls show overwhelming public support for yesterday's measure. As a legal matter, though, I think there is no meaningful distinction between calling something a privilege and calling it a right. In theory there is, or ought to be: a "right" is something that can only be restricted by the state for the most necessary of reasons - "compelling" reasons. A "privilege," however, can be restricted for most any reason at all, so long as the restriction is not arbitrary. But in practice, what counts as a "compelling" interest is so malleable as to mean little. A judge can pretty much find any state interest "compelling," merely by proclaiming it so.

Here, it is interesting to look at another example of government regulation of the political process: campaign finance.

I suspect that most of the Democrats and liberals who oppose a voter ID requirement (and the vote was mainly a party line vote) also favor restrictions on campaign finance, such as the McCain-Feingold bill of a few years back, which was also mainly a party line vote (though Mr. Bauer, whom I linked above, is very skeptical of that law - peruse his past posts for a bit). Those who have found McCain-Feingold limiting their speech are probably not consoled by the notion that they still have a "right" to speak, but the state interest is so "compelling" as to overcome that right. As a practical matter, may as well call political speech a "privilege." This is especially so given that the Supreme Court has adopted a nebulous "appearance of corruption" standard as a "compelling" state interest. The Court does not define the phrase. But because there are always, in any democracy, many people who think government and politicians are corrupt, there will always be an "appearance of corruption." No democracy has ever existed without the perception of corruption by a substantial percentage of the population - and this may be a good thing, as a vigilant public may help prevent actual corruption. Anyway, it has been on this flimsy rationale that the Court has upheld campaign finance and speech restrictions.

One interesting fact is that over the sweep of American history, it is voting that has been more likely to be treated as a "privilege," and campaign contributions and speech as a "right." At the time of the Constitutional Convention and state ratifications, voting was subject to a wide variety of restrictions, including often onerous property restrictions. The idea was, in part, that one had to "earn" the right to vote, and demonstrate the long term ties to the community needed to make one a wise, responsible voter. Until well into the last century, voting was highly restricted. Restrictions applied not only on race and sex, but even on those white males otherwise eligible to vote. Conversely, campaign participation and political speech were, until the last century, wholly unregulated - that is, treated as a "right." Those who now line up on the side of more campaign finance regulation and less regulation of the voting process are not lined up with the historic understandings of the Constitution, even if they have had remarkable success in the Courts over the past 40 years.

If the case that voter ID laws will actually prevent fraud is weak, the case that it will prevent the "appearance of corruption" in our elections is strong, as the polling data shows. Moreover, in a twist of poetic if inexact justice, those most opposed to voter ID laws include many of those who have claimed most loudly and irresponsibly that our recent elections have been "stolen," thereby creating the "appearance of corruption" needed to justify the Voter ID bill, whether one calls it a "right" or a "privilege."

Further, Ehlers' comments - remember, he was the GOP congressman who claimed the Voter ID bill will encourage more people to vote by increasing confidence in elections - no longer seem quite so silly when stacked up against the claims of campaign finance reform advocates, who often make the same argument - that if we restrict the participation of some, it will encourage others to particpate.

What goes around comes around, and for many supporters of campaign finance regulation who nonetheless oppose voter ID, it has just come around with some vengeance.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Congress Deserves a Raise - and So Do Its Staffers

This site allows you to look up congressional staff salaries. To many Americans, these numbers will look pretty impressive - about $150K per year for a typical chief of staff, and many other salaries in the $80K to low hundreds range. But let us remember that leading law firms are starting first year lawyers at amounts in excess of $145,000. Washington is not an inexpensive place to live, and congressional staffers are in important positions and wield considerable power.

Congressmen, meanwhile, earn a bit over $165,000 per year. Again, that is a healthy salary, but not when compared to partners in large law firms, vice presidents in banking and industry, or most Washington lobbyists.

It is not healthy to have a situation in which Congressmen and their staffers are routinely among the lowest, if not the lowest, paid individuals in the room. Corruption flourishes when people with tremendous power and comparatively little money are kept constantly in close proximity to large amounts of money.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

"Tainted" Cash

Here's something I don't understand: the concern about "tainted campaign cash." In its latest manifestation, it is the cry that any candidate who received money from Bob Ney must return it (it is common for safe incumbents with lots of money in their campaign accounts to make contributions to other candidates in their party).

I mean, I do understand it, but purely as a political gesture - and it is so transparently stupid, why does the press take it seriously?

