January 31, 2005 | 1:10 PM ET

I passed a television at the gym yesterday, and it was showing a familiar scene:  A crowd of Arabs dancing, chanting, and waving flags for the camera.

Stereotypically, of course, those kinds of Arab crowds are celebrating something awful:  A terrorist attack, the downing of a plane, whatever.

But this time, they were celebrating democracy.

And it occurred to me that the "root cause" crowd ought to be celebrating along with them.  After all, we've heard for decades that Arab terrorism resulted from Arab despotism, and that if we wanted to end terrorism we ought to quit supporting Arab despots and work for democracy.  But it was all talk until one brave man in the White House stood up for Iraqi freedom.

That man was Bill Clinton, who signed the Iraq Liberation Act back in 1998.  That Act called for "regime change," and the replacement of Saddam with a democratically elected government.  And that's what we're about to get!  Nor was Clinton alone.

As Al Gore observed:

Even if we give first priority to the destruction of terrorist networks, and even if we succeed, there are still governments that could bring us great harm. And there is a clear case that one of these governments in particular represents a virulent threat in a class by itself: Iraq.

As far as I am concerned, a final reckoning with that government should be on the table. To my way of thinking, the real question is not the principle of the thing, but of making sure that this time we will finish the matter on our terms. But finishing it on our terms means more than a change of regime in Iraq.

Gore said we need to stand up for democracy.  And we have.  Only Al Gore isn't saying much now.

What's hard to understand is why so many Democrats -- including big-name Democrats like Ted Kennedy and John Kerry -- have taken such a different stance today.  Kennedy declared the war lost and the elections a failure just last week.  Kerry was churlish and negative on Meet the Press yesterday.   Mickey Kaus blames the Internet for this attitude, and there may be something to that.   Jim Geraghty thinks it's the 2008 primaries already.  But I don't think either of these explanations hits the mark.

I think it's jealousy.  Bush-hatred has become all-consuming among a large section of the Democratic Party, and they can't stand the thought of anything that reflects well on him, even if it's good for the country, and if it's something that was their idea originally. 

The question is whether the Democratic Party -- which ought to be cheering events that vindicate Clinton's policies -- will do itself fatal damage by giving in to envy.  Such small-mindedness doesn't suggest a party that's ready to govern.

January 26, 2005 | 1:13 PM ET

Disclosure and glass houses

Scandals tend to come in threes.  So we had the Armstrong Williams payola scandal (pretty serious), the DailyKos payola scandal (mostly bogus), and now the Maggie Gallagher scandal, which appears to be mostly bogus, too.  An early report from Drudge made things sound a lot like the Armstrong Williams story -- payola in exchange for support.  But the actual story from Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post makes clear that Gallagher was actually paid for other work, and in one case the "federal money" was merely money from a nonprofit organization that got federal grants.  If there's a story here, it's one that probably applies to half the pundits in Washington.

Should Gallagher have disclosed that?  Probably.  But you can't disclose everything all the time, and Howard Kurtz is living proof.  As Mickey Kaus has noted, Kurtz has plenty of conflicts himself, and he hasn't always disclosed them every time:

A quick search of a popular electronic database--never lie to a man with NEXIS!--turned up the following, just within the past year:

  • On Dec. 20, 1999, Kurtz wrote about networks, in particular CNN, that lock up "exclusive national rights" to debates between presidential candidates and then shut out competing reporters.  Frank Sesno, CNN's Washington bureau chief, was quoted defending the practice.  There was no disclosure of Kurtz's CNN connection.

  • On Nov. 18, 1999, Kurtz wrote about an alliance between one of his employers, the Washington Post, and MSNBC, one of CNN's competitors. Kurtz noted that MSNBC "has been struggling," its ratings having "dropped 20 percent."  Kurtz also noted, "By comparison, CNN's ratings dropped 33 percent."  (So why wasn't CNN "struggling" too?)  No mention of Kurtz's CNN connection.

  • On Oct. 11. 1999, Kurtz wrote an item about CNN rejecting a commercial from Salon.com.  No disclosure.

  • On Sept. 7, 1999, Kurtz wrote a profile of Rupert Murdoch that touched on the feud between Murdoch and CNN founder Ted Turner, a man who could presumably end Kurtz's CNN career with one well-placed phone call.  No disclosure.

  • On Oct. 18, 1999, Kurtz wrote about Turner's attempts to lure a Wall Street Journal editor to CNNfn to replace Lou Dobbs. Nope.

That's just what I found within the past year.  I didn't even check what Kurtz might have written about all the other parts of Time Warner, which owns CNN.  I did notice that when the Time Warner empire merged with AOL early this year, Kurtz wrote an item affectionately tweaking Time magazine for being very tough on its corporate parent in its coverage. There was no disclosure that Kurtz also works for Time Warner.

