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August 9, 2004 | 12:21 AM ET


I've said more than once that Kerry needs to give the country some straight talk on the war.  Last week he -- or at least his campaign -- came out with something that sounded pretty tough:

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Knowing then what he knows today about the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Kerry still would have voted to authorize the war and "in all probability" would have launched a military attack to oust Hussein by now if he were president, Kerry national security adviser Jamie Rubin said in an interview Saturday.  As recently as Friday, the Massachusetts senator had said he only "might" have still gone to war.

I guess that their polls were telling them the same thing that I was, so they decided that they needed to firm up their message.  Which is nice, except that Kerry's message hasn't always been so firm.  This analysis of recent Kerry statements suggests that he plans to cut and run.  (He should read this first!)

As this montage of Kerry statements going back to 2001 indicates, Kerry has had this problem before.  It's hard to know what to make of it.

Meanwhile, speaking of videos, the ad on Kerry that I mentioned last week, by some of his fellow veterans, continues to get attention.  The veterans have responded to Kerry's legal threats, and are continuing to press for more attention to his Vietnam record.  You can read more on that subject here.  And a reported retraction by one of the veterans of his criticisms of Kerry's war record was itself retracted.

The story's moving fast, but so far Big Media outlets seem to be ignoring it or explaining it away.  And, of course, it may be that there's nothing to it -- but I feel certain that if President Bush were being denounced by an equivalent number of people who served with him, we'd be hearing a lot more about it.  As Evan Thomas noted:  "Let's talk a little media bias here. The media, I think, wants Kerry to win."

It's becoming more obvious every day.

August 5, 2004 | 10:32 AM ET


Kerry's post-convention week hasn't been very good.  An effort at an impromptu photo-op with some Marines he met at a Wendy's went sour, with the Marines complaining that he "imposed on" them and saying that they preferred Bush.  Photos of Kerry in a bunny suit at Kennedy Space Center -- undignified, perhaps, but harmless in themselves --  became a liability when Kerry's campaign manager claimed that their release was a "dirty trick," only to have it come out that the Kerry campaign had asked for their expedited release.  Oops!

Meanwhile, as noted below, lots of people seemed unsatisfied with the lack of specifics from Kerry on what he'd do about the war.  And Kerry's personality hasn't won people over.  Reliably liberal columnist Jules Witcover reported that Kerry's campaign is "not a big hit on the road," and Zev Chafets wrote:

John Kerry is not a bad man. He probably wouldn't make a bad President. But he is a bad candidate in a terrible situation. He represents the wing of the Democratic Party that is imbued with a sense of its own moral, intellectual, cultural and social superiority.

In short, he is the standard bearer for the unbearable.
Kerry is a weak campaigner. Barring some kind of national disaster, his best shot is the debates. Democratic true believers think he'll kill Bush, one on one. That's what they thought about Al Gore, too.

It's gotten so bad that some people are questioning whether Kerry is smart enough to beat Bush, and some Bush critics are almost hoping that the terrorists will do what they fear Kerry can't:  "I would express the Machiavellian hope that things should get visibly worse in Iraq until election day, then dramatically better from November 3 on."

But this is just the beginning.  This advertisement by Swiftboat Veterans for Truth (you can watch it online by following the link) cuts to the heart of John Kerry's biggest campaign tool -- his claims of Vietnam heroism.  It features medal-winning veterans who served with Kerry saying that he's no hero, and can't be trusted.  If Kerry hadn't built his whole campaign around Vietnam, that would be old news.  But having made Vietnam the centerpiece, and having played it up at the convention to the point where even Democrats were complaining about the militaristic overtones of his acceptance speech and the surrounding pageantry, Kerry won't be able to dismiss this sort of thing as ancient history.  He'll have to face it head-on.

Will he be able to do that?  He'd better.  That won't decide the race, exactly.  It'll just decide whether there's a race at all.

UPDATE: Now comes a new twist -- Kerry's campaign is threatening to sue stations that air the Swiftboat Vets ad. They're claiming that the people pictured aren't who they say they are.

I hope that the media will investigate this story, and get to the bottom of things, and that this claim won't turn out to be as insubstantial as the "dirty tricks" claim about the bunny-suit photo.

August 3, 2004 | 10:23 PM ET

Well, there's still more evidence that last week's prediction was right:  Kerry's lack of specifics on the war is causing him problems.  The latest example is this much-discussed news analysis piece by the Associated Press's Ron Fournier.  After comparing Kerry to Nixon -- who touted a "secret plan to end the war" when running for president during Vietnam -- Fournier notes:

But when asked for hard evidence that his victory would produce a troops-reducing deal for America, neither Kerry nor his fellow senators cite anything other than their vague perceptions and utmost hopes.