Take the Ney example. The overwhelming majority of Ney's campaign cash is perfectly legit, any way you cut it. And he gave some of it to other candidates, according to the law, and with no allegation or hint of impropriety. Why should those candidates return it? Should store owners return money they earned from selling goods to Mr. Ney? How do you know the money you received wasn't "tainted?" If the company you work for is suddenly found to have violated anti-trust laws, should you return your honest earned pay?

What would be the consequences of returning Ney's contributions? One would be that it would mean more money back in Ney's campaign accounts, which he can use to pay for his legal defense. How is this just? Another possibility would be to give the money to charity. But then the charity would be "tainted." Perhaps the only real solution is to take out the cash and burn it.

That should satisfy the "ethics" lobby.

Meanwhile, Back in the World of Campaign Finance Disclosure

It seems like everyone is suddenly up in arms that Senators don't have to file their campaign finance reports electronically. Jeffrey Birnbaum ran this column in the Washington Post, and now it seems that every Kos, Rick, and Krempasky in the blogosphere is joining in, along with Ed, Glenn, and a host of others, left and right.

But as Matt Johnston points out, nothing stops Senators from filing electronically, now. Supposedly, electronic filing is being blocked by two Senators, Lott and McConnell. But if it really mattered, nothing stops Senators McCain, Feingold, et al. from filing electronically now - which, as the Club for Growth blog points out, points out, it appears that they do not do.

If voters really cared, don't you think at least some senators would find some advantage to filing electronically on a voluntary basis? And how much does it matter? Has it ever mattered to you, or to any voter you know, that Senators don't file electronically? I guess to me this points up how much campaign finance is a big distraction from other issues that I think most Americans would see as much more important: I mean, who really cares about this? How does this affect the republic? What would we really gain. Over here, Brad Smith calls our attention to the fact that it is not like the information is not made public - we just have to wait a bit longer. But this is the age of instant gratification. Though it's hard to think of any reasons to oppose electronic filing, this just feels to me like a tempest in a teapot.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Could this mean War?!!

The Pope's comments and further explanation may lead to war, according to at least one Arab editorialist. Me wonders what this fellow thinks has been occuring the last [circle your choice: 5 20 50 1400] years.

Am I out of line, or do most Americans react as I do: where are all these outraged editorials when Muslim terrorists, in the name of Islam, kill innocents? It seems the only time the Muslims get worked up is when they feel some slight - however trivial - against Islam, or when someone suggest that Islam is not a "religion of peace." Isn't much of the point the inability of so many Muslims to, well, get a grip? To calm down? To try - to make just a little effort - to understand others? To react with some degree of proportionality?

On that last point, it's grimly humorous that, seemingly as if to prove only that the Pope did not go far enough, many advocates of the Religion of Peace responded by physically attacking Christian Churches. Included in their attacks were a Greek Orthodox and an Anglican Church. Not that it really matters, but neither church reports to the Pope.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Poll Crazy

One of my favorite sites, Mystery Pollster, is now just Pollster. In this column, contributor Charles Franklin considers the recent uptick in President Bush's approval numbers. It's got a neat chart of the polls, and that's what caught my eye: Franklin tracks 336 national polls of President Bush's public approval taken since January 1, 2005,.

Think about that. That's more than a poll every other day. Is there any conceivable need for this? Does it serve a purpose? Help journalists and hence the public gain understanding? Do it do anything? It's like trying to report on a marathon by monitoring the heart rate of the contestants with each step. "It's up! It's down! It's up again!" The fact is, a huge number of these polls are taken as "make news" polls; we'll do a poll, and report on it. Reporters have forgotten what it means to "report." Where is the reporter who will go to an event and simply report on what he sees, or what the speaker says?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Conspiracy Dementia

Jonah Goldberg, a very entertaining writer on the right, offers this column at Real Clear Politics.

Here is the line that stunned me:
More than a third of Americans believe the U.S. government was likely to have been involved in 9/11.

I've watched C-Span's call in shows and been amazed, and somewhat sickened, at the number of conspiracy callers who blame the U.S. I was sent (anonymously, no return address) a copy of the ridiculous conspiracy theory "documentary" "Loose Change." But I would still not have guessed that over a third of Americans believed this nonsense. Goldberg does not provide a citation for this figure.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Pat Sajak: My New Hero!