(This is a favorite topic of Kaus's, one that he's hit again and again.)  I don't think that Kurtz did anything wrong, and you might argue -- in fact I have argued -- that Kurtz's regular appearances in all these media outlets are themselves effective disclosures.  But it does suggest that Kurtz might be a bit more understanding of other people's conflicts.  As Kaus also wrote

In general, I agree that conflicts of interest are overblown (by Howie Kurtz, among others), are to some degree unavoidable, and in some cases might even be desirable.
...
So a) Kurtz's conflict, whether or not it should be that big a deal, violates his own pedantic standards, his paper's standards, and the general standards of the mainstream press.  That's at least hypocritical and makes Kurtz vulnerable to a Kurtz-like attack.

And Kurtz is, of course, no worse than the rest of the press here (and we'll leave for another day the many journalists who take big speaking fees from organizations that are in the news).  The fact is that people like to point to appearances of impropriety and conflicts of interest because it's a way of taking a shot without taking a stand.

The press -- which often has an agenda but doesn't like to make it plain -- loves this sort of attack.  (You could write a book on that.  In fact, I have.)

People ought to be straight about where they're coming from, and that means disclosing conflicts of interest.  But people who make charges of impropriety need to be straight about their motivations, too.  And to remember that conflicts-of-interest work both ways.

January 25, 2005 | 4:12 PM ET

Now's the time to fix it

We've heard a lot of charges of voter fraud since the election.  Democrats -- and my MSNBC colleague Keith Olbermann -- have been complaining about Ohio.  And Republicans have been complaining about potential voter fraud in Wisconsin and in Washington State, where there are allegations of missing and fraudulent ballots, voting by felons, and other misconduct, though these, coming so long after the election, have gotten less media attention.

We should try to do better next time.  Complaints about electronic voting machines seem to have been largely baseless, but -- as I wrote here before the election -- that's no reason to ignore security risks.

We should be sure that any voting system we use produces a trustworthy and hard-to-alter record for audit purposes.  (I suggested one technological remedy for this problem a couple of years ago -- is anyone ready to listen yet?)

But, of course, it's not just the genuineness of votes that matters -- it's also the genuineness of voters.  People who aren't eligible to vote shouldn't be allowed to vote, and if they do their votes shouldn't be counted.  People who are eligible to vote shouldn't be allowed to vote more than once.  And the system for voter-registration and voting needs to make sure that such fraud is prevented.

Right now it's pretty lax.  In many places, voter rolls contain many ineligible people, and not much is done to keep them off.  And in many places, you can vote without even showing a photo ID.

I think that before the 2008 elections, Congress should tighten up on these things.  Someone needs to develop standards for vote recording, and I don't think it's asking too much to require a photo ID before people vote.  I have to do that before I can buy a beer, after all, and it's not as if anyone is likely to mistake me for 21.  We might want to consider other security measures used in many democracies -- like marking voters with indelible UV ink so that they can't vote again -- as well.

People tend to talk about these things before elections, and then forget about them afterward.  Now's the time to address these issues, so that we can do something about them before 2008.

January 24, 2005 | 6:41 PM ET

Mo(o)re problems for Dems

My mention of Phil Bredesen as a potential Democratic candidate for President in 2008 led to this response from Nashville blogger Bill Hobbs:  "Bredesen in 2008?  He has a better chance to win the White House than the Democratic primary."

That's probably true, and it sums up the Democrats' problem -- the party's base wants things that make it hard to win a national majority.  In 1992, Democrats were so desperate after twelve years of Republican control of the White House that they nominated Bill Clinton, who was significantly to the right of the Democratic base and Clinton -- though, thanks to the candidacy of Ross Perot, without a national majority in 1992 -- was able to win.

I don't know if Democrats will be desperate enough in 2008 to nominate a centrist.  But Jim Geraghty thinks that they're not that desperate now.  Geraghty notes that the candidacy of Tim Roemer for DNC chair is in trouble because he's seen as not liberal enough:

As soon as the DNC Chair race began, every Democrat interested in the position agreed on one statement that quickly became a catchphrase:

"We need to run a 50-state campaign." Everyone from Dean to Frost to Rosenberg to Webb to Fowler to Leland said the Democrats had been making a serious error in recent years by writing off large sections of the south and the midwest.

And now an Indiana Democrat, who deviates from the party othodoxy on abortion and some tax and spending votes, has to spend much of his time convincing the party's committee membership that he's not too conservative to lead the party.

Roemer may be too far to the right for the Democrats -- he's pro-life, which puts him to my right on that issue, at least -- but the race will certainly tell us where the Democrats stand.  Meanwhile, the party needs to distance itself from the loony left, which is turning off even liberals like Tom Frank of The New Republic.  Frank reports from an anti-war "counter-inaugural" event:

The hundred or so people there frequently applauded and hollered, and, as expected, phrases like "exposing Bush for what he is--a cold-blooded killer" were particular hits. I didn't even think there was much to report on. After all, who cares what the ideological fringe of the losing side has to say? But the more I heard, the more I became convinced that I had discovered something truly threatening:

This band of socialists was the most effective recruiting tool for the Republican Party I'd ever encountered.
...
Then there was the pooh-poohing of elections--any elections. Former soldier Stan Goff (supposedly of the Delta Force, Rangers, and Special Forces) spoke at length about the evils of capitalism and declared, "We ain't never resolved nothing through an election." This drew loud, sustained applause. Nothing to get worked up about, I thought; just a leftist speaker spouting lunacy. But today it seemed particularly bad. It wasn't just that I was missing what might be lovely canapés (or perhaps spring rolls being brought about on trays with delectable dipping sauce); rather, it was the thought that the speaker was dismissing something that Afghanis of all ages had recently risked their lives to participate in, something Iraq's insurgents view as so transformative that they are murdering scores of Iraqis to prevent it. No, what I needed to counter this speaker was not a Democrat like me who might argue that elections were, in fact, important. What I needed was a Republican like Arnold who would walk up to him and punch him in the face.