That's pretty thin gruel.  Bloggers Ed Morrissey and Greg Djerejian have posted much longer analyses of Kerry's plan, or lack thereof, and Tom Maguire is astounded by the damage that Fournier does.

I'm not surprised that this is hurting Kerry.  I think a lot of people were willing to hold back and see what he had to say in his acceptance speech -- but now the game has officially begun, and he's still warming up in the bullpen.  And I'm not sure that Kerry's Vietnam allusions really helped him that much.  Vietnam, after all, was a defeat, and I don't think that associating oneself with a defeat constitutes smart "branding."

Does this explain the lack of a post-convention "bounce" in the polls for Kerry?  I don't know.  Mickey Kaus, who has already endorsed Kerry, is dropping hints about the "Torricelli option" -- dropping Kerry for a more appealing candidate at the last moment -- but I think it's too late for that.

What Kerry needs to do is to be straightforward, not coy, about what he intends to do.  And I think time for that is running out.

August 2, 2004 | 10:58 AM ET


Last week, I noted that John Kerry was going to face more questions about his flip-flops on the Iraq war -- for it when it was declared, against it now.

And sure enough, that's the subject of a column by Robert Kagan in the Washington Post.  Kagan writes:

Why is Kerry invoking an American "tradition" that does not exist?

Perhaps he's distorting American history simply to cast the Bush administration and the war in Iraq in the harshest possible light. But maybe Kerry is not being cynical. Perhaps, finally, he is saying w hat he really believes and not what American policy has been, but what it should be.

The doctrine Kerry enunciated on Thursday night, after all, was the doctrine initially favored by the anti-war movement and the mainstream of the Democratic Party after the debacle of Vietnam. "Come home, America" was the cry of those who believed America had corrupted both the world and itself in "wars of choice" in Vietnam and elsewhere.
. . .
Maybe Kerry's real act of cynicism was his vote for the Iraq war in the fall of 2002. With that vote, he ignored everything he believed he had learned from his Vietnam experience. In retrospect, he may feel that he sold his soul to make himself electable. In the months since the war, Kerry has had to pretend he did the right thing, not only because a politician dare not admit error but because his political advisers believe that in a post-Sept. 11 world most of the electorate does not want an "antiwar" president. Throughout the long months of the campaign, Kerry disciplined himself to sound like a hawk. But in his heart, based on all he learned during the formative years of his life, Kerry is not a hawk. At the Democratic National Convention, John Edwards followed the script. Kerry followed his heart.

The ironies abound. Three decades ago, Kerry came out in opposition to the war he had fought in Vietnam. Today, Kerry extols that service so that he may safely, patriotically distance himself from the war in Iraq that he had supported.

Expect to hear more questions like this.  As Kagan notes, the "Kerry doctrine" would mark a radical departure:  "Kerry's 'doctrine of necessity,' if seriously intended, would entail a pacifism and an isolationism more thorough than any attempted by a U.S. government since the 1930s."  Is that what the American people want?  (It's what Pat Buchanan wants, but he never did very well at the polls.)  It's certainly at odds with the military trappings that Kerry surrounded himself with on Thursday night.  And it seems that at least some members of the military don't like it, as these Marines Kerry buttonholed for an impromptu photo opportunity at a Wendy's said:

The Marines — two in uniform and two off-duty — were polite but curt while chatting with Kerry, answering most of his questions with a "yes, sir" or "no, sir."
But they turned downright nasty after the Massachusetts senator thanked them "for their service" and left.

"He imposed on us and I disagree with him coming over here shaking our hands," one Marine said, adding, "I'm 100 percent against [him]."

A sergeant with 10 years of service under his belt said, "I speak for all of us.  We think that we are doing the right thing in Iraq," before saying he is to be deployed there in a few weeks and is "eager" to go and serve.

I wouldn't call that "nasty," but it certainly wasn't what Kerry was hoping for.  (He seems to have a problem with photo ops.)  And Lawrence Kaplan of The New Republic found Kerry's on-stage militarism off-putting:

But last night's sheer militarism--how else to describe the implicit, and too often explicit, insistence that veterans are morally superior to and possess better judgment than their civilian counterparts?-- topped even that.  Between the robotically repeated mantra "He served his country," the gauzy video, and then triple amputee Max Cleland introducing Kerry--and of course the acceptance speech itself to which Kerry "report[ed] for duty"--there was something vaguely illiberal about the whole production. But, then, that was the whole point.

