NERDY PROVOCATION OF THE DAY

With just under a month to election day, below is a ranking of how important each of the competitive statewide races is to me. My cut-off for “competitive” is that the top two candidates are within single digits of each other (in the 538 polling average); among the 30 races that made that cut, I tried to rank without regard to how likely I think the more progressive candidate is to win or lose – only based on how much I want them to win. I tried not to be decide based on which states I live in/ have lived in.

Factors I considered (totally unscientifically) were:
– Population of the state in Governor’s races – the bigger, the more important the race is
– Ideological range between the two candidates most likely to win – the more liberal the candidate I want and the more conservative the one I don’t, the more important the race is
– My guess at how effective each of the candidates would be (at getting legislation passed, defeated, or blocked; at making legislation more or less progressive; and at shifting public debate) – the more effective the candidate I support would be, and the more effective the candidate I oppose would me, the more important the race is

Here’s the ranking I came up with – from most important to least. Where do you agree? Disagree?

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FIGHTING WORDS (FISA EDITION)

Matt Yglesias: “It’s almost as if the Republican Party exists to serve the interests of large business enterprises and very wealthy individuals, and tends to use national security and cultural anxieties as a kind of political theater aimed at securing votes so that they can better pursue their real agenda of enriching the wealthy and powerful.”

Russ Feingold: “But, Mr. President, the Senate has once again fallen for Administration tactics that have become so depressingly familiar. “Trust us,” they say. “We don’t need judicial oversight. The courts will just get in our way. You never know when they might tell us that what we’re doing is unconstitutional, and we would prefer to make that decision on our own. Checks and balances, judicial and congressional oversight, will impede our ability to fight terrorism.” And, sadly, these grossly misleading efforts at intimidation have apparently worked.”

Eve Fairbanks: “It’s like writing a story about the Capitol burning down and headlining it, ‘Many Cameramen Gather at Capitol.'”

RUSS WON’T RUN

Not a shocker, given that the past year and a half has seen the rise of John Edwards as Un-Hillary lightning rod and intensifying inklings of a run by Barack Obama, who like Feingold vocally opposed the war – and worst of all for Feingold’s chances, his second divorce and lack of a third marriage by the midterms (despite the efforts of the erstwhile Committee to Find Russ Feingold a Date).

That said, Feingold’s popularity in the country’s most representative state, which drew him votes from a quarter of Bush voters two years ago and has stayed strong as he talked about running for president and came out for phased withdrawl from Iraq, equal marriage rights, and censuring Bush, should be a lesson for the field of Democratic presidential contenders, and for the primary voters who’ll choose among them. You remember them: the ones who cleverly voted for John Kerry because he was the most electable.

GO TO THE PRINCIPLES, OFFICE?

A few days ago, Matt Yglesias made the point that all the talk about how principled Joe Lieberman’s hawkish votes have been should make us think less of principled votes qua principled votes rather than more of Joe Lieberman. Ben Adler, echoing Matt’s point that how elected officials vote should concern us more than why they do, questioned why Matt sees people who call for censorship in order to get votes as any less blameworthy than the ones who call for censorship on principle.

The right, incidentally, deploys both the “Don’t worry, he doesn’t believe it” and “But those are his principles” arguments to great effect to shield its politicians from criticism, depending on which one fits best at the time. The best contemporary examples come to mind around gay rights. Every time a current or historical anecdote emerges about George W. Bush being personally other than hostile towards someone he knows is gay, Bush apologists seize on the story as proof that imputing intolerance to the man just because he pushes policies that make gay folks second-class citizens is the real intolerance. Meanwhile, when Republican judicial nominees are questioned about their records on protecting the rights of gay folks, conservatives pillory the questioners for trying to punish their principles – and being “anti-Catholic” to boot.

Matt responded to Ben that the politicians who hold bad positions on principle are more likely to push them forward in political discourse rather than simply voting for them. Call me cynical (and I’m younger than either of them), but while it’s probably the case all things being equal that politicians devote more energy to the positions closest to their hearts, all things tend not to be equal, and there are a fair number of examples out there of politicians taking stances that seem to have more to do with their sense of political reality than their sense of ethical imperative and then do whatever they can to highlight those issues and those positions.

But testing that hypothesis would require devoting more energy to divining the secret motivations of our elected officials, which only reinforces the narrative of political change as personal psychodrama rather than clash of collective actors. It reinforces the “Great (Elected) Man” theory of history to which too many progressives fall prey, in which progress comes from getting the right visionary leader into office and then keeping him there. Speculating about what Bill Clinton really thought of throwing moms in vocational training off of welfare or denying full faith and credit to same-sex couples makes for good copy and good conversation. But we’re both better equipped and more responsible to consider whether he was right to make those moves, and under what structural circumstances they might not have been as appealing.

