Wealthy Frenchman

Friday, June 30, 2006

Velvet Elvis Diplomacy



Among the newspaper headlines preserved in Elvis's trophy room in Graceland, hanging next to his size-12 white leather shoes and rhinestone-studded gold lamé suit, is this gem from Aug. 12, 1957: "Rock 'n' Roll Banned, 'Hate Elvis' Drive Launched By Iran To Save Its Youth."

Datelined Tehran, the story began: "Rock 'n' roll has been banned in Iran as a threat to civilization. 'This new canker can very easily destroy the roots of our 6,000 years' civilization,' police said, before launching a 'Hate Elvis' campaign."

Half a century ago, Elvis was considered a wiggly threat to Muslim civilization. But yesterday, the president brought the Japanese prime minister to Elvis's gloriously campy time capsule to thank the fanatical Elvis fan for helping push democracy in the Muslim world.

Junichiro Koizumi seemed to be in an ecstatic trance. Standing near the indoor waterfall in the Jungle Room with Priscilla, Lisa Marie, Laura and George looking on, basking in the avocado glow of a 70's shag rug that covered floor and ceiling, the 64-year-old Japanese leader did Thin Elvis air guitar and Fat Elvis karate chops.

He grabbed the King's outsized tinted gold-rimmed glasses and slipped them on, as the curator who had handled them with white gloves watched in alarm. And he gamely sang heavily accented bits of "Love Me Tender," "Can't Help Falling in Love With You," "Fools Rush In," "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You," and even let loose with "Glory, Glory, Hallelujah" until finally Priscilla Presley called out, "We need a karaoke machine!" He even cast Lisa Marie in the Ann-Margret role in his own fantasy "Viva Las Vegas," pulling her close to croon, "Hold me close, hold me tight."

"It's like a dream," bubbled Mr. Koizumi.

It was hard to remember anyone looking this happy in the gloomy cave of the Bush-Cheney administration, where more time is spent spanking allies than treating them.

Mr. Bush seemed out of his element. It's doubtful that W. had ever seen a round, mirrored, white fake-fur canopy bed before, much less an entire suit made of black faux fur. At one point, the president tried to cut off his overexcited guest from Tokyo, a city that loves its Elvis impersonator bars. But Mr. Koizumi would not be stopped.

Surrounded by monkey ceramics and ersatz cow skulls, W. tried to make a serious point about his road-trip summit, saying the visit was "a way of reminding us about the close friendship between our peoples."

In addition to being a respite from other bad news — getting disciplined by the Supreme Court on Gitmo and getting taunted again by Osama — the Graceland getaway was a triumph in personal diplomacy. That was the specialty of this president's father, who made a career of dragging befuddled world leaders off to baseball games, the Air and Space Museum, and sprints on his boat in Kennebunkport.

Poppy used such jaunts as a lubricant to diplomacy and an inducement to closer, chattier relationships. His less curious, less social son tends to think of personal diplomacy more in terms of rewards and punishments, just another way to give or withhold favors, depending on who is going along with his world view.

Yesterday's pilgrimage may have struck some as too kitschy, given that several youngsters in Memphis have been tragically shot by stray bullets recently. But at least goin' to Graceland was a rare display of expertise in the psychology of diplomacy, an area where this administration has been strangely tone-deaf. W. figured out what the Japanese leader was thinking, what he wanted and what mattered in his culture, and exploited it — unfortunately, waiting until Mr. Koizumi was almost out of office.

Bush officials went out of their way not to do this with Saddam when they failed to consider that he might be hyping his W.M.D. arsenal or toying with U.N. weapons inspectors as a chest-thumping exercise aimed at impressing other Arab leaders. The Bush team also repeatedly squandered chances to talk to the Iranians and the North Koreans, ignoring the ways in which the oddball leaders of those countries might be acting out of insecurity, envy, bluster, one-upsmanship and a desire to be respected — sort of how high school girls might behave if they had nukes.

With his small circle of pals and Iraq war defenders — Mr. Koizumi, Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi — drifting off the world stage, and with allies pulling back troops in Iraq, President Bush may soon be as isolated as Elvis was at the end. For the rest of his term and through history, W.'s Heartbreak Hotel is likely to be located in Baghdad.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Wreckage in the China Shop


After all the sound and fury of the past few years, how is the U.S. doing in its fight against terrorism?

Not too well, according to a recent survey of more than 100 highly respected foreign policy and national security experts. The survey, dubbed the "Terrorism Index," was conducted by the Center for American Progress and Foreign Policy magazine. The respondents included Republicans and Democrats, moderates, liberals and conservatives.

The survey's findings were striking. A strong, bipartisan consensus emerged on two crucial points: 84 percent of the respondents said the United States was not winning the war on terror, and 86 percent said the world was becoming more — not less — dangerous for Americans.

The sound and fury since Sept. 11, 2001 — the chest-thumping and muscle-flexing, the freedom fries, the Patriot Act, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the breathtaking expansion of presidential power, Guantánamo, rendition, the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars — seems to have signified very little.

An article on the survey, in the July/August edition of Foreign Policy, said of the respondents, "They see a national security apparatus in disrepair and a government that is failing to protect the public from the next attack." More than 8 in 10 of the respondents said they believed an attack in the U.S. on the scale of Sept. 11 was likely within the next five years.

Many of the respondents played important national security roles in the government over the past few decades. They included Lawrence Eagleburger, who served as secretary of state under George H. W. Bush; Anthony Lake, a national security adviser to Bill Clinton; James Woolsey, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency; Richard Clarke, who served as counterterrorism czar in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations and was in that post on Sept. 11th; and Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan.

Noted academics and writers who specialized in foreign policy and national security matters also participated in the survey.

"Respondents," according to a report that accompanied the survey, "sharply criticized U.S. efforts in a number of key areas of national security, including public diplomacy, intelligence and homeland security. Nearly all of the departments and agencies responsible for fighting the war on terror received poor marks.

"The experts also said that recent reforms of the national security apparatus have done little to make Americans safer. Asked about recent efforts to reform America's intelligence community, for instance, more than half of the index's experts said that creating the office of the director of national intelligence has had no positive impact in the war against terror."

The respondents seemed, essentially, to be saying that the U.S. needs to be smarter (less like a bull in a china shop) in its efforts to combat terrorism. "Foreign policy experts have never been in so much agreement about an administration's performance abroad," said Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and a participant in the survey. "The reason is that it's clear to nearly all that Bush and his team have had a totally unrealistic view of what they can accomplish with military force and threats of force."

The respondents stressed the importance of ending America's dependence on foreign oil, saying that could prove to be "the single most pressing priority in winning the war on terror." Eighty-two percent of the respondents said that ending the dependence on foreign oil should have a higher priority, and nearly two-thirds said the country's current energy policies were making matters worse, not better.

"We borrow a billion dollars every working day to import oil, an increasing share of it coming from the Middle East," said Mr. Woolsey, the former C.I.A. director.

The respondents also said it was crucially important for the U.S. to engage in a battle of ideas as part of a sustained effort to bring about a rejection of radical ideologies in the Islamic world. That kind of battle requires more of a reliance on diplomacy and other nonmilitary tools.

If the respondents to this survey are correct, the U.S. needs to be moving in an entirely different direction. The war against terror cannot be won by bombing the enemy into submission. The bull in the china shop may be frightening at first, but after a while it's just enraging. We need a better, smarter way.

The Wreckage in the China Shop


After all the sound and fury of the past few years, how is the U.S. doing in its fight against terrorism?

Not too well, according to a recent survey of more than 100 highly respected foreign policy and national security experts. The survey, dubbed the "Terrorism Index," was conducted by the Center for American Progress and Foreign Policy magazine. The respondents included Republicans and Democrats, moderates, liberals and conservatives.

The survey's findings were striking. A strong, bipartisan consensus emerged on two crucial points: 84 percent of the respondents said the United States was not winning the war on terror, and 86 percent said the world was becoming more — not less — dangerous for Americans.

The sound and fury since Sept. 11, 2001 — the chest-thumping and muscle-flexing, the freedom fries, the Patriot Act, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the breathtaking expansion of presidential power, Guantánamo, rendition, the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars — seems to have signified very little.

An article on the survey, in the July/August edition of Foreign Policy, said of the respondents, "They see a national security apparatus in disrepair and a government that is failing to protect the public from the next attack." More than 8 in 10 of the respondents said they believed an attack in the U.S. on the scale of Sept. 11 was likely within the next five years.

Many of the respondents played important national security roles in the government over the past few decades. They included Lawrence Eagleburger, who served as secretary of state under George H. W. Bush; Anthony Lake, a national security adviser to Bill Clinton; James Woolsey, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency; Richard Clarke, who served as counterterrorism czar in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations and was in that post on Sept. 11th; and Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan.

Noted academics and writers who specialized in foreign policy and national security matters also participated in the survey.

"Respondents," according to a report that accompanied the survey, "sharply criticized U.S. efforts in a number of key areas of national security, including public diplomacy, intelligence and homeland security. Nearly all of the departments and agencies responsible for fighting the war on terror received poor marks.

"The experts also said that recent reforms of the national security apparatus have done little to make Americans safer. Asked about recent efforts to reform America's intelligence community, for instance, more than half of the index's experts said that creating the office of the director of national intelligence has had no positive impact in the war against terror."

The respondents seemed, essentially, to be saying that the U.S. needs to be smarter (less like a bull in a china shop) in its efforts to combat terrorism. "Foreign policy experts have never been in so much agreement about an administration's performance abroad," said Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and a participant in the survey. "The reason is that it's clear to nearly all that Bush and his team have had a totally unrealistic view of what they can accomplish with military force and threats of force."

The respondents stressed the importance of ending America's dependence on foreign oil, saying that could prove to be "the single most pressing priority in winning the war on terror." Eighty-two percent of the respondents said that ending the dependence on foreign oil should have a higher priority, and nearly two-thirds said the country's current energy policies were making matters worse, not better.