(Do you have to serve in the military to be a candidate?  This will make things tough for Hillary Clinton in 2008.)  Kerry would do better to offer some specifics about what he'd do than to continue playing with atmospherics.  As the Washington Post editorialized:

But what is "the job" in Iraq?  He didn't say.  Mr. Kerry could have spoken the difficult truth that U.S. troops will be needed in Iraq for a long time.  He could have reaffirmed his commitment to completing the task of helping build democracy.  Instead, he chose words that seemed designed to give the impression that he could engineer a quick and painless exit.
. . .
Mr. Kerry missed an opportunity for straight talk.

Yes, he did.

July 30, 2004 | 3:47 PM ET

Well, I had hoped that John Kerry's speech Thursday night would clear up a lot of confusion regarding his position on the war.  And it did --  the war, Kerry told us, was an honorable one, in defense of America.

What, the Iraq war?  No, the war that Kerry prefers to talk about:  Vietnam!

As reader Gary Duncan emails:

2004 convention: Democrats roll Max Cleland onto the stage to say what a great thing it was to have served in Vietnam.

1976 convention: Democrats roll Ron Kovic onto the stage to say what a terrible thing it was to have served in Vietnam.

Right now the radio is playing "You Can't Always Get What You Want" by The Rolling Stones.  Boy, I think that could apply to the Democrats right now.

This, however, is unnecessarily critical because, in fact, Kerry's statements represent a major step forward for the Democrats, as James Lileks pointed out,

"I defended this country as a young man, and I will defend it as President."

This really intrigues me. I agree that Vietnam was a defense of the United States, inasmuch as we were trying to blunt the advance of Communism.  So: only Nixon can go to China.  (Only Kirk can go to Chronos, for you Star Trek geeks.)  Only Kerry can confirm that Vietnam was a just war.  This completely upends conventional wisdom about the Vietnamese war, and requires a certain amount of historical amnesia.

Why does this get glossed over?  The illegitimacy of the Vietnam war (non-UN approved, after all) is a key doctrine of the Church of the Boomers; to say that service in Vietnam was done in defense of the United States is like announcing that Judas Ischariot was the most faithful of the disciples.

But the crowd cheered, signifying that just maybe the Democratic Party has finally put Vietnam behind it.  At least for the moment.

On Iraq, and the rest of today's war, Kerry was somewhat less forthcoming.  But don't take my word for it.  Here's what the Washington Post said, in a rather critical editorial:

Mr. Kerry therefore sought above all to make the case that he could be trusted to lead a nation at war, and rightly so; he and Mr. Bush must be judged first and foremost on those grounds. But on that basis, though Mr. Kerry spoke confidently and eloquently, his speech was in many respects a disappointment.

The responsibility of sending troops into danger should weigh on a commander in chief. But so must the responsibility of protecting the nation against a shadowy foe not easily deterred by traditional means.

Mr. Kerry last night elided the charged question of whether, as president, he would have gone to war in Iraq. He offered not a word to celebrate the freeing of Afghans from the Taliban, or Iraqis from Saddam Hussein, and not a word about helping either nation toward democracy.
. . .
Nor did Mr. Kerry's statements about future threats do justice to the complexity of today's challenge.
. . .
Mr. Kerry missed an opportunity for straight talk.

Even the rather pro-Kerry New York Times, noticed the problem: 

He did not, however, provide a clear vision on Iraq.  Voters needed to hear him say that he understands, in retrospect, that his vote to give President Bush Congressional support to invade was a mistake.  It's clear now that Mr. Kerry isn't going to go there, and it's a shame.

Kerry's inconsistencies on Iraq are going to dog him through the campaign unless he does.  Republicans are already peddling a twelve minute video consisting of clips of Kerry sounding bellicose, denouncing Saddam and worrying about weapons of mass destruction, until he started to run for the Democratic nomination.  Kerry's harsh criticism of the war, and of Bush, looks like a flip-flop, not a firm stand.

I imagine we'll see more of that sort of thing between now and November.  Kerry needs to do more than tell us that Bush was wrong on Iraq, and that he'll ask the tough questions if he's President.  He needs to tell us why he was wrong on Iraq, and why he didn't ask the tough questions as a member of the Senate Intelligence and Foreign Relations committees.

July 27, 2004 | 11:09 PM ET

There's lots of convention-blogging going on, and if you follow the links in my post below, you can read it.  But since I chose not to go to the conventions, and since someone ought to be paying attention to, well, the rest of the world, I'm going to note something that might be worth your attention.