Okay, this is a fringe.  But the same kind of talk seems to filter into "mainstream" Democrats like Barbara Boxer by way of the likes of Michael Moore.  (If Barbara Boxer isn't "mainstream" and neither is Tim Roemer, the mainstream's pretty narrow).  And yes, it is -- and ought to be -- political poison.  As Frank concludes:  "Having attended college in New York City, I know what it's like to be confronted with some of the more irritating forms of campus leftism. Yet I never quite understood why, ultimately, such leftism should drive sensible people away from liberalism.  But yesterday's display made it a little more understandable."

Yes, it is.  And the Democrats need to be worried about it, if they want to win elections.

January 24, 2005 | 12:18 AM ET

Bredesen in 2008?

Last week I contrasted Barack Obama's thoughtful performance at the Condi Rice confirmation hearings with Barbara Boxer's rather embarrassing behavior, and suggested that Obama was likely to be the Democrats' big hope.  But this week The New Republic has someone else on its cover:   Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen.  I've been saying for years that the Democrats could learn a lot from Bredesen's campaign, but I could be prejudiced:  I'm a Tennessean and as a law professor at the University of Tennessee, I guess in some vague, attenuated sort of way he's my boss.  But both things were true about Bredesen's predecessor, and I certainly never promoted him as a potential Presidential candidate.  At any rate, the Democrats don't have to take my word for it now that The New Republic story is out:

Clearly, Bredesen has figured out something about Southern politics that many national Democrats have missed, which is why a growing number of them are looking to his career as a model for how to win in the region.  And, at first glance, he does appear to be the perfect test case for those on the left trying to "figure out" the South.  Not only is he liberal, he is not even Southern--he was raised in New York and educated at Harvard. The problem, however, is that, while Bredesen has proved himself an able politician with a bright future, his success will be hard for others to replicate.
...
He began not with a barrage of ads touting his economic achievements, but a long series of chili dinners and coffee stops in small-town diners, always highlighting his rural upbringing, something he had been wary of discussing before.  Sure, I'm from the North, he told some 1,600 audiences during the campaign.  But, like many of you, I grew up in a tiny town--Shortsville, New York, just north of the Finger Lakes and 100 miles from nothing. And sure, I'm rich now, but I grew up poor; my father moved away when I was young, and my grandmother, who lived with us, had to take in sewing to help keep us afloat. And, yes, I went to Harvard--but on a scholarship. That company I made millions on? I started it from scratch. "He always went back to the notion of, 'I'm like you guys. I'm not this guy from Harvard. I grew up in Shortsville,'" Ashford says. "That doesn't make people feel he's just another good ol' boy, but it does make someone who's uneasy with him because of his wealth and education look at him and say, 'Yeah, I like him.'" And, while this folksy demeanor didn't come naturally to Bredesen, his friends say he took to it readily. Stryker Warren, a Nashville executive, recalls going with him a few years ago to Home Depot for some building supplies. "We went in his pickup truck, with no security, looking like the average guy who needs something on a Saturday afternoon. And he'd stop and speak to people, take time for anyone who wanted to chat with him." So, when [opponent Van] Hilleary tried to paint Bredesen as, according to the Tennessean, "a millionaire outsider who did not share the values of hard-working Tennesseans," rural voters knew better. In 1994, he won only 19 of Tennessee's 89 rural counties; this time he netted 50, including many in and around Hilleary's district.

Bredesen's secret is no secret at all:  It's respect.  He doesn't view rural people, or southerners, with the thinly disguised contempt that is found, all-too-often among national Democratic figures.  And he's also not afraid to talk with people who disagree with him.  In fact, one of the striking things, to me, is that he does so well on conservative talk radio.  He speaks clearly, doesn't duck questions or retreat into soundbites and blather, and treats others with respect while not acting ashamed of his own positions.  The result is that talk-show hosts, and listeners, respect him too.  If this is hard to replicate, it says bad things about the rest of the Democratic field; this sort of thing ought to be Politics 101, not the advanced class.

But at least Bredesen gets it.

Is he an ideal national candidate?  Well, no.  Movie-star charisma isn't his strong suit.  But the Bush-Kerry race wasn't exactly awash in movie-star charisma.  Neither was the Bush-Gore race.  And Clinton-Dole wasn't exactly a barnburner.  At any rate, after what are likely to be several more exciting years, steady competence and mutual respect may look more appealing than charisma anyway.  In which case Bredesen may turn out to be a pretty strong candidate.

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