"We borrow a billion dollars every working day to import oil, an increasing share of it coming from the Middle East," said Mr. Woolsey, the former C.I.A. director.

The respondents also said it was crucially important for the U.S. to engage in a battle of ideas as part of a sustained effort to bring about a rejection of radical ideologies in the Islamic world. That kind of battle requires more of a reliance on diplomacy and other nonmilitary tools.

If the respondents to this survey are correct, the U.S. needs to be moving in an entirely different direction. The war against terror cannot be won by bombing the enemy into submission. The bull in the china shop may be frightening at first, but after a while it's just enraging. We need a better, smarter way.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Sympathy for the Devil



I considered myself quite a benevolent boss until I learned that my old assistant Marc was secretly slipping Saint-John's-wort into my smoothies in hopes of perking up my mood.

Maybe I just seemed benign compared with a fellow columnist, whose assistant had such a bad panic attack when her boss was due back from vacation that she had to be rushed to the emergency room, where she was surprised to find herself part of an epidemic of palpitating assistants dreading the return of their bosses.

Or maybe I figured I was a peach because I only asked assistants to help select my cellphone ring — 50 Cent's "In Da Club" or the Fox Sunday football theme? — rather than throwing a cell at them while grabbing their throat, biting their lip and head-butting them, Naomi Campbell-style.

Whatever tart remarks I'd made, I was not in a league with David Spade, whose assistant, Skippy, got so agitated that he shot the star — who was playing a snide assistant on "Just Shoot Me" — with a stun gun. (From now on, my first requirement for assistants is that they always show up for work unarmed.)

So, given my relatively angelic self-image, I was surprised, at a screening of "The Devil Wears Prada," to find myself sympathizing with the devil — Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly, the Anna Wintoury editrix of a top fashion magazine who is described as "a notorious sadist, and not in the good way."

Is it so wrong of Miranda to expect her assistant, Andy Sachs (played by Anne Hathaway), to know how to spell Gabbana, reach Donatella and ban freesia? Is it so bad to want help getting a warm rhubarb compote for Michael Kors? Or to have an assistant who knows what an eyelash curler is?

This was, after all, the business they had chosen, as they say in "The Godfather." It might be heresy for Bergdorf blondes and Park Avenue princesses like the Sykes sisters — Plum, Peach or Apricot — but it doesn't matter if my assistant mixes up camisoles and cardigans in conversation, as she has been known to do. Here in the nation's capital, size 6 is not "the new 14," but a cause for celebration; a knowledge of cloture, not cloche, matters; eyelashes attract less attention than earmarks; and red Fox TV is more essential than red fox Fendi.

It's not that I agree with the contention, espoused in the movie, that if the malevolent Miranda were a man, no one would notice anything except how good she was at her job. Certainly, strong women are more easily caricatured as castrating and shrill termagants and harridans. But that doesn't mean that there aren't some powerful women who are bullies, just as there are male bosses who are bullies. The Devil can wear Timberland.

It just seems better, this time, to side with the Wicked Stepmother than the opportunistic Cinderella.

After a high-fashion makeover, Andy — the character based on Lauren Weisberger, the tall, lithe blonde who worked as an assistant to Anna Wintour at Vogue before writing her whiny hiss-and-tell best-seller — decides to reject the high-end porn of the fashion world, where everyone is "one stomach flu away" from their goal weight, and return to her real values.

Unfortunately, this Cinderella's primary value turned out to be voyeurism, profiting by keeping her nose to the glass and poaching off her glamorous former boss's life. The only thing worse than the Devil who wears Prada is a person who profits from the fact that the Devil wears Prada.

Even with a dazzling performance by lovely Meryl Streep, who tucks the picture in her Chanel bag and runs off on her Manolo stilettos with it, "the story is glossy junk begat of just-plain junk," as Lisa Schwarzbaum writes in Entertainment Weekly.

"The Devil Wears Prada" is not "All About Eve." As a friend noted, it's more like Rona Jaffe's "The Best of Everything" with fashion, a fun look at what it's like to be young, servile and breathlessly climbing in Manhattan, dealing with a tough woman for a boss and the struggle not to let your professional ambition supersede your romantic ambition. (Except for Faye Dunaway in "Network," Hollywood de-eroticizes women in power.)

Eve Harrington plotted to be rich and famous by becoming Margo Channing. In this age of media exhibitionism, Lauren Weisberger plotted to be rich and famous by writing about how she didn't want to become Anna Wintour. The enterprise is no less vampiric, second-order cruelty as opposed to first-order cruelty.

Whether Anna and Miranda are sacred monsters, at least they are themselves. It's more admirable to be the beast to which the parasite attaches itself than to be the parasite.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Playing Politics With Iraq


If hell didn't exist, we'd have to invent it. We'd need a place to send the public officials who are playing politics with the lives of the men and women sent off to fight George W. Bush's calamitous war in Iraq.

The administration and its allies have been mercilessly bashing Democrats who argued that the U.S. should begin developing a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces. Republicans stood up on the Senate floor last week, one after another, to chant like cultists from the Karl Rove playbook: We're tough. You're not. Cut-and-run. Nyah-nyah-nyah!

"Withdrawal is not an option," declared the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, who sounded like an actor trying on personas that ranged from Barry Goldwater to General Patton. "Surrender," said the bellicose Mr. Frist, "is not a solution."

Any talk about bringing home the troops, in the Senate majority leader's view, was "dangerous, reckless and shameless."

But then on Sunday we learned that the president's own point man in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, had fashioned the very thing that ol' blood-and-guts Frist and his C-Span brigade had ranted against: a withdrawal plan.

Are Karl Rove and his liege lord, the bait-and-switch king, trying to have it both ways? You bet. And that ought to be a crime, because there are real lives at stake.

The first significant cut under General Casey's plan, according to an article by Michael Gordon in yesterday's Times, would occur in September. That, of course, would be perfect timing for Republicans campaigning for re-election in November. How's that for a coincidence?

As Mr. Gordon wrote:

"If executed, the plan could have considerable political significance. The first reductions would take place before this fall's Congressional elections, while even bigger cuts might come before the 2008 presidential election."

The general's proposal does not call for a complete withdrawal of American troops, and it makes clear that any withdrawals are contingent on progress in the war (which is going horribly at the moment) and improvements in the quality of the fledgling Iraqi government and its security forces.

The one thing you can be sure of is that the administration will milk as much political advantage as it can from this vague and open-ended proposal. If the election is looking ugly for the G.O.P., a certain number of troops will find themselves waking up stateside instead of in the desert in September and October.

I wonder whether Americans will ever become fed up with the loathsome politicking, the fear-mongering, the dissembling and the gruesome incompetence of this crowd. From the Bush-Rove perspective, General Casey's plan is not a serious strategic proposal. It's a straw in the political wind.

How many casualties will be enough? More than 2,500 American troops who dutifully answered President Bush's call to wage war in Iraq have already perished, and thousands more are struggling in agony with bodies that have been torn or blown apart and psyches that have been permanently wounded.

Has the war been worth their sacrifice?

How many still have to die before we reach a consensus that we've overpaid for Mr. Bush's mad adventure? Will 5,000 American deaths be enough? Ten thousand?

The killing continued unabated last week. Iraq is a sinkhole of destruction, and if Americans could see it close up, the way we saw New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, they would be stupefied.

Americans need to understand that Mr. Bush's invasion of Iraq was a strategic blunder of the highest magnitude. It has resulted in mind-boggling levels of bloodshed, chaos and misery in Iraq, and it certainly hasn't made the U.S. any safer.

We've had enough clownish debates on the Senate floor and elsewhere. We've had enough muscle-flexing in the White House and on Capitol Hill by guys who ran and hid when they were young and their country was at war. And it's time to stop using generals and their forces under fire in the field for cheap partisan political purposes.

The question that needs to be answered, honestly and urgently (and without regard to partisan politics), is how best to extricate overstretched American troops — some of them serving their third or fourth tours — from the flaming quicksand of an unwinnable war.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Road From K Street to Yusufiya


AS the remains of two slaughtered American soldiers, Pfc. Thomas L. Tucker and Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, were discovered near Yusufiya, Iraq, on Tuesday, a former White House official named David Safavian was convicted in Washington on four charges of lying and obstruction of justice. The three men had something in common: all had enlisted in government service in a time of war. The similarities end there. The difference between Mr. Safavian's kind of public service and that of the soldiers says everything about the disconnect between the government that has sabotaged this war and the brave men and women who have volunteered in good faith to fight it.

Privates Tucker and Menchaca made the ultimate sacrifice. Their bodies were so mutilated that they could be identified only by DNA. Mr. Safavian, by contrast, can be readily identified by smell. His idea of wartime sacrifice overseas was to chew over government business with the Jack Abramoff gang while on a golfing junket in Scotland. But what's most indicative of Mr. Safavian's public service is not his felonies in the Abramoff-Tom DeLay axis of scandal, but his legal activities before his arrest. In his DNA you get a snapshot of the governmental philosophy that has guided the war effort both in Iraq and at home (that would be the Department of Homeland Security) and doomed it to failure.

Mr. Safavian, a former lobbyist, had a hand in federal spending, first as chief of staff of the General Services Administration and then as the White House's chief procurement officer, overseeing a kitty of some $300 billion (plus $62 billion designated for Katrina relief). He arrived to help enforce a Bush management initiative called "competitive sourcing." Simply put, this was a plan to outsource as much of government as possible by forcing federal agencies to compete with private contractors and their K Street lobbyists for huge and lucrative assignments. The initiative's objective, as the C.E.O. administration officially put it, was to deliver "high-quality services to our citizens at the lowest cost."

The result was low-quality services at high cost: the creation of a shadow government of private companies rife with both incompetence and corruption. Last week Representative Henry Waxman, the California Democrat who commissioned the first comprehensive study of Bush administration contracting, revealed that the federal procurement spending supervised for a time by Mr. Safavian had increased by $175 billion between 2000 and 2005. (Halliburton contracts alone, unsurprisingly, went up more than 600 percent.) Nearly 40 cents of every dollar in federal discretionary spending now goes to private companies.