For all the noise generated by today's political campaign, it may be that 500 years from now, people will remember more about this story than about Bush or Kerry:

A piloted rocket ship race to claim a $10 million Ansari X Prize purse for privately financed flight to the edge of space is heating up.
. . .
Rutan and his team have given its official 60-day notice, with the first X Prize attempt set for September 29 from the inland Mojave Spaceport in California. To win the $10 million, SpaceShipOne will need to make a second flight within two weeks, by October 13.
Hot on Rutan’s heels is Brian Feeney, leader of the Canadian da Vinci Project. Feeney also reported today that his team is rolling out on August 5 their completed X Prize vehicle -- the balloon-lofted Wild Fire rocket. The public unveiling will take place at the team’s Dowsview Airport hanger in Toronto.

The da Vinci Project Team, widely heralded as a contender for the $10 million purse, will pursue its own Ansari X Prize space flight attempts this fall.

Think I exaggerate the importance of this race?  Then ask yourself this -- what do we remember more about now, the 1928 Presidential race, or Charles Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight?

The X-Prize was deliberately designed to promote efforts that wouldn't just be stunts, but that would lay the foundation for successful commercial efforts involving human spaceflight -- efforts that would be comparatively cheap.  If that happens, we'll see costs go down and capabilities go up, as they usually do with commercial activities over time, making a wider range of human activity -- including, ultimately, permanent habitation in space -- feasible. That's a big deal in terms of humanity's future. Science Editor Alan Boyle over at Cosmic Log has more thoughts on the X-Prize race, if you're interested.  And I've written about the X-Prize before here, too.

July 25, 2004 | 11:32 PM ET


Contrary to popular belief, this is not the first political convention to be blogged.  Blogging pioneer Ken Layne was at it four years ago, and he'll be back and doing it again this time around.  He'll be joined by Matt Welch, Tim Blair, TalkLeft's Jeralyn Merritt, OxBlog's Patrick Belton, and a host of others including Dave Barry.  (You can see a directory, and links to new posts as they appear, conveniently collected here by Harvard's Dave Winer).

MSNBC is on top of things, too.  There's an MSNBC convention Weblog with links to all the accredited bloggers, and posts by various MSNBC folks from Chris Matthews to Joe Trippi, the author of a recent book on the Internet and politics.

What do I think about all of this?  I think it's a good thing.  I don't know how much hard news bloggers will report -- there's not much news at a political convention anymore, usually -- but I think they'll provide a perspective that you won't get elsewhere.  (For more on this, you can read this summary of what I said on, er, another cable network.)  But I suspect that blogger N.Z. Bear had it right with this observation:

They may not know it yet, but the bloggers aren't there to cover the convention. They are there to cover the journalists. So my advice to Mr. Jones, and any other pro journalist out there venturing to the conventions: I suggest you put on your best suit. You are being watched.

It'll be interesting to see what happens.

July 22, 2004 | 11:29 PM ET

The report of the 9/11 Commission is out (link here, searchable version here), and its bottom line conclusion seems about right to me.  The Commission reports:  "We Believe We Are Safer. But We Are Not Safe."

I've been quite critical of the Bush Administration's approach to Homeland Security over the past couple of years.  You can read some of my criticisms here, here, here and here, and some suggestions about what to do better here, here and here.

Americans were reminded of just how serious this stuff can be with a report last week by Annie Jacobsen in Women's Wall Street entitled Terror in the Skies, Again?  In the article, Jacobsen recounted the suspicious behavior of 14 Syrian men who said they were musicians traveling together on her Northwest Airlines flight, and the rather inadequate security response. 

Jacobsen's story got a lot of attention this week, and I saw her and her husband describe their experience on MSNBC's Scarborough Country Monday night.  (Video   here and   here.)

They seemed credible to me, and they turn out to have been telling the truth, although the immediate threat appears to have been nonexistent.

The Syrian "musicians" really were musicians, and though their behavior was odd, reporter Clint Taylor, who got to the bottom of a story that baffled the New York Times, observes:

Nour Mehana's band might have acted like jerks on the plane, but it appears safe to say they were not casing Northwest Airlines for a suicidal assault, and we can quit worrying about this being a "dry run" or an aborted attack. And if Jacobsen was wondering why one man in a dark suit and sunglasses sat in first class while everyone else flew coach, well, it seems pretty clear that this was the Big Mehana himself.

But Taylor makes another important point:

The proven existence of this band confirms one of the last details of her story, and her story confirms some of our worst fears about airline security. The mindset of passengers, of the crew, and even of the law-enforcement personnel (Jacobsen said a flight attendant reassured her husband by pointing out that air marshals were on the flight), and decision makers higher up the ladder was reactive, not proactive.