Of course when elected officials do the right thing I’d rather think that they believe in it too (if a politician also, say, calls for an end to poverty in hopes of getting elected President, then that sure beats executing a mentally disabled man in order to get elected President). But I’ll choose which Senators to vote for based on how they’ll vote, how they’ll shift which issues capture political discourse and what the margins of that discourse are, and how they’ll affect the partisan breakdown of the body. That said, Lieberman’s people know what they’re doing with their appeal to “principle”: Voters tend to prefer candidates they perceive as acting from principle (Paul Waldman has a great discussion of this in his aptly titled book Being Right Is Not Enough). Hence the quarter of 2004 Bush voters in Wisconsin who also voted for Russ Feingold. Those amongst our elected officials with left opinions that dare not speak their names would do well to keep that in mind.

THE SILENT PRE-PRIMARY

The past few weeks, with Hillary Clinton’s formal acceptance of the Democratic party endorsement for Senate and an ensuing wave of articles about her politics and personal life, have brought speculation about the Democrats 2008 primary and the role that she will play in it. The emerging conventional wisdom consensus of today seems to be that she’s much less popular with party activists than was assumed in the conventional wisdom of yesterday, but that denying her the nomination would require an “Un-Hillary” capable of clearing the field of other viable aspirants and gathering together the disparate constituencies that don’t want to see her as the party’s standard-bearer in the next Presidential election. What the pundits seem to disagree about or, in many cases, ignore entirely, is whether that alternative candidate will come from the left or from the right of the Democratic party.

Since pundits and party hacks are likely to force the narrative of the coming primary into either a “Hillary versus the Un-Hillary” mold or a “Hillary versus a slew of guys” one – the latter of which pretty much secures her the nomination – who emerges from the primary will turn in some significant part on how the part of “Un-Hillary” is scripted. What kind of candidate the “Un-Hillary” is supposed to be will help determine who gets to seize the mantle and get the attention and the activists that make it possible to win. And what kind of candidate the “Un-Hillary” is supposed to be will depend in good part on who Hillary herself is perceived to be: the ostensible feminist firebrand committed to subversion of culture and nationalization of industries, or the hawk who’s proud to have voted for the war and wants government to regulate video game content more and credit card interest rates less. Evan Bayh and Mark Warner are running against the former; Russ Feingold and John Edwards are running against the latter.

So while the ostensibly-right-of-Hillary majority of Democratic presidential aspirants are each other’s immediate competitors for the right-of-Hillary niche, they are also allies in working to ensure that Hillary is seen as a left-winger who could be stopped by a right-of-Hillary “Un-Hillary” and not a right-winger who could be stopped by a left-of-Hillary “Un-Hillary.” The opposite is true of the minority of Democratic presidential aspirants who are gunning to run to her left.

Which camp will get the Hillary they want? The right-of-Hillary folks still have the media largely on their side, in that even the increasingly publicity around her moves to ban flag-burning and such still frames these acts as feints to the right by a unreconstructed liberal with the political savvy to disguise herself (this coverage often pivots around the myth that “Hillarycare” was a solidly left-wing proposal). The left-of-Hillary folks have Clinton herself on their side – both the conservatism of her record on the issues that divide the party and the intensity of her campaign to highlight her centrism. Judging by the approach she’s taken (with exceptions on some votes on seemingly forgone conclusions, like Bush’s nominations), as well as the comments of her advisors, she seems much more concerned with protecting herself from the right-of-Hillary competitors than from the left-of-Hillary ones.

Last month, Jonathan Chait noted the bind Clinton is in: “instead of moderates focusing on her positions while liberals focus on her persona, the opposite seems to be happening.” The logic of her circle seems to be that her gender, her rhetoric, and the relentless multi-decade assault on her from the right will be enough to secure the support of the left even as she offers policies to woo the center and beyond. If she succeeds, then progressives will be confronted not just with the comparatively conservative Clinton as frontrunner but with the comparatively conservative Clinton as the leftie of the crop of frontrunners. But given the increasing anxiety about her amongst the Democratic base, there’s reason to hope she won’t.

FIGHTING WORDS

Daniel Levy: “The bottom line might read as follows: that defending the occupation has done to the American pro-Israel community what living as an occupier has done to Israel – muddied both its moral compass and its rational self-interest compass.”