In this favor-driven world of fat contracts awarded to the well-connected, Mr. Safavian was only an aspiring consigliere. He was not powerful enough or in government long enough to do much beyond petty reconnaissance for Mr. Abramoff and his lobbying clients. But the Bush brand of competitive sourcing, with its get-rich-quick schemes and do-little jobs for administration pals, spread like a cancer throughout the executive branch. It explains why tens of thousands of displaced victims of Katrina are still living in trailer shantytowns all these months later. It explains why New York City and Washington just lost 40 percent of their counterterrorism funds. It helps explain why American troops are more likely to be slaughtered than greeted with flowers more than three years after the American invasion of Iraq.

The Department of Homeland Security, in keeping with the Bush administration's original opposition to it, isn't really a government agency at all so much as an empty shell, a networking boot camp for future private contractors dreaming of big paydays. Thanks to an investigation by The Times's Eric Lipton, we know that some two-thirds of the top department executives, including Tom Ridge and his principal deputies, have cashed in on their often brief service by becoming executives, consultants or lobbyists for companies that have received billions of dollars in government contracts. Even John Ashcroft, the first former attorney general in American history known to immediately register as a lobbyist, is selling his Homeland Security connections to interested bidders. "When you got it, flaunt it!" as they say in "The Producers."

To see the impact of such revolving-door cronyism, just look at the Homeland Security process that mandated those cutbacks for New York and Washington. The official in charge, the assistant secretary for grants and training, is Tracy Henke, an Ashcroft apparatchik from the Justice Department who was best known for trying to politicize the findings of its Bureau of Justice Statistics. (So much so that the White House installed her in Homeland Security with a recess appointment, to shield her from protracted Senate scrutiny.) Under Henke math, it follows that St. Louis, in her home state (and Mr. Ashcroft's), has seen its counterterrorism allotment rise by more than 30 percent while that for the cities actually attacked on 9/11 fell. And guess what: the private contractor hired by Homeland Security to consult on Ms. Henke's handiwork, Booz Allen Hamilton, now just happens to employ Greg Rothwell, who was the department's procurement chief until December. Booz Allen recently nailed a $250 million Homeland Security contract for technology consulting.

The continuing Katrina calamity is another fruit of outsourced government. As Alan Wolfe details in "Why Conservatives Can't Govern" in the current Washington Monthly, the die was cast long before the storm hit: the Bush cronies installed at FEMA, first Joe Allbaugh and then Michael Brown, had privatized so many of the agency's programs that there was little government left to manage the disaster even if more competent managers than Brownie had been in charge.

But the most lethal impact of competitive sourcing, as measured in human cost, is playing out in Iraq. In the standard narrative of American failure in the war, the pivotal early error was Donald Rumsfeld's decision to ignore the advice of Gen. Eric Shinseki and others, who warned that several hundred thousand troops would be needed to secure the country once we inherited it. But equally reckless, we can now see, was the administration's lax privatization of the country's reconstruction, often with pet companies and campaign contributors and without safeguards or accountability to guarantee results.

Washington's promises to rebuild Iraq were worth no more than its promises to rebuild New Orleans. The government that has stranded a multitude of Americans in flimsy "housing" on the gulf, where they remain prey for any new natural attacks the hurricane season will bring, is of a philosophical and operational piece with the government that has let down the Iraqi people. Even after we've thrown away some $2 billion of a budgeted $4 billion on improving electricity, many Iraqis have only a few hours of power a day, less than they did under Saddam. At his Rose Garden press conference of June 14, the first American president with an M.B.A. claimed that yet another new set of "benchmarks" would somehow bring progress even after all his previous benchmarks had failed to impede three years of reconstruction catastrophes.

Of the favored companies put in charge of our supposed good works in Iraq, Halliburton is the most notorious. But it is hardly unique. As The Los Angeles Times reported in April, it is the Parsons Corporation that is responsible for the "wholesale failure in two of the most crucial areas of the Iraq reconstruction — health and safety — which were supposed to win Iraqi good will and reduce the threat to American soldiers."

Parsons finished only 20 of 150 planned Iraq health clinics, somehow spending $60 million of the budgeted $186 million for its own management and administration. It failed to build walls around 7 of the 17 security forts it constructed to supposedly stop the flow of terrorists across the Iran border. Last week, reported James Glanz of The New York Times, the Army Corps of Engineers ordered Parsons to abandon construction on a hopeless $99.1 million prison that was two years behind schedule. By the calculation of Representative Waxman, some $30 billion in American taxpayers' money has been squandered on these and other Iraq boondoggles botched by a government adhering to the principle of competitive sourcing.

If we had honored our grand promises to the people we were liberating, Dick Cheney's prediction that we would be viewed as liberators might have had a chance of coming true. Greater loyalty from the civilian population would have helped reduce the threat to American soldiers, who are prey to insurgents in places like Yusufiya. But what we've wrought instead is a variation on Arthur Miller's post-World War II drama, "All My Sons." Working from a true story, Miller told the tragedy of a shoddy contractor whose defectively manufactured aircraft parts led directly to the deaths of a score of Army pilots and implicitly to the death of his own son.

Back then such a scandal was a shocking anomaly. Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, the very model of big government that the current administration vilifies, never would have trusted private contractors to run the show. Somehow that unwieldy, bloated government took less time to win World War II than George W. Bush's privatized government is taking to blow this one.

Friday, June 23, 2006

We Need Chloe!


You'd think Michael Chertoff would have something more important to do.

The hapless homeland security chief could snatch more money away from American locales most likely to be hit by Al Qaeda. Or let another wonderful city fall into a watery abyss. Or go on TV and help cable news hype the saga of the Miami gang of terrorist wannabes who look like they couldn't find the local Sears, let alone the Sears Tower.

These guys were so lame they asked an informant for boots, radios, binoculars, uniforms and cash, believing he was Al Qaeda — and that jihadists need uniforms.

Instead, the cadaverous Chertoff was gallivanting on stage yesterday morning with some fictional counterterrorism experts from "24." The producers, writer and three actors from the Fox show appeared at an event sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.

Drawing on his old scripts, Mr. Reagan was a master at mixing fiction and fact, but he was a piker compared with the Bush crowd.

The audience included Clarence Thomas and his wife, Ginny, who held a dinner at the Supreme Court Thursday for the Tinseltown terror brigade. Rush Limbaugh, who said that Dick Cheney and Rummy were huge fans of "24," was master of ceremonies for the panel, titled, " '24' and America's Image in Fighting Terrorism: Fact, Fiction or Does It Matter?"

It doesn't in this administration.

Better to have a panel in praise of Jack Bauer than admit we have no real Jack Bauers to find Osama and his murderous acolytes. Better to pretend that rounding up a bunch of Florida losers whose plan was more "aspirational than operational," as one F.B.I. official put it, is a great blow in the war on terror than to really turn our intelligence agencies and Homeland Security into the relentless, resourceful and fearsome organizations they are in fiction — and should be, given the billions spent on them.

Lulled by our spy thrillers and Tom Clancy novels, we used to take for granted that our intelligence agencies were just as capable as heroes on the screen. Jack Ryan, either the Harrison Ford, the Alec Baldwin or even the Ben Affleck version, could have gotten Osama single-handedly in the two hours allotted.

Even though they still haven't captured the fiend behind 9/11, W. and Dick Cheney still blend fact and fiction by using 9/11 to justify their wrongheaded venture in Iraq.

As the vice president told CNN's John King this week, when he was asked about his claim that "we would be greeted as liberators" in Iraq: "It does not make any sense for people to think that somehow we can retreat behind our oceans, leave the Middle East, walk away from Iraq, and we'll be safe and secure here at home. 9/11 put the lie to that."

In a macabre metric of improvement, Dr. Death also noted that things were looking up. "There are a lot more Iraqis becoming casualties in this conflict at present because they are now in the fight," he said cheerily.

Some of W.'s closest allies have begun privately calling Vice "an absolute disaster," but when will W. realize how twisted his logic is?

In the new book "The One Percent Doctrine," Ron Suskind writes that C.I.A. officials referred to Mr. Cheney as "Edgar," as in Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, and that W. had to ask his domineering second to pull back a little at meetings and not offer him advice in crowded rooms so they could continue to pretend that Mr. Cheney was not the puppet-master.

On the homeland security set, Mr. Chertoff, flanked by the actors who play the beautiful technogeek Chloe and President Logan, seemed a little fuzzy about whether the fancy technology on "24" exists.

He noted, "One thing you don't see on '24' is when the computer's crashing and having to get the I.T. people to come in to reboot and get the computer working again." Given that the F.B.I. is struggling to get a computer system that can simultaneously search for "flight" and "schools," his answer was not all that funny.

Asked about the slashing of anti-terrorism money given to New York, he replied that "we've put a lot of extra money into northern New Jersey." (Wow, I feel better already.)

Mr. Limbaugh slyly suggested the producers give Jack Murtha a cameo as K.G.B. chief. He praised "24" for giving torture a good name.

This past season, the show began exploring what happens when a Nixonian president becomes so obsessed with national security that he starts undermining the country's laws.

That's the kind of fiction you hate to see become fact.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

America in 2026


Have we become too selfish and cynical? Or is the U.S. — despite being shaken by terror and distressed by the unending conflict in Iraq — ready to roll up its sleeves and renew its commitment to some of the goals and themes that once formed the basis of the American dream?

John Edwards is betting on the latter. In a major speech today at the National Press Club in Washington, Mr. Edwards, the former North Carolina senator who was John Kerry's running mate in the 2004 presidential election, will ask:

"What kind of America do we want — not just today, but 20 years from now? And how do we think we can get there from here?"

It's a speech that's different from the poll-tested, freeze-dried political pap we've come to expect from politicians. For one thing, Mr. Edwards, who's part of the growing pack of Democratic marathoners seeking the party's 2008 nomination, wrote it himself. For another, he unfashionably (and unabashedly) appeals to the better angels of the electorate.