Now, by that I certainly don't mean that the interceptors should have scrambled or the passengers should have started swinging Chardonnay bottles as soon as the oud player took too long in the john. But evidently no one even engaged these guys in a conversation, and no one, not the flight crew, and not the air marshals, challenged their egregious violations of protocols about congregating near restrooms or standing up in unison as the plane started its descent. Nothing was done to alleviate the terror Jacobsen, and probably a lot of the other passengers, felt.

Indeed, if these musicians had been terrorists, it seems unlikely that security would have reacted in time.  That's especially troubling because, as Taylor notes, there was a terrorist alert out on that day, involving the very airports served by the flight in question. 

Bureaucracies are naturally slow learners, but they've had nearly three years -- and an expensive new Cabinet-level agency -- to learn the lessons of September 11.  It looks as if they haven't gotten there yet.  That's particularly sad since, as Brad Todd noted, it took American civilians only 109 minutes to learn the lessons in question.  I hoped that things were getting better, but now that seems doubtful.

If I were running the Kerry campaign, I'd be making a bigger deal about this stuff.  I wonder why they're not?  

July 21, 2004 | 12:34 PM ET


This can't be good for the Kerry campaign.  In the runup to the Democratic Convention, Kerry's foreign policy team is falling apart. 

First, there's the Joe Wilson implosion.  I wrote about that yesterday, but don't take my word for it -- read the devastating comments of lefty lawyer-blogger Bob Somerby.  (And read this, too.)  Adding to the embarrassment, Wilson's "" Web site is paid for and hosted by the Kerry campaign.

But to Wilson's undoubted relief, his problems have been overshadowed by those of another
Brian K. Diggs / AP file
Sandy Berger

member of the Kerry campaign's foreign policy team, former Clinton Administration National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, who has hastily left the Kerry organization after it came out that he was under criminal investigation for taking classified documents from the 9/11 Commission archives:

Berger and his lawyer said Monday night he knowingly removed the handwritten notes by placing them in his jacket and pants, and also inadvertently took copies of actual classified documents in a leather portfolio.
. . .
There are laws strictly governing the handling of classified information, including prohibiting unauthorized removal or release of such information.

Now some of these documents -- which apparently involve security missteps during the Clinton Administration, and recommendations for fixing them -- are missing and Berger can't account for them.  This has led to many pants jokes (blogger Charles Austin says that it's going to make national security a "wedgie issue" for the Democrats), along with
John Duricka / AP file
Fawn Hall

references to Iran-Contra figure Fawn Hall, who smuggled secret documents out of the White House in her underwear.  But it's a serious matter, as there are two possibilities here.

One is that Berger -- who ought to be familiar with the rather strict rules covering classified documents -- is just inept.  That's troubling enough, in a man who for years was the number one national security official under President Clinton, and who looked to have an inside track to a similarly high position in a possible Kerry Administration.  As Virginia Postrel writes:

I'm willing to believe that Sandy Berger had no nefarious motives when he walked out of a secure reading room with "highly classified terrorism documents and handwritten notes" on the Clinton administration's handling of al Qaeda threats, as the A.P. is reporting.  But could we please hear a little less about how the Bush administration's foreign policy advisers are incompetent?

This guy was National Security Adviser. Yikes.

Yikes, indeed.  The other possibility, of course, is that Berger was removing the documents because they contained information that might hurt his reputation, or President Clinton's, or perhaps John Kerry's. 

That's far more serious than mere carelessness, though it will be hard to determine what was going on.

He's certainly done a good deal of harm to Kerry's campaign already through these actions.  And -- though I've said good  things about Kerry's foreign policy here (and elsewhere) before -- I have to say that it doesn't inspire much confidence.  If Wilson and Berger are Kerry's idea of topflight foreign policy figures, well, then I wouldn't want to be in our pants -- er, shoes -- under a Kerry Administration.

Then there's the press coverage this has gotten, which has been rather lackluster, to put it mildly.  As Mickey Kaus observes, the New York Times buried the initial report:

A-16: Even cynical New York Times-bashers must be amazed that that is where the paper ran the news of the Sandy Berger criminal investigation. ... I guess they wouldn't want to bump that late-breaking piece on untucked shirttails from the front page.

I'll leave you with this thought:  If Condi Rice had removed supersecret documents that seemed likely to embarrass the Bush Administration from the 9/11 Commission archives, and then claimed they were "lost," would the press be soft-pedaling it the way they're soft-pedaling this story? (And, for that matter, the story of Wilson's implosion?) I don't think so. 
And why is that?  I think it goes back to what Evan Thomas of Newsweek said a while back:

Let's talk a little media bias here. The media, I think, wants Kerry to win and I think they're going to portray Kerry and Edwards I'm talking about the establishment media, not Fox.  They're going to portray Kerry and Edwards as being young and dynamic and optimistic and there's going to be this glow about them, collective glow, the two of them, that's going to be worth maybe 15 points.