Josh Marshall: “And to hear her tell it, the K Streeters just came to Tom after he got all the power. They just sort of importuned him, almost took advantage of him. Maybe she hasn’t heard of the K Street Project.”

Russ Feingold: ““As I said at the Kenosha County listening session, gay and lesbian couples should be able to marry and have access to the same rights, privileges and benefits that straight couples currently enjoy. Denying people this basic American right is the kind of discrimination that has no place in our laws, especially in a progressive state like Wisconsin. The time has come to end this discrimination and the politics of divisiveness that has become part of this issue.”

"THERE IS NO CRACK"

The Democratic leadership’s hesitant response to Russ Feingold’s call to censure Bush is disappointing, but not surprising (as usual, Mr. Joementum outdid his Democratic colleagues with his claim that coming out against the President’s law-breaking and keeping America safe and free are somehow mutually exclusive). Same goes for the Republican leadership’s ostensible apoplexy. The Republican reaction is more memorable though. As easy as it is these days to become numb to flag-waiving and treason-baiting in response to criticism and defense of the indefensible, Bill Frist’s words are worth remembering:

here we are, the Republican Party, the leadership in the Congress, supporting the President of the United States as Commander in Chief, who is out there fighting al Qaeda and the Taliban and Osama bin Laden and the people who have sworn, have sworn to destroy Western civilization and all the families listening to us. And they’re out now attacking, at least today, through this proposed censure vote, out attacking our Commander in Chief…

As I was listening to it, I was hoping deep inside that the leadership in Iran and other people who really have the U.S. not in their best interests, were not listening because of the terrible, terrible signal it sends…the signal that it sends that there is in any way a lack of support for our Commander in Chief, who is leading us with a bold vision in a way that we know is making our homeland safer is wrong. And it sends a perception around the world and, again, that’s why I’m saying as leader at least of the Republican side of this equation, that it’s wrong, because leadership around the world of our sworn enemies are going to say, well, now we have a little crack there. There is no crack. The American people are solidly behind this president in conducting this war on terror.

What Frist is suggesting, in no uncertain terms, is that the military strength of this country and the political strength of its President are inseparable. He’s willfully grafting the President onto the nation and the military as parts of a single coherent whole which all Americans are obligated to defend and support against those who would oppose it. Such logic – attack the President, attack America – makes loyal opposition a theoretical impossibility and makes American patriotism and Republican partisanship synonymous. There are names for an ideology that admits no distinction between the leader, the people, the military, and the nation. But it’s so twentieth century.

As Feingold said today:

Even more troubling than the arguments the President has made is what he relies on to make them convincing – the credibility of the office of the President itself. He essentially argues that the American people should trust him simply because of the office he holds. But Presidents don’t serve our country by just asking for trust, they must earn that trust, and they must tell the truth. This President hides behind flawed legal arguments, and even behind the office he holds, but he cannot hide from what he has created: nothing short of a constitutional crisis. The President has violated the law, and Congress must respond.

FIGHTING WORDS (ALITO EDITION)

Barbara Ehrenreich: “In the ‘dress for success’ literature we learn not to look ‘too feminine’ or of course ‘too sexy.’ Shoulder length hair has to go; large breasts should be concealed under mannish jackets. Corporate dress guru John Molloy actually warns women against the “too busty” look, as if an elective double mastectomy might be a good career move.”

Robert Kuttner: “The world that Bush inherited was not an easy place in which to promote U.S.-style civil society, or a civil world order. But Bush has poured oil on the flames (or in his case, flames on the oil). It will take decades to undo the damage and restore a world in which pro-democracy again equals pro-America. In the meantime, we need nothing so much as an outbreak of democracy at home.”

Russ Feingold: “This administration reacts to anyone who questions this illegal program by saying that those of us who demand the truth and stand up for our rights and freedoms somehow has a pre-9/11 world view. In fact, the President has a pre-1776 world view.”

Ed Schwartz: “This President seems to be of the view that it’s an honor to die for your country but an imposition to pay for it.”