"It's wrong," he says, "to have 37 million Americans living in poverty, separated from the opportunities of this country by their income, their housing, their access to education and jobs and health care — just as it was wrong that we once lived in a country legally separated by race."

In an echo of the can-do spirit that was characteristic of the post-World War II period, Mr. Edwards asserts that with the proper leadership, the United States can "restore the moral core and legitimacy that has been the foundation of our influence" abroad, while at the same time tackling tough issues here at home: poverty, the need for greater energy independence and a fairer shake for all Americans who have to work for a living, including "the forgotten middle class."

In his draft of the speech (and in a telephone interview yesterday), Mr. Edwards said that at least 40,000 American troops should be brought home from Iraq immediately, and further reductions should continue steadily, "so that the Iraqis can take control over their own lives."

He says, at the top of the speech, that "our military power is fortunately strong, and we must keep it that way." But he also says, "I want to live in an America that has not sacrificed individual liberties in the name of freedom; where, in the fight to preserve the country we love, we do not sacrifice the country we love; where we don't make excuses for violating civil rights, though we understand that the test of liberty is in the moments when such excesses almost sound reasonable."

Since leaving the Senate, Mr. Edwards has served as the director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He believes the number of Americans in poverty can be cut by a third over the next 10 years, and that the U.S. should work toward the complete elimination of poverty over the next three decades.

He will say in the speech that one of the reasons so many working Americans remain trapped in poverty is that work often doesn't pay enough. "A single mom with two kids who works full time for the minimum wage is about $2,700 below the poverty line," he says. "In 2005, while corporate profits were up 13 percent, real wages fell for most workers."

He believes, as do most Democrats, that the minimum wage must be raised, and that many more workers should be given a real opportunity to organize and bargain collectively. "Unions helped move manufacturing jobs into the foundation of our middle class," he says, "and they can do the same for our service economy."

He also believes — and this is certain to be controversial — that federal housing policy needs to be overhauled and a greater effort made "to integrate our neighborhoods economically."

"If conservatives really believed in markets," he says, "they'd join us in a more radical and more sensible solution: creating one million more housing vouchers for working families over the next five years. Done right, vouchers can enable people to vote with their feet to demand safe communities with good schools."

To remake American society in a way that is broadly beneficial (and that re-establishes our prestige and influence abroad) will require not just leadership, but sacrifice — something that is seldom asked of most Americans — and a real commitment to working together to solve the nation's biggest challenges.

However one feels about his specific proposals, it's worth paying attention to the fact that Mr. Edwards is asking Americans to step up and meet that commitment.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Fukuyama, Hannah and Zegna



As he launched a progressive journal to ponder big ideas that might help the wretched Democrats stop driving on Ambien and snatch back a little power, Andrei Cherny sought advice from a conservative pundit.

"Who's on your tie?" the pundit asked, explaining that Reaganites had been able to sum up their philosophy in the 80's by wearing Adam Smith and Edmund Burke ties.

Mr. Cherny did not say. (John Stuart Mill?)

So far, Democrats have been more famous for who gave the tie — Monica draped Bill with a Zegna — than who gazed from it.

Besides, Republicans don't own all three branches of government because of little cameo pictures of Adam Smith and Edmund Burke hanging over their blue Oxford button-down shirts. Mr. Smith and Mr. Burke would blanch at the shape W. and Karl Rove have given conservatism — the political muscle of the Christian right, the withering of the social contract, greedy capitalism, fiscal profligacy.

If the Democrats need anything, it's not a new tie. It may not even be big ideas.

The Republicans, after all, got a monopoly while headed by W., a guy who makes Reagan look like Hannah Arendt. "Compassionate conservatism" was an alluring alliteration, not a paradigmatic philosophy.

In politics, big ideas are too often just big slogans and big marketing techniques and big slime campaigns.

Besides, big ideas can backfire. Yesterday, Mr. Cherny and his fellow editor, Kenneth Baer, former Gore speechwriters, introduced their journal, Democracy — it's sort of like Foreign Affairs without the glitz — at a panel at the National Press Club with Francis Fukuyama and Bill Kristol.

Mr. Fukuyama's big idea was The End of History. But a couple of little things like religion and nationalist ideology, not to mention history, got in the way.

Mr. Kristol was a key backer of the neocon push to knock out Saddam and create a model democracy in the Middle East. As he pointed out ruefully yesterday, big ideas cannot survive "contact with politicians, unbruised," and are sometimes "applied inappropriately." That was no doubt a veiled shot at Donald Rumsfeld, whom Mr. Kristol faults for the slide in Iraq.

"And since my relations with conservatives these days are so bad — with Rumsfeld and immigration and other things — I'd just as soon hang out with you guys," the Weekly Standard editor told the room of liberals, bloggers and journalists. "You're less mean."

You'd think that incorrectly predicting history is over would get you banished from the intelligentsia forever, but Mr. Fukuyama proffered another big idea, warning that the pendulum was not making its customary swing left because "values" voters were clutching it.

"There's a guy I buy my barbecue from who says, 'I think we're in a class war and my class is losing,' " he shared. (Is this The End of Barbecue?) In Europe, he said, such brisket purveyors would be voting for the left, but in America, "the values issues have been much more prominent, and so people who for economic reasons ought to be voting on the left are held still in the Republican column precisely because they don't trust the left on all the issues having to deal with family, and identity, and this sort of thing."

Big ideas are not enough, because personalities and circumstances intervene. What matters is the bearer of an idea.

Bill Clinton had big ideas but short-circuited his presidency when he elevated his chaotic, self-regarding and gluttonous personality to a management style. Al Gore had big ideas but was too neutered by political mercenaries and focus groups to make those ideas compelling. Maybe because she had one idea that was way too big, Hillary has been running away from big ideas as though they're poison.

After 9/11, Dick Cheney transposed his desire to expand executive power and his personal paranoia into a national policy. Ron Suskind reports in his new book, "The One Percent Doctrine," that Vice dictated that the war on terror allowed the administration to summarily reject the need for evidence and analysis before action.

Mr. Suskind describes the Cheney doctrine: "Even if there's just a 1 percent chance of the unimaginable coming due, act as if it is a certainty. It's not about 'our analysis,' as Cheney said. It's about 'our response.' ... Justified or not, fact-based or not, 'our response' is what matters. As to 'evidence,' the bar was set so low that the word itself almost didn't apply."

In the hands of the wrong person, big ideas can be terrifying.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Class War Politics


In case you haven't noticed, modern American politics is marked by vicious partisanship, with the great bulk of the viciousness coming from the right. It's clear that the Republican plan for the 2006 election is, once again, to question Democrats' patriotism.

But do Republican leaders truly believe that they are serious about fighting terrorism, while Democrats aren't? When the speaker of the House declares that "we in this Congress must show the same steely resolve as those men and women on United Flight 93," is that really the way he sees himself? (Dennis Hastert, Man of Steel!) Of course not.

So what's our bitter partisan divide really about? In two words: class warfare. That's the lesson of an important new book, "Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches," by Nolan McCarty of Princeton University, Keith Poole of the University of California, San Diego, and Howard Rosenthal of New York University.

"Polarized America" is a technical book written for political scientists. But it's essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what's happening to America.

What the book shows, using a sophisticated analysis of Congressional votes and other data, is that for the past century, political polarization and economic inequality have moved hand in hand. Politics during the Gilded Age, an era of huge income gaps, was a nasty business — as nasty as it is today. The era of bipartisanship, which lasted for roughly a generation after World War II, corresponded to the high tide of America's middle class. That high tide began receding in the late 1970's, as middle-class incomes grew slowly at best while incomes at the top soared; and as income gaps widened, a deep partisan divide re-emerged.

Both the decline of partisanship after World War II and its return in recent decades mainly reflected the changing position of the Republican Party on economic issues.

Before the 1940's, the Republican Party relied financially on the support of a wealthy elite, and most Republican politicians firmly defended that elite's privileges. But the rich became a lot poorer during and after World War II, while the middle class prospered. And many Republicans accommodated themselves to the new situation, accepting the legitimacy and desirability of institutions that helped limit economic inequality, such as a strongly progressive tax system. (The top rate during the Eisenhower years was 91 percent.)

When the elite once again pulled away from the middle class, however, Republicans turned their back on the legacy of Dwight Eisenhower and returned to a focus on the interests of the wealthy. Tax cuts at the top — including repeal of the estate tax — became the party's highest priority.

But if the real source of today's bitter partisanship is a Republican move to the right on economic issues, why have the last three elections been dominated by talk of terrorism, with a bit of religion on the side? Because a party whose economic policies favor a narrow elite needs to focus the public's attention elsewhere. And there's no better way to do that than accusing the other party of being unpatriotic and godless.

Thus in 2004, President Bush basically ran as America's defender against gay married terrorists. He waited until after the election to reveal that what he really wanted to do was privatize Social Security.

Pre-New Deal G.O.P. operatives followed the same strategy. Republican politicians won elections by "waving the bloody shirt" — invoking the memory of the Civil War — long after the G.O.P. had ceased to be the party of Lincoln and become the party of robber barons instead. Al Smith, the 1928 Democratic presidential candidate, was defeated in part by a smear campaign — burning crosses and all — that exploited the heartland's prejudice against Catholics.

So what should we do about all this? I won't offer the Democrats advice right now, except to say that tough talk on national security and affirmations of personal faith won't help: the other side will smear you anyway.

But I would like to offer some advice to my fellow pundits: face reality. There are some commentators who long for the bipartisan days of yore, and flock eagerly to any politician who looks "centrist." But there isn't any center in modern American politics. And the center won't return until we have a new New Deal, and rebuild our middle class.

On the Killing Floor


Sometimes the spotlight works. Last week I wrote the first of what I thought would be a series of columns on the plight of workers at the mammoth Smithfield Packing Company plant in Tar Heel, N.C., the largest pork processing facility in the world.