This goes beyond a "glow," but the point holds.

July 19, 2004 | 2:12 PM ET


"Bush Lied" has been the mantra of the anti-war Michael Moore left.  Unfortunately for them, the story keeps unravelling.

As Michael Barone observes:

Official reports issued the last two weeks have conclusively refuted those who have been arguing that "BUSH LIED" about the dangers from Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction programs. The first report was that of the Senate Intelligence Committee. That committee has been rent by partisan divisions over the last year, but the report was unanimous.
. . .
So much for the wild charges that Bush manipulated intelligence and lied about weapons of mass destruction.  He simply said what was believed by every informed person -- including leading members of the Clinton administration before 2001 and Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards in their speeches in October 2002 supporting military action in Iraq.

The Senate Intelligence Committee report also refuted completely the charges by former diplomat Joseph Wilson that the Bush administration ignored his conclusion, based on several days in Niger, that Iraq had not sought to buy uranium in that country. Democrats and many in the press claimed that Wilson refuted the 16-word sentence Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech, noting that British intelligence reported that Iraq sought to buy uranium in Africa.

But British intelligence stands by that finding, and the committee noted that Wilson confirmed that Iraq had approached Niger, whose main exports are uranium and goats, and intelligence analysts concluded that his report added nothing else to their previous knowledge.

The "Bush lied" story, and Wilson's many public statements, got a lot of attention last year.  It will be interesting to see if the collapse of this story -- and of Wilson's credibility -- will get the same kind of coverage.

But while some Americans, caught up in political infighting, argue about whether the invasion of Iraq was justified, it might be worth listening to what this Iraqi has to say:

Because Iraqis have a lot to deal with regarding their daily life needs and the fact that we’re not a major player in international politics, it becomes understandable that they pay less attention than the rest of the world to the legal complexities of the war and most of them see this war legitimate simply because it lead to their solvation and freedom.

You cannot tell a man that saving him and his family from torture, humiliation and death was a mistake and it should’ve not been done because it’s illegal. This is almost an insult to Iraqis to hear someone saying that this war was illegal. It means that our suffering for decades meant nothing and that formalities and the stupid rules of the UN (that rarely function) are more important than the lives of 25 million people. 

That's a perspective worth noting.

July 15, 2004 | 11:23 PM ET

Guest blogging for Glenn Reynolds this week is Cass Sunstein, University of Chicago law professor and author of "" and "The Second Bill of Rights: FDR's Unfinished Revolution."

The Democrats' New Star
The Democratic Party has a brand-new star.  Barack Obama, odds-on favorite to be elected Senator from Illinois, was recently asked to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic Convention -- a stunning tribute to the brightest young light on the political horizon.

American politics has never known anyone like Obama.  Think Jack Kennedy, but taller, thinner, even smarter, even better-educated, and African-American.  Son of a white woman from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, Obama graduated from Columbia University and Harvard Law School, where he was president of the Harvard Law Review.  He has been a state legislator for many years; for most of those years, he's also taught at the University of Chicago Law School, where he's hugely liked and admired by conservatives and liberals alike.  (Disclaimer: The University of Chicago is my home institution, and I've known Obama as a colleague for a number of years.)  In the Senate, members refer to their colleagues, with exaggerated reverence, as "constitutional scholars."  Obama really is a constitutional scholar, with academic credentials, on that subject, beyond those of anyone now in the Senate.

Running an upbeat and substantive campaign, Obama catapulted to national attention with his stunning victory in the Democratic primary, obtaining 53% of the vote in a strong seven-person field.  The key to his success?  Lacking connections with the local political machine, he connected directly with Illinois voters.  According to former congressman, federal judge and White House Counsel Abner Mikva, "Barack is the most unique political talent I've run into in more than fifty years."

Obama is a genuinely independent thinker; you can't pigeonhole him.  Like many Republican leaders, he's centrally concerned about economic growth.  He knows the importance of free enterprise, and he has the courage to speak bluntly to union members about the benefits of free trade.  Like the most sophisticated Democrats, he seeks ways of providing jobs and opportunities without busting the federal budget.  Far from demonizing his political opponents, he compromises with them and is willing to learn from them.  He's also someone of unquestioned integrity and good will.