Check out this piece in the conservative news weekly Human Events, by Pat Sajak. My favorite part:
“Reform” is a misleading word. It implies not just a repair but a move to an idealized perfection. Our electoral system may need some reworking, but beware of the reformers who think they can bring purity to an impure enterprise.
I've got to start watching Wheel of Fortune, I guess.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Issue Blackout Starts Today

The McCain-Feingold law's prohibition on broadcast issue ads by unions and incorporated groups such as the Sierra Club or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce takes effect today. From now through election day, such organizations and groups cannot run broadcast ads that even mention a federal candidate, unless they have a PAC with enough money to do so.

So as congress considers budget bills and other legislation in the next few weeks, they can do so free from most of those pesky ads that rally citizens to call their congressmen and senators to tell them how they think their representatives should vote.

Ah well, could be worse. We could have "corruption" in government.

"I would rather have a clean government than one where quote First Amendment rights are being respected, that has become corrupt. If I had my choice, I'd rather have the clean government."
- John McCain

Pollster Pleads Guilty to Fraud: Crank Up the Conspiracy Theories

Tracy Costin, formerly the owner of DataUSA, Inc. (now ViewpointUSA, Inc.), a polling firm that did work for, among others, Joe Lieberman and George W. Bush, has pled guilty to making up poll data.

Pollsters live and die on credibility. Now, in an era in which election conspiracy theories run rampant on the left while polls and the "mainstream media" are largely distrusted on the right, this will give all the conspiracy theorists ammo for years to come.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Steve Irwin: RIP

I'm surprised by how moved I am by the death of Steve Irwin. You just feel like the world lost one of its truly good guys.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Time to end the Iowa caucuses?

The Democrats have been trying to rearrange the primary schedule to lessen the importance of the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries. Peter Beinart of the New Republic is critical of the new system. (Registration required).

But Beinart's criticism is a bit mixed up. He writes:
caucuses are interest-group heaven. They empower small, highly motivated, well-organized factions, and they disempower everyone else. On both sides of the aisle, candidates who challenge core party constituencies (Scoop Jackson in 1972 and 1976, Al Gore in 1988, Paul Tsongas in 1992, John McCain in 2000, Joe Lieberman in 2004) either don't compete in Iowa or get buried there

Well, which is it? Are "highly motivated, well-organized factions" in charge, or are "core party constituencies" excluded. I guess Beinart is using them differently, but usually "core constituencies" are what you think of as "well organized factions." Beinart notes that Howard Dean used to oppose the caucuses, saying
If you look at the caucuses system, they are dominated by special interests in both parties. The special interests don't represent the centrist tendencies of the American people. They represent the extremes.
But this quote - from 2000, merely brings to mind Dean's 2004 campaign. What was it but a "highly motivated, well-organized faction?" And it got thumped by John Kerry, a more centrist (albeit still liberal) Democrat. And what was Richard Gephardt? As the House minority leader, an old line Democrat supported by big labor, did he represent a small "well organized faction," or a "core constituency?" Since he lost, I guess it was the latter - but if he had won, you could certainly have said it was the former, no?

Anyway, Beinart concludes that sandwiching the Nevada caucuses in between Iowa and New Hampshire makes the whole system less "democratic," but it's not really clear why, and frankly, it's not even clear why a "more democratic" system is a good idea - after all, it was back in the days before primaries that centrist Democrats such as Johnson, Kennedy and Truman won the nomination - even Stevenson and Humphrey fended off more liberal candidates to win the nomination. It's since then that the Democrats have gone with McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis, and Kerry.

I'm not sure there is much you can do about the nomination process right now. For reasons I don't understand, a poor performance in Iowa or New Hampshire seems to wrap it up. I do not get the herd mentality that sends the press, pundits, and apparently donors, volunteers and voters - scurrying at a couple primary results. It would be sort of like watching a basketball game, and 2 minutes in with the score 4-0, the losing coach folds up shop.

Beinart seems to think that this can be changed - he just doesn't like these changes the DNC is proposing. But how? What one state is really so representative of America? And isn't the problem less the nature of the caucuses or primaries, and who shows up - which is Beinart's position - than the fact that because we let the first two events determine everything, candidates aren't thoroughly vetted? The Democratic Party process in 2004 was typical, and it was like a stock bubble. Kerry, gotta buy Kerry. Big rush of investors, stock price runs up, and only then do we discover the company isn't so great after all; after an initial visit, customers don't return to the store, so to speak. Bubble bursts, stock price collapses, Democrats go bust, country gets four more years of Bush.

So I agree with Beinart that the new formula won't accomplish much, but I think he's got the wrong diagnosis, and certainly the wrong cure. Unfortunately, I have no miracle cure either.

Dean probably wouldn't put it that way today

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