Life inside the Smithfield plant can border on the otherworldly. To get a sense of what conditions are like on the killing floor, where 32,000 hogs are slaughtered each day, listen to the comments of a former Smithfield worker, Edward Morrison, whose job required him to flip 200- and 300-pound hog carcasses, hour after hour:

"Going to work on the kill floor was like walking into the pit of hell. They have these fire chambers, big fires going, and this fierce boiling water solution. That's all part of the process that the carcasses have to go through after they're killed. It's so hot in there. And it's dark and noisy, with the supervisors screaming, and that de-hair machine is so loud. Some people can't take it.

"I would go home at night and my body would be all locked up because I was dehydrated. All your fluids would just sweat out of you on your shift. I don't think the company cared. Their thing was just get that hog out the door by any means necessary."

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union has been trying to organize the 5,500 workers at the plant for more than a dozen years. But the company has ferociously resisted. The union lost votes to organize the plant in 1994 and 1997, but the results of those elections were thrown out after the National Labor Relations Board and the courts determined that Smithfield had prevented the union from holding fair elections.

A vast majority of the workers at Smithfield are Latino or black. The union has circulated the comments of Ronnie Ann Simmons, who worked at Smithfield when the 1997 vote was held. "It was ugly," she said. "Supervisors yelling: 'Hit this nigger! Hit this nigger! They don't need to vote.' Police was everywhere."

The board and the courts determined that Smithfield had been guilty of myriad "egregious" violations of federal labor law. The company was ordered to cease its interference with the union's organizing effort and to reinstate workers that the courts found had been illegally fired because of their union activities.

Rather than obey the directives of the board and the courts, Smithfield has tied the matter up on appeals that have lasted for years.

Until now. Late last week the company blinked.

I first noticed that something was up when I was informed in an e-mail message from a Smithfield spokesman that the starting salary for workers had very recently (and very, very quietly) been raised from $8.10 an hour to $9.20 an hour.

Then on Thursday, the day the first installment in the planned series ran, Smithfield announced that it would end the appeal process that it had pushed so vigorously for so long. The company did not admit that it had done anything wrong. But its chief executive, Joseph Luter III, said in a prepared statement:

"When a new election is called, we will comply fully with the N.L.R.B.'s remedies to assure a fair vote that represents the wishes of our plant's employees."

He said: "Smithfield respects and accepts the court's judgment, even though we strongly disagree with the findings. ...We recognize that we have lost our case in court."

While union officials welcomed the pay raise and the decision to end the appeal process, they were extremely skeptical about the company's promise to comply fully with the orders of the courts and the N.L.R.B. A spokeswoman for the union said, "This company has a long history of abuse, exploitation and mendacity."

Gene Bruskin, the director of the union's organizing campaign, said he was worried that plans to move ahead with another election could be derailed yet again by illegal tactics from the company, and that yet another court fight and then a lengthy appeals process could stretch many years into the future.

"What we are fighting for," he said, "is for them to recognize that they've got to talk to the workers and the union and work out a process that doesn't involve intimidation and interference."

Smithfield traded harsh comments with the union — saying, among other things, that the union's allegations about conditions in the Tar Heel plant were "untrue" — but a spokesman insisted that the company would abide by the law, and stand by its word.

We'll see.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Karl Rove Beats the Democrats Again


IF theater is in your blood, you just can't resist the urge to put on a show. After the good news arrived about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, administration officials at first downplayed any prospect of a new "Mission Accomplished" to hype the victory. But that restraint didn't last a week. In sync with Barbra Streisand, who this month announced a new concert tour to cap her 1994 farewell tour, the White House gave in to its nature and revved up its own encore.

Given our government's preference for spectacle over substance, "Baghdad Surprise 2" was more meticulously planned than security for post-liberation Baghdad. The script was a montage of the administration's greatest hits.

As with the prototype of Thanksgiving 2003, there was a breathless blow-by-blow of how President Bush faked out his own cabinet, donned a baseball cap and slipped into his waiting plane. In cautious remembrance of "Top Gun," White House photos were disseminated of the fearless leader hovering in the cockpit. Once on the ground, Mr. Bush made much of looking into the eyes of Nuri al-Maliki, our third post-Saddam Iraqi leader, and finding him as worthy as he did Vladimir Putin after a similarly theatrical ocular X-ray. This bit of presidential shtick is now as polished as Johnny Carson's old burlesque psychic, Carnac the Magnificent.

But not every sequel is as satisfying as "Spider-Man 2." This time, the plot holes in the triumphal narrative were too obvious. Since Thanksgiving 2003, the number of American troops in Iraq has gone up and casualties have increased more than fivefold. With Italy and South Korea leading the bailout, the "coalition of the willing" is wilting. (Rest assured that Moldova and El Salvador are hanging in.) Iraq security is such that Mr. Bush could stay only six hours, all in the Green Zone bunker. The presidential diagnosis of Mr. Maliki's trustworthiness was contradicted by the White House decision to keep the visit a secret from him until the last minute. How big a dis is that? Even the Americans the administration distrusts most — journalists — were told a day in advance.

Polls last week showed scant movement in either the president's approval rating (37 percent in the NBC News-Wall Street Journal survey released on Wednesday night) or that of the war (53 percent deem it a mistake). On NBC Tim Russert listed Mr. Bush's woes: "Iraq, Iraq, Iraq." Americans pick Iraq as the most pressing national issue, 21 points ahead of immigration, the runner-up. They find the war so dispiriting that the networks spend less and less time covering it. Had the much-hyped Alberto roused itself from tropical storm to hurricane, Mr. Bush's Baghdad jaunt would have been bumped for the surefire Nielsen boost of tempest-tossed male anchors emoting in the great outdoors.

All of which makes it stupendously counterintuitive that the Republican campaign strategy for 2006 is to run on the war. But there was Karl Rove, freshly released from legal jeopardy, proposing exactly that in a speech just before the president's trip. In a drive-by Swift Boating, he portrayed John Kerry and John Murtha, two decorated Vietnam veterans calling for an expedited exit from Iraq, as cowards who exemplify their party's "old pattern of cutting and running."

Mr. Rove's speech was almost an exact replay of the first speech to politicize the war on terrorism — also by him and delivered just four months after 9/11. In January 2002, he said Republicans could "go to the country on this issue" because voters "trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America." Democrats howled, but with Mr. Bush's approval ratings still sky-high, the strategy was a slam dunk. The Democratic Senate majority leader then, Tom Daschle, was yoked to Saddam Hussein in a campaign attack ad. Intimidated colleagues stampeded to sign on to a hasty Iraq war resolution, exquisitely timed by the White House to come to a vote before the midterms. The Democrats lost anyway, as they would again in 2004, when Mr. Rove elevated Swift Boating to an extreme sport.

But in 2006? The war is going so badly that it's hard to imagine how the Democrats, fractious as they are, could fail, particularly if the Republicans insist on highlighting the debacle, as they did last week by staging a Congressional mud fight about Iraq on the same day that the American death toll reached 2,500. As the Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio wittily observed in April: "The good news is Democrats don't have much of a plan. The bad news is they may not need one."

Actually, though, the Democrats did have some plans, all of them now capsizing. The biggest was the hope that they could be propelled into power by their opponents' implosions. But Mr. Rove was not indicted. And the "culture of corruption" has lost its zing. Tom DeLay is gone, Duke Cunningham is in jail, and many Americans can't differentiate between Jack Abramoff, the Indian casino maven, and William Jefferson, the Louisiana Democrat who kept $90,000 of very cool cash in his freezer.

On the war, Democrats are fighting among themselves or, worse, running away from it altogether. Last week the party's most prominent politician, Hillary Clinton, rejected both the president's strategy of continuing with "his open-ended commitment" in Iraq and some Democrats' strategy of setting "a date certain" for withdrawal. She was booed by some in her liberal audience who chanted, "Bring the troops home now!" But her real sin was not that she failed to endorse that option, but that she failed to endorse any option.

Like Mr. Bush, she presented a false choice — either stay the course or cut and run — yet unlike Mr. Bush, she didn't even alight on one of them. This perilous juncture demands that leaders of both parties, whether running for president or not, articulate the least-disastrous Iraq exit option that Americans and Iraqis can rally around. Time is running out. The new Brookings Institution Iraq Index cites a poll showing that 87 percent of Iraqis want a timeline for American withdrawal, and 47 percent approve of attacks on American troops. A timeline does not require, as Mrs. Clinton disingenuously implies, an arbitrary "date certain" for withdrawal.

While the Democrats dither about Iraq, you can bet that the White House will ambush them with its own election-year facsimile of an exit strategy, dangling nominal troop withdrawals as bait for voters. To sweeten the pot, it could push Donald Rumsfeld to join Mr. DeLay in retirement. Since Republicans also vilify the defense secretary's incompetence, his only remaining value to the White House is as a political pawn that Mr. Rove can pluck from the board at the most advantageous moment. October, perhaps?

What's most impressive about Mr. Rove, however, is not his ruthlessness, it's his unshakable faith in the power of a story. The story he's stuck with, Iraq, is a loser, but he knows it won't lose at the polls if there's no story to counter it. And so he tells it over and over, confident that the Democrats won't tell their own. And they don't — whether about Iraq or much else. The question for the Democrats is less whether they tilt left, right or center, than whether they can find a stirring narrative that defines their views, not just the Republicans'.

What's needed, wrote Michael Tomasky in an influential American Prospect essay last fall, is a "big-picture case based on core principles." As he argued, Washington's continued and inhumane failure to ameliorate the devastation of Katrina could not be a more pregnant opportunity for the Democrats to set forth a comprehensive alternative to the party in power. Another opportunity, of course, is the oil dependence that holds America hostage to the worst governments in the Middle East.