At a recent meeting at the White House, Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois congresswoman, wore an "Obama" button.  President Bush was visibly startled.  Schakowshy reports, "I knew what he was thinking.  So I reassured him it was Obama, with a 'b.'"  President Bush replied, "Well, I don't know him," to which Schakowsky responded, "You will."  Soon the rest of America will know him too.

July 14, 2004 | 11:43 PM ET

Guest blogging for Glenn Reynolds this week is Cass Sunstein, University of Chicago law professor and author of "" and "The Second Bill of Rights: FDR's Unfinished Revolution."

Are Judges Political? The 2004 Election and Federal Judges
If you listen to many political activists, the future of the federal courts will turn on the 2004 election.  In a crucial sense, they're right.  The numbers prove it.

Many people (including the present blogger) have been studying the votes of federal court of appeals judges.  In the most important areas, we find big differences between Republican appointees and Democratic appointees.  The votes are public, and can be found in volumes of federal judicial opinions; but it takes a lot of painstaking work, including a ton of counting, to compile them.

Consider recent judicial votes in the most controversial areas of law, including campaign finance, environmental protection, abortion, capital punishment, affirmative action, and sex discrimination.  In a sample of almost 15,000 judicial votes, Republican-appointed judges gave liberal votes 38% of the time, while Democratic appointees gave liberal votes 51% of the time. (We count votes as "liberal" if they fit with the stereotypes, eg, against a capital punishment sentence, in favor of a regulation protecting the environment, in favor of an affirmative action program or a campaign finance law.)  The difference of 13% is extremely significant.

In some areas, the difference is far more pronounced.  Democratic appointees voted to uphold affirmative action programs 53% of the time, whereas Republican appointees voted to uphold them just 29% of the time - a massive difference of 24%.  In the areas of campaign finance, sex discrimination, and environmental protection, the difference between Republican and Democratic appointees is also unusually large. 

But there are some major surprises.  Would you guess that Democratic-appointed judges are more sympathetic to criminal defendants and more likely to rule in their favor?  If so, you're wrong.  On criminal appeals, Democratic appointees and Republican appointees vote alike.  Would you guess that Republican-appointed judges are especially protective of property owners?  Guess again.  They're not.

What happens when federal judges sit together on a three-judge panel consisting only of Republican appointees - or only of Democratic appointees?  The answer: The ideological difference gets amplified!  Republican appointees become far more conservative when they sit with fellow Republican appointees; Democratic appointees show the same pattern.  On an all-Democratic panel, Democratic judges vote in favor of affirmative action programs 85% of the time - on an all-Republican panel, Republican judges vote for affirmative action programs just 37% of the time.  If you're a disabled person bringing suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act, you've got a small chance before three Republican-appointed judges - and a much bigger chance before three Democratic-appointed judges.

Don't go overboard with these findings.  Judges aren't narrowly political; the law matters.  Republican appointees often vote in favor of affirmative action programs, environmental regulation, and those complaining of sex discrimination (remember: 38% liberal votes overall ).  Democratic appointees often cast their vote in conservative directions (49% conservative votes overall).

But the differences are real and significant.  It's a simple fact that Bush appointees would vote quite differently from Kerry appointees.  If you have any doubt, take a look at the numbers.

July 13, 2004 | 11:57 PM ET

Guest blogging for Glenn Reynolds this week is Cass Sunstein, University of Chicago law professor and author of "" and "The Second Bill of Rights: FDR's Unfinished Revolution."

Groupthink and the CIA

In 1972, political scientist Irving Janis published his extraordinary book on "groupthink."  Janis argued that much of the time, groups blunder because their members conform to social pressures and fail to give a realistic appraisal of the facts.  Janis was especially concerned about the mistakes made by "cohesive" groups.  Within government and elsewhere, cohesive groups value conformity and fail to take advantage of what group members actually know.
Groupthink lies at the heart of the recent report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.  The report contends that in its analysis of Iraq, the Central Intelligence Agency was victimized by groupthink.  Most disturbingly, leaders of the CIA failed to "encourage analysts to challenge their assumptions" and did not "fully consider alternative arguments."  Some analysts "lost their objectivity."  For this reason, the CIA failed to take full advantage of the information that its employees had.  The result?  A badly distorted message to the nation.

Why does groupthink occur?  There are two reasons.  The first and most insidious involves peer pressure.  Employees of the CIA, or any other organization, are likely to keep quiet if they believe that their leaders, or their fellow employees, want to pursue a certain course of action.  Too much of the time, people silence themselves in order to avoid the disapproval, or worse, that comes from rejecting an official orthodoxy.  As a result, groups don't get the information that they need.