Instead the Democrats float Band-Aid nostrums and bumper-sticker marketing strategies like "Together, America Can Do Better." As the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg pointed out, "The very ungrammaticality of the Democrats' slogan reminds you that this is a party with a chronic problem of telling a coherent story about itself, right down to an inability to get its adverbs and subjects to agree." On Wednesday Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid were to announce their party's "New Direction" agenda — actually, an inoffensive checklist of old directions (raise the minimum wage, cut student loan costs, etc.) — that didn't even mention Iraq. Symbolically enough, they had to abruptly reschedule the public unveiling to attend Mr. Bush's briefing on his triumphant trip to Baghdad.

Those who are most enraged about the administration's reckless misadventures are incredulous that it repeatedly gets away with the same stunts. Last week the president was still invoking 9/11 to justify the war in Iraq, which he again conflated with the war on Islamic jihadism — the war we are now losing, by the way, in Afghanistan and Somalia. But as long as the Democrats keep repeating their own mistakes, they will lose to the party whose mistakes are, if nothing else, packaged as one heckuva show. It's better to have the courage of bad convictions than no courage or convictions at all.

Friday, June 16, 2006

The Phantom Menace


Over the last few weeks monetary officials have sounded increasingly worried about rising prices. On Wednesday, Richard Fisher, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, declared that inflation ''is running at a rate that is just too corrosive to be accepted by a virtuous central banker.'' I'm worried too -- but not about recent price increases. What worries me, instead, is the Fed's overreaction to those increases. When it comes to inflation, the main thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Discussions of inflation can be numbingly arcane -- are you a core C.P.I. type or a trimmed-mean P.C.E. person? But the real issue is whether there's a serious risk that inflation will become embedded in the economy.

The classic example of embedded inflation is the wage-price spiral -- better described as wage-price leapfrogging -- of the 1970's. Back then, whenever wage contracts came up for renewal, workers demanded big raises, both to catch up with past inflation and to offset expected future inflation. And whenever companies changed their prices, they raised them by a lot, both to catch up with past wage increases and to offset expected future increases.

The result of this leapfrogging process was that inflation became a self-sustaining process, feeding on itself. And ending that self-sustaining process proved very difficult. The Fed eventually brought the inflation of the 1970's under control, but only by raising interest rates so high that in the early 1980's the U.S. economy suffered its worst slump since the Great Depression.

Fed officials now seem worried that we may be seeing the start of another round of self-sustaining inflation. But is that a realistic fear? Only if you think we can have a wage-price spiral without, you know, the wages part.

The point is that wage increases can be a major driver of inflation only if workers consistently receive raises that substantially exceed productivity growth. And that just hasn't been happening.

In fact, the distinctive feature of the current economic expansion -- the reason most Americans are unhappy with the state of the economy, in spite of good numbers for the gross domestic product and explosive growth in corporate profits -- is the disconnect between rising worker productivity and stagnant wages. Over the past five years productivity, as measured by real G.D.P. per hour worked, has risen by about 14 percent, but the real wages of nonmanagerial workers have risen less than 2 percent.

Nor is there much sign that things are changing on that front. The official unemployment rate is low by historical standards, but workers still don't seem to have much bargaining power. (Does this mean that the official unemployment rate makes the job situation look better than it really is? Yes.) The Federal Reserve's Beige Book, an informal survey of economic conditions across the country, reports that over the last couple of months ''wage pressures remained moderate over all, with the exception being workers with hotly demanded skills.''

But if wage pressures are so moderate, where's the inflation coming from? The answer is soaring oil and commodity prices.

It's true that some widely used inflation measures, like so-called core inflation, strip out the direct ''first-round'' effects of rising energy prices. But there are still indirect effects, which usually take some time to show up in the data. Much of the recent rise in core inflation probably represents the delayed effect of the big run-up in fuel prices a few months ago. And unless something else happens to drive up oil prices -- like, to give a wild example, a military strike on Iran -- inflation will probably subside in the months ahead.

And bear in mind that many economists, including Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, have said that a little bit of inflation -- say, 2 percent a year on average -- is actually good for the economy.

It would be an exaggeration to say that there's no inflation threat at all. I can think of ways in which inflation could become a problem. But it's much easier to think of ways in which the Federal Reserve, wrongly focused on the phantom menace of a new wage-price spiral, could be slow to respond to bigger threats, like a rapidly deflating housing bubble.

So I don't fear inflation nearly as much as I fear the fear of inflation. And I wish the Fed would lighten up on the subject.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Where The Hogs Come First


TAR HEEL, N.C. -- Think pork. Sizzling bacon and breakfast sausage. Juicy chops and ribs and robust holiday hams. The pork capital of the planet is this tiny town in the Cape Fear River basin, not far from the South Carolina border. Spending a few days in Tar Heel and the surrounding area -- dotted with hog farms, cornfields and the occasional Confederate flag -- is like stepping back in time. This is a place where progress has slowed to a crawl.

Tar Heel's raison d'etre (and the employment anchor for much of the region) is the mammoth plant of the Smithfield Packing Company, a million-square-foot colossus that is the largest pork processing facility in the world.

You can learn a lot at Smithfield. It's a case study in both the butchering of hogs (some 32,000 are slaughtered there each day) and the systematic exploitation of vulnerable workers. More than 5,500 men and women work at Smithfield, most of them Latino or black, and nearly all of them undereducated and poor.

The big issue at Smithfield is not necessarily money. Workers are drawn there from all over the region, sometimes traveling in crowded vans for two hours or more each day, because the starting pay -- until recently, $8 and change an hour -- is higher than the pay at most other jobs available to them.

But the work is often brutal beyond imagining. Company officials will tell you everything is fine, but serious injuries abound, and the company has used illegal and, at times, violent tactics over the course of a dozen years to keep the workers from joining a union that would give them a modicum of protection and dignity.

''It was depressing inside there,'' said Edward Morrison, who spent hour after hour flipping bloody hog carcasses on the kill floor, until he was injured last fall after just a few months on the job. ''You have to work fast because that machine is shooting those hogs out at you constantly. You can end up with all this blood dripping down on you, all these feces and stuff just hanging off of you. It's a terrible environment.

''We've had guys walk off after the first break and never return.''

Mr. Morrison's comments were echoed by a young man who was with a group of Smithfield workers waiting for a van to pick them up at a gas station in Dillon, S.C., nearly 50 miles from Tar Heel. ''The line do move fast,'' the young man said, ''and people do get hurt. You can hear 'em hollering when they're on their way to the clinic.''

Workers are cut by the flashing, slashing knives that slice the meat from the bones. They are hurt sliding and falling on floors and stairs that are slick with blood, guts and a variety of fluids. They suffer repetitive motion injuries.

The processing line on the kill floor moves hogs past the workers at the dizzying rate of one every three or four seconds.

Union representation would make a big difference for Smithfield workers. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union has been trying to organize the plant since the mid-1990's. Smithfield has responded with tactics that have ranged from the sleazy to the reprehensible.

After an exhaustive investigation, a judge found that the company had threatened to shut down the entire plant if the workers dared to organize, and had warned Latino workers that immigration authorities would be alerted if they voted for a union.

The union lost votes to organize the plant in 1994 and 1997, but the results of those elections were thrown out by the National Labor Relations Board after the judge found that Smithfield had prevented the union from holding fair elections. The judge said the company had engaged in myriad ''egregious'' violations of federal labor law, including threatening, intimidating and firing workers involved in the organizing effort, and beating up a worker ''for engaging in union activities.''

Rather than obey the directives of the board and subsequent court decisions, the company has tied the matter up on appeals that have lasted for years. A U.S. Court of Appeals ruling just last month referred to ''the intense and widespread coercion prevalent at the Tar Heel facility.''

Workers at Smithfield and their families are suffering while the government dithers, refusing to require a mighty corporation like Smithfield to obey the nation's labor laws in a timely manner.

The defiance, greed and misplaced humanity of the merchants of misery at the apex of the Smithfield power structure are matters consumers might keep in mind as they bite into that next sizzling, succulent morsel of Smithfield pork.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Some of All Fears


Back in 1971, Russell Baker, the legendary Times columnist, devoted one of his Op-Ed columns to an interview with Those Who — as in "Those Who snivel and sneer whenever something good is said about America." Back then, Those Who played a major role in politicians' speeches.

Times are different now, of course. There are those who say that Iraq is another Vietnam. But Iraq is a desert, not a jungle, so there. And we rarely hear about Those Who these days. But the Republic faces an even more insidious threat: the Some.

The Some take anti-American positions on a variety of issues. For example, they want to hurt the economy: "Some say, well, maybe the recession should have been deeper," said President Bush in 2003. "That bothers me when people say that."

Mainly, however, the Some are weak on national security. "There's Some in America who say, 'Well, this can't be true there are still people willing to attack,' " said Mr. Bush during a visit to the National Security Agency.

The Some appear to be an important faction within the Democratic Party — a faction that has come out in force since the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Last week the online edition of The Washington Times claimed that "Some Democrats" were calling Zarqawi's killing a "stunt."

Even some Democrats (not to be confused with Some Democrats) warn about the influence of the Some. "Some Democrats are allergic to the use of force. They still have a powerful influence on the party," said Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution after the 2004 election.

Joe Klein, the Time magazine columnist, went further, declaring that the Democratic Party's "left wing" has a "hate America tendency."

And when Senator Barack Obama told The New Yorker that Americans "don't believe that the main lesson of the past five years is that America is an evil hegemon," he seemed to be implying that influential members of his party believe just that.

But here's the strange thing: it's hard to figure out who those Some Democrats are.

For example, none of the Democrats quoted by The Washington Times actually called the killing of Zarqawi a stunt, or said anything to that effect. Mr. Klein's examples of people with a "hate America tendency" were "Michael Moore and many writers at The Nation." That's a grossly unfair characterization, but in any case, since when do a filmmaker who supported Ralph Nader and a magazine's opinion writers constitute a wing of the Democratic Party?

And which Democrats are "allergic to the use of force"? Some prominent Democrats opposed the Iraq war, but few if any of these figures oppose all military action. Howard Dean supported both the first gulf war and the invasion of Afghanistan. So did Al Gore. To all appearances, both men opposed the Iraq war only because they thought this particular use of force was ill advised and was being sold on false pretenses.

On the other hand, maybe appearances are deceiving. Shortly before the invasion of Iraq, The New Republic accused those who opposed the war — in particular, the editorial page of The New York Times — of hiding behind a "mask of nuanced criticism" when their real position was one of "abject pacifism."

But Peter Beinart, who was The New Republic's editor at the time, now seems to concede that the war's opponents were right. "Worst-case logic became a filter," he writes in his new book, "which prevented war supporters like myself from seeing the evidence mounting around us."

So what's going on here? Some might suggest that the alleged influence of the Some is no more real than the problem of flag-burning, that right-wing propagandists are attacking straw men to divert attention from the Bush administration's failures. And they wonder why people like Mr. Obama are helping these propagandists in their work.

Some might also suggest that Democrats who accuse other Democrats of closet pacifism are motivated in part by careerism — that they're trying to sustain the peculiar rule, which still prevails in Washington, that you have to have been wrong about Iraq to be considered credible on national security. And they're doing this by misrepresenting the views and motives of those who had the good sense and courage to oppose this war.

But that's just what Some Democrats might say. And everyone knows that Some Democrats hate America.

Those Pesky Voters


I remember fielding telephone calls on Election Day 2004 from friends and colleagues anxious to talk about the exit polls, which seemed to show that John Kerry was beating George W. Bush and would be the next president.

As the afternoon faded into evening, reports started coming in that the Bush camp was dispirited, maybe even despondent, and that the Kerry crowd was set to celebrate. (In an article in the current issue of Rolling Stone, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. writes, "In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair went to bed contemplating his relationship with President-elect Kerry.")

I was skeptical.

The election was bound to be close, and I knew that Kerry couldn't win Florida. I had been monitoring the efforts to suppress Democratic votes there and had reported on the thuggish practice (by the Jeb Bush administration) of sending armed state police officers into the homes of elderly black voters in Orlando to "investigate" allegations of voter fraud.

As far as I was concerned, Florida was safe for the G.O.P. That left Ohio.

Republicans, and even a surprising number of Democrats, have been anxious to leave the 2004 Ohio election debacle behind. But Mr. Kennedy, in his long, heavily footnoted article ("Was the 2004 Election Stolen?"), leaves no doubt that the democratic process was trampled and left for dead in the Buckeye State. Mr. Kerry almost certainly would have won Ohio if all of his votes had been counted, and if all of the eligible voters who tried to vote for him had been allowed to cast their ballots.

Mr. Kennedy's article echoed and expanded upon an article in Harper's ("None Dare Call It Stolen," by Mark Crispin Miller) that ran last summer. Both articles documented ugly, aggressive and frequently unconscionable efforts by G.O.P. stalwarts to disenfranchise Democrats in Ohio, especially those in urban and heavily black areas.

The point man for these efforts was the Ohio secretary of state, J. Kenneth Blackwell, a Republican who was both the chief election official in the state and co-chairman of the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign in Ohio — just as Katherine Harris was the chief election official and co-chairwoman of the Bush-Cheney campaign in Florida in 2000.

No one has been able to prove that the election in Ohio was hijacked. But whenever it is closely scrutinized, the range of problems and dirty tricks that come to light is shocking. What's not shocking, of course, is that every glitch and every foul-up in Ohio, every arbitrary new rule and regulation, somehow favored Mr. Bush.

For example, the shortages of voting machines and the long lines with waits of seven hours or more occurred mostly in urban areas and discouraged untold numbers of mostly Kerry voters.

Walter Mebane Jr., a professor of government at Cornell University, did a statistical analysis of the vote in Franklin County, which includes the city of Columbus. He told Mr. Kennedy, "The allocation of voting machines in Franklin County was clearly biased against voters in precincts with high proportions of African-Americans."

Mr. Mebane told me that he compared the distribution of voting machines in Ohio's 2004 presidential election with the distribution of machines for a primary election held the previous spring. For the primary, he said, "There was no sign of racial bias in the distribution of the machines." But for the general election in November, "there was substantial bias, with fewer voting machines per voter in areas that were heavily African-American."

Mr. Mebane said he was unable to determine whether the machines were "intentionally" allocated "to create these biases."

Mr. Kennedy noted that this was just one of an endless sequence of difficulties confronting Democratic voters that stretched from the registration process to the post-election recount. Statistical analyses — not just of the distribution of voting machines, but of wildly anomalous voting patterns — have left nonpartisan experts shaking their heads.

The lesson out of Ohio (and Florida before it) is that the integrity of the election process needs to be more fiercely defended in the face of outrageous Republican assaults. Democrats, the media and ordinary voters need to fight back.

The right to vote is supposed to mean something in the United States. The idea of going to war overseas in the name of the democratic process while making a mockery of that process here at home is just too ludicrous.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

How Hispanics Became the New Gays


HE never promised them the Rose Garden. But that's where America's self-appointed defenders of family values had expected President Bush to take his latest stand against same-sex marriage last week. In the end, without explanation, the event was shunted off to a nondescript auditorium in the Executive Office Building, where the president spoke for a scant 10 minutes at the non-prime-time hour of 1:45 p.m. The subtext was clear: he was embarrassed to be there, a constitutional amendment "protecting" marriage was a loser, and he feared being branded a bigot. "As this debate goes forward, every American deserves to be treated with tolerance and respect and dignity," Mr. Bush said.

That debate died on the floor of the Senate less than 48 hours later, when the amendment went down to an even worse defeat than expected. Washington instantly codified the moral: a desperate president at rock bottom in the polls went through the motions of a cynical and transparent charade to rally his base in an election year. Nothing was gained — even the president of the Family Policy Network branded Mr. Bush's pandering a ruse — and no harm was done.

Except to gay people. That's why the president went out of his way to talk about "tolerance" at this rally, bizarrely held on the widely marked 25th anniversary of the first mention of an AIDS diagnosis in a federal report. Mr. Bush knew very well that his participation in this tired political stunt, while certain to have no effect on the Constitution, could harm innocent Americans.

When young people hear repeatedly that gay couples aspiring to marital commitment are "undermining the moral fabric of the country, that stuff doesn't wash off," says Matt Foreman of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Most concretely, the Washington ruckus trickles down into sweeping assaults on gay partners' employee benefits and parental rights at the state level, as exemplified by a broadly worded referendum on the Virginia ballot this fall outlawing any kind of civil union. Had Mr. Bush really believed that his words had no consequences, he would have spoken in broad daylight at the White House and without any defensive touchy-feely bromides about "tolerance."

Mr. Bush prides himself on being tolerant — and has hundreds of photos of himself posing with black schoolkids to prove it. But his latest marriage maneuver is yet another example of how his presidency has been an enabler of bigots, and not just those of the "pro-family" breed.

The stars are in alignment for a new national orgy of rancor because Americans are angry. The government has failed to alleviate gas prices, the economic anxieties of globalization or turmoil in Iraq. Two-thirds of Americans believe their country is on the wrong track. The historical response to that plight is a witch hunt for scapegoats on whom we can project our rage and impotence. Gay people, though traditionally handy for that role, aren't the surefire scapegoats they once were; support for a constitutional marriage amendment, ABC News found, fell to 42 percent just before the Senate vote. Hence the rise of a juicier target: Hispanics. They are the new gays, the foremost political piñata in the election year of 2006.

As has not been the case with gay civil rights, Mr. Bush has taken a humane view of immigration reform throughout his political career. Some of this is self-interest; he wants to cater to his business backers' hunger for cheap labor and Karl Rove's hunger for Hispanic voters. But Mr. Bush has always celebrated and promoted immigrants and never demonized them — at least in Texas. In the White House, he sidelined immigration after 9/11, then backed away from a "guest worker" proposal when his party balked in 2004. After bragging about his political capital upon re-election, he squandered it on Iraq and a quixotic campaign to privatize Social Security. Now Congress has acted without him, turning immigration reform into a deadlocked culture war not unlike the marriage amendment. A draconian federal law is unlikely, but the damage has been done: the ugly debate has in itself generated a backlash against a vulnerable minority.

Most Americans who are in favor of stricter border enforcement are not bigots. Far from it. But some politicians and other public figures see an opportunity to foment hate and hysteria for their own profit. They are embracing a nativism and xenophobia that recall the 1920's, when a State Department warning about an influx of "filthy" and "unassimilable" Jews from Eastern Europe led to the first immigration quotas, or the 1950's heyday of Operation Wetback, when illegal Mexican workers were hunted down and deported.

"What a repellent spectacle," the Fox News anchor Brit Hume said when surveying masses of immigrant demonstrators, some of them waving Mexican flags, in April. Hearing of a Spanish version of "The Star-Spangled Banner," Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee, introduced a Senate resolution calling for the national anthem to be sung only in English. There was no more point to that gratuitous bit of grandstanding than there was to the D.O.A. marriage amendment. Or more accurately, both had the same point: stirring up animosity against a group that can be branded an enemy of civilization as we know it.

The most pernicious demagogues on immigration often invoke national security as their rationale, but no terrorist has been known to enter the United States from Mexico. Even the arguments about immigrants' economic impact are sometimes a smokescreen for a baser animus. As John B. Judis of The New Republic documented in his account of Arizona's combustible immigration politics, the dominant fear in that border state has less to do with immigrants stealing jobs (which are going begging in construction and agriculture) than with their contaminating the culture through "Mexicanization." It's the same complaint that's been leveled against every immigrant group when the country's in this foul a mood.

That mood was ratcheted up last week by the success of Brian Bilbray's strategy in winning the suburban San Diego House seat vacated by the jailed Duke Cunningham. Mr. Bilbray, a card-carrying lobbyist, was thought to be potentially vulnerable even in a normally safe Republican district. But by his own account, his campaign took off once he started hitting the single issue of immigration, taking a hard line far to the right of the president who endorsed him. Mr. Bilbray goes so far as to call for the refusal of automatic citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants — a repudiation of the 14th Amendment, enacted after the Civil War to ensure citizenship to everyone born in the United States.