The second reason for groupthink is that much of what we know comes from the beliefs of other people, especially those we trust.  Is global warming a serious problem?  Was there a connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein?  Does the earth really go around the sun?  On these questions, almost all of us lack direct knowledge, and so we rely on what others think.  It follows that if most people at the CIA think that Iraq has renewed its nuclear weapons program, other CIA employees will probably be reluctant to disagree with them.  Groupthink is the consequence.

Senator Pat Roberts, Chairman of the Select Committee, said that "most if not all" of the CIA's problems "stem from a broken culture and poor management."  In his view, that "broken culture" was characterized by groupthink and by a failure to do enough to encourage independent judgments and to elicit dissenting opinions.  Writing decades ago, Irving Janis argued that the same failure has produced many mistakes by American presidents, Republicans and Democrats alike.  It may not be unfair to worry that "broken cultures," valuing conformity over independent analysis, can be found in numerous places in modern government, not excluding the White House itself.

July 13, 2004 | 12:05 AM ET

Guest blogging for Glenn Reynolds this week is Cass Sunstein, University of Chicago law professor and author of "" and "The Second Bill of Rights: FDR's Unfinished Revolution."

On Political Polarization

Why do so many liberals seem to hate conservatives, and why do so many conservatives seem to despise liberals?

Here's a clue: When like-minded people speak mostly to one another, they go to extremes.  If members of a group think that President Bush is good, they're likely, after talking together, to think that President Bush is great.  And if people in a discussion group think that the Iraq war has gone badly, they'll probably end up thinking that it has gone disastrously.

Consider an actual experiment from France.  Those who distrust the United States, and are suspicious of its intentions with respect to foreign aid, actually end up far more distrustful and suspicious after speaking to one another.

My own studies show that the same process occurs among federal judges too. Sitting only with other Republican appointees, Republican-appointed judges are extremely conservative - much more so than when sitting with at least one Democratic appointee.  Nor are Democratic-appointed judges immune from this effect.  Sitting on a court together, Democratic appointees show much more liberal voting patterns than when sitting with at least one Republican appointee.

I'm speaking here of what social scientists call group polarization - the tendency of like-minded people to get more extreme.  America's own political divisions are often a product of group polarization.  Many of us sort ourselves into echo chambers in the form of communities of like-minded people.

Unfortunately, group polarization creates major problems.  People can end up thinking of their fellow citizens as real enemies, rather than as simply having a different point of view.  And even worse, both individuals and groups are likely to make big blunders if they don't contain dissenters.  Corporations, investor clubs, and politicians do a lot better if they seek out views very different from their own.

There's a major lesson here.  In politics and in daily life, most of us should probably listen a little less to those who share our inclinations, and a lot more to those who don't.

July 12, 2004 | 1:05 PM ET

Guest blogging for Glenn Reynolds this week is Cass Sunstein, University of Chicago law professor and author of "" and "The Second Bill of Rights: FDR's Unfinished Revolution."

John  Edwards - Heir of Franklin Delano Roosevelt

With his energy, charm, and infectious optimism, John Edwards has been drawing comparison to John F. Kennedy.  But if we look at what he's been saying, we'll see that Edwards is actually recovering the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the  leader of the Great Generation and the most important president of the twentieth century.

Edwards has gotten a lot of attention for his "two Americas" speech.  Over and over again, Edwards has emphasized that "there are two Americas, not one: One America that does the work, another America that reaps the reward.  One America that pays the taxes, another America that gets the tax breaks.  One America that will do anything to leave its children a better life, another America that never has to do a thing because its children are already set for life."  Edwards frequently  emphasizes the problem of poverty, arguing that government should ensure opportunities for all.

Edwards' themes draw heavily on the great speeches of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  It was Roosevelt, after all, who stressed the importance of "freedom from want," which he linked to "freedom from fear."  In his Second Inaugural Address in 1937, Roosevelt  proclaimed, "In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens - a substantial part of its whole population - who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life."  He added,  "I see millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children . . . I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished."  And he insisted, "It is not in despair that I paint you that picture.  I paint it in hope - because the Nation, seeing and understanding the injustice of it, proposes to paint it out."

Roosevelt's whole presidency was premised on the idea of "security," by which he meant not merely freedom from  external threats, but against human vulnerability in all its forms. His plea for security culminated in his dramatic proposal for a Second Bill of Rights, including the rights to education, to freedom from unfair competition, to a decent home, to adequate medical care, to social security, to adequate food and clothing and recreation.

By emphasizing "One America," John Edwards is carrying forward Roosevelt's theme.  The unanswered question is whether that theme can prove as popular now as it did seventy years ago.

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