His victorious campaign set a tone likely to be embraced by other Republicans fearful of a rout in 2006. The election year is still young, and we haven't seen the half of this vitriol yet. Some politicians, like Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, are equal-opportunity bigots: when he isn't calling for the Senate to declare English the national language and demanding that immigrants be quizzed on the Federalist Papers (could he pass?), he is defending marriage by proclaiming that in his family's "recorded history" there has never been "any kind of homosexual relationship." (Any bets on how long before someone unearths the Inhofes' unrecorded history?) Vernon Robinson, a Republican Congressional candidate challenging the Democratic incumbent Brad Miller in North Carolina, has run an ad warning that "if Miller had his way, America would be nothing but one big fiesta for illegal aliens and homosexuals."

The practitioners of such scare politics know what they're up to. That's why they so often share the strange psychological tic of framing their arguments in civil-rights speak. The Minuteman Project, the vigilante brigade stoking fears of an immigration Armageddon, quotes Gandhi on its Web site; its founder, Jim Gilchrist, has referred to his group as "predominantly white Martin Luther Kings." On a Focus on the Family radio show, James Dobson and the White House press secretary, Tony Snow, positioned the campaign to deny gay civil rights as the moral equivalent of L.B.J.'s campaign to extend civil rights. James Sensenbrenner, the leading House Republican voice on immigration policy, likened those who employ illegal immigrants to "the 19th-century slave masters" that "we had to fight a civil war to get rid of." For that historical analogy to add up, you'd have to believe that Africans voluntarily sought to immigrate to America to be slaves. Whether Mr. Sensenbrenner is out to insult African-Americans or is merely a fool is a distinction without a difference in this volatile political climate.

Mr. Bush is a lame duck, but he still has a bully pulpit. Here is a cause he has professed to believe in since he first ran for office in Texas, and it's threatening to boil over in an election year. Imagine if he exercised leadership and called out those who trash immigrants rather than merely mouthing homilies about tolerance and dignity.

Tolerance and dignity are already on life-support in this debate. If the president doesn't lead, he will have helped relegate Hispanics to the same second-class status he has encouraged for gay Americans. Compassionate conservatism, R.I.P.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Bloggers Double Down


If I had to be relegated to the Dustbin of History, I'm glad it was in Vegas.

I, Old Media, came here to attend a New Media convention of progressive political bloggers aiming for a technological revolution that would dispatch mainstream media to the tumbrels. It was the journalistic equivalent of mingling with your own pod replicant in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

"Bloggers, meet mainstream media," crowed one young man, as he had a friend take a picture of us together at the Riviera Hotel. His friend chimed in: "Where the rubber meets the road."

Old media and new circled each other "like kids at a seventh-grade dance," said Jennifer Palmieri, a Democratic operative.

Markos Moulitsas, the 34-year-old provocateur from Berkeley who runs America's most popular and influential political blog, Daily Kos, said in a keynote speech that "The old media are no longer the gatekeepers" and that "Republicans have failed us because they can't govern; Democrats have failed us because they can't get elected."

Despite being labeled failures, Democratic presidential hopefuls and lesser pols lined up to kiss the Polo-sneaker-clad feet of Mr. Moulitsas and his fellow Blogfather, Jerome Armstrong. Hillary was not there. Triangulation makes you a troll, in the argot of this crowd. "Oh my God," Mr. Moulitsas said when asked about her. "No way!"

But Mark Warner, Wes Clark and Jack Carter — Jimmy Carter's son, who is running for the Senate in Nevada — are holding blog bashes. Tom Vilsack, Barbara Boxer and Howard Dean were there. Bill Richardson, wearing a white T-shirt under a blue jacket, jeans and silver jewelry, flew in for a breakfast with the Kossacks in a Riviera skybox.

"We should be the party of space," the governor of New Mexico said, trying to sound futuristic. "I'm for space." Told that Mark Warner was there, Mr. Richardson said, smiling a bit. "Warner, is he here? I don't care."

John Laesch, who is running to unseat Denny Hastert in Illinois, was ubiquitous, even kneeling before one blogger in the hall seeking a "Netroots" endorsement.

Technology has enabled the not-meek to inherit the earth, and Democrats and others who refuse to drink the cyber-Kool-Aid will, Mr. Moulitsas said, go into the old "dustbin of history."

The fast-talking former Army artillery scout with the boyish demeanor and dark brown buggy eyes is no one to take lightly. Some may think the Internet messiah who put Mr. Dean on the map in 2003 is "a fame hound, a loudmouth nerd at the back of the room," as The Washington Monthly wrote. But others, including adoring conventioneers who called the scene at the debut YearlyKos gathering "magic" and "a rock concert," see him the way Ana Marie Cox, née Wonkette, described him this week in Time.com: "He's the left's own Kurt Cobain and Che Guevara rolled into one."

I tracked down the cult leader, wading through a sea of Kossacks, who were sitting on the floor in the hall with their laptops or at tables where they blogged, BlackBerried, texted and cellphoned — sometimes contacting someone only a few feet away. They were paler and more earnest than your typical Vegas visitors, but the mood was like a masquerade. This was the first time many of the bloggers had met, and they delighted in discovering whether their online companions were, as one woman told me, male, female, black, white, old, young or "in a wheelchair."

Mr. Moulitsas assured me he didn't see himself as a journalist, only a Democratic activist. "I don't plan on doing any original reporting — screw that. I need people like you," he said, agreeing that since he still often had to pivot off the reporting of the inadequate mainstream media to form his inflammatory opinions, our relationship was, by necessity, "symbiotic."

As I wandered around workshops, I began to wonder if the outsiders just wanted to get in. One was devoted to training bloggers, who had heretofore not given much thought to grooming and glossy presentation, on how to be TV pundits and avoid the stereotype of nutty radical kids.

Mr. Moulitsas said he had a media coach who taught him how to stand, dress, speak, breathe and even get up from his chair. Another workshop coached Kossacks on how to talk back to Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. "One of my favorite points," the workshop leader said, "is that the French were right."

Even as Old Media is cowed by New Media, New Media is trying to become, rather than upend, Old Media. Ms. Cox has left her Wonkette gig to be a novelist and Time essayist. Mr. Moulitsas and Mr. Armstrong wrote a book called "Crashing the Gate," and hit "Meet the Press" and the book tour circuit. Mr. Armstrong left his liberal blog to become a senior adviser to Mr. Warner. What could be more mainstream than that?

Were the revolutionaries simply eager to be co-opted? Mr. Moulitsas grinned. "Traditionally it was hard to get your job," he said. "Now regular people can score your job."

Fine. I'll be at the Cleopatra slot machine pondering a career in blogging, which will set me up to get back into mainstream media someday.

The DeLay Principle

The federal estate tax had its origins in war. As America moved toward involvement in World War I, Congress -- facing a loss of tariff revenue, but also believing that the most privileged members of society should help pay for the nation's military effort -- passed the Emergency Revenue Act of 1916, which included a tax on large inheritances. But today's Congressional leaders have a very different view about wartime priorities. ''Nothing is more important in the face of a war than cutting taxes,'' declared Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader, in 2003.

Mr. DeLay has since been dethroned, but the DeLay Principle lives on. Consider the priorities on display in Congress this week.

On one side, a measure that would have increased scrutiny of containers entering U.S. ports, at a cost of $648 million, has been dropped from a national security package being negotiated in Congress.

Now, President Bush says that we're fighting a global war on terrorism. Even if you think that's a bad metaphor, we do face a terrifying terrorist threat, and experts warn that ports make a particularly tempting target. So some people might wonder why, almost five years after 9/11, only about 5 percent of containers entering the U.S. are inspected. But our Congressional leaders, in their wisdom, decided that improving port security was too expensive.

On the other side, Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, tried yesterday to push through elimination of the estate tax, which the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center estimates would reduce federal revenue by $355 billion over the next 10 years. He fell three votes short of the 60 needed to end debate, but promised to keep pushing. ''Getting rid of the death tax,'' he said, ''is just too important an issue to give up so easily.''

So there you have it. Some people might wonder whether it makes sense to balk at spending a few hundred million dollars -- that's million with an ''m'' -- to secure our ports against a possible terrorist attack, while sacrificing several hundred billion dollars -- that's billion with a ''b'' -- in federal revenue to give wealthy heirs a tax break. But nothing is more important in the face of a war than cutting taxes.

The push for complete repeal of the estate tax has apparently failed, but I'm told that chances are still pretty good for a Senate deal that will go most of the way toward repeal. The Tax Policy Center estimates that two of the possible deals, compromises proposed by Senator Jon Kyl and Senator Olympia Snowe, would cost $293 billion over the next 10 years. An alternative proposed by Senator Max Baucus would cost $240 billion.

So even these so-called compromise proposals would cost several hundred times as much as the port security measure that was rejected as too expensive. But that's O.K.: nothing is more important in the face of a war than cutting taxes.

It's interesting, by the way, that advocates of estate tax repeal apparently aren't interested in a genuine compromise -- raising the estate tax exemption from its current value of $2 million to $3.5 million while leaving the tax rate on estate values in excess of $3.5 million unchanged -- even though such a compromise would preserve most of the revenue from the estate tax while exempting 99.5 percent of estates from taxation.

So a more precise statement of the DeLay Principle would be that nothing is more important in the face of a war than cutting taxes for very, very wealthy people, like the tiny minority of Americans who are heirs to really big estates.

Americans from an earlier era might have been puzzled by the DeLay Principle. They still believed in the principle enunciated by Theodore Roosevelt, who called for an inheritance tax in 1906: ''The man of great wealth,'' said T.R., ''owes a peculiar obligation to the state.''

But the DeLay Principle isn't really that hard to understand: it's just like the Roosevelt Principle, but the other way around. These days, the state -- or rather, the political coalition that controls the state, and depends on campaign contributions to maintain that control -- owes a peculiar obligation to men of great wealth. And nothing is more important than cutting these men's taxes, even in the face of a war.

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