THE WEEK IN FEARING FEAR ITSELF

Big week on the not-trampling-over-all-of-our-values-and-freedoms-in-the-same-of-security front. I’m skeptical of how much difference the McCain ammendment committing us not to torture will make on the ground, but it’s a good sign that even after sending Dick Cheney out of his undisclosed location and onto Capitol Hill, Bush wasn’t able to keep Congressional Republicans on the reservation (the anti-anti-torture reservation, that is). The ultimate result, in which Bush met McCain much further than halfway from his original “waterboarding is freedom” position, shows him to be a weakened President and puts this nation back on record against willfully inflicting abusive pain on prisoners. The urgency of the issue, and the limitations of legal language like McCain’s in addressing it, are reinforced in Human Rights Watch’s announcement today on pervasive torture in secret US-operated foreign prisons:

Eight detainees now held at Guantánamo described to their attorneys how they were held at a facility near Kabul at various times between 2002 and 2004. The detainees, who called the facility the “dark prison” or “prison of darkness,” said they were chained to walls, deprived of food and drinking water, and kept in total darkness with loud rap, heavy metal music, or other sounds blared for weeks at a time. The detainees offer consistent accounts about the facility, saying that U.S. and Afghan guards were not in uniform and that U.S. interrogators did not wear military attire, which suggests that the prison may have been operated by personnel from the Central Intelligence Agency…Some detainees said they were shackled in a manner that made it impossible to lie down or sleep, with restraints that caused their hands and wrists to swell up or bruise. The detainees said they were deprived of food for days at a time, and given only filthy water to drink. The detainees also said that they were held incommunicado and never visited by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross or other independent officials.

This “dark prison” report follows Friday’s New York Times revelation that President Bush has been authorizing the NSA to spy on Americans without even going through the secret courts designed for the purpose, which should shake any confidence one might have that better laws will fully set this administration straight. Bush apparently believes that he is authorized to personally designate Americans as surveillance targets based on the congressional resolution authorizing him to go to war in Afghanistan.

That Congress showed much less deference on Friday, when Bill Frist could only muster 52 votes for cloture on the Conference Committee’s version of the PATRIOT Act reauthorization, which took out all the civil liberties protections that Russ Feingold and others managed to get into the version passed unanimously by the Senate. In a striking victory for sensible privacy protections over fear-mongering, Feingold, Leahy, and company have kept the Senate from approving the Conference Committee Draft. It’s also a huge victory for Feingold personally, who has gone from being the only Senator to vote against the PATRIOT Act to leading a charge to continue debate on the bill which saw more Republicans cross over to oppose cloture than Democrats crossing over to support it. Looks like the Democratic leadership, rather than marginalizing him, is now trying to pull him into the party establishment, handing him a seat on the Intelligence Commission.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, made the news for her own sorry contribution to the discourse on patriotism and freedom: a proposal to ban flag-burning. Hers is ostensibly a compromise position in that it’s a bill rather than a constitutional amendment, and it only applies on public property or when someone is intimidated. But legitimating speech restrictions based on how uncomfortable the speech makes other people feel makes a mockery of free speech. She should know better.

A HEARING HIGHLIGHT

Russ Feingold cuts through the “not prejudging cases” farce:

FEINGOLD: In Hamdi there were four different opinions…We know where all eight other members of the court stand on these opinions — in their opinions. They either wrote or joined one of them. Yet all eight of them will hear the next case that raises similar issues. No one is suggesting that their independence or impartiality in the next case has been compromised. Mr. Hamdi, of course, has left the country, so the precise facts of his case will never return to the court…Justice Scalia can participate in the next case involving the questions at issue in Hamdi, even though we know exactly what he thinks about that decision..Why shouldn’t the public have some idea of where you stand today on these crucial questions concerning the power of the government to jail them without charge or access to counsel in a time of war? They know a great deal about how each of the other justices approach these issues. Why is your situation different?

ROBERTS: Well, because each of the other eight justices came to their views in those cases through the judicial process…You’re now asking me for my opinion outside of that process: not after hearing the arguments; not after reading the briefs, not after participating with the other judges as part of the collegial process; not after sitting in the conference room and discussing with them their views, being open to their considered views of the case; not after going through the process of writing an opinion which I have found from personal experience and from observation often leads to a change in views…

FEINGOLD: What would be the harm, Judge, if we got your views at this point and then that process caused you to come to a different conclusion, as it appropriately should? What would be the harm?

ROBERTS: Well, the harm would be affecting the appearance of impartiality in the administration of justice…

FEINGOLD: I understand your view. I think it’s narrow. I have the experience of having one of my bills go for the Supreme Court and I know I didn’t have, as we say in Wisconsin, a snowball’s chance with a couple of the justices because of what they had ruled previously. But I didn’t think that made the process in any way tainted.

So first, John Roberts’ argument is that he can’t discuss past cases because it would be unfair to future litigants to go before a judge who was on the record about issues related to the case. Then, when confronted with the obvious but under-discussed point that every current Justice is on the record about prior cases by nature of having voted on them, his argument transforms into a new one: It’s unfair to future litigants to have to go before a judge who had publicly stated opinions about issues related to the case and hadn’t had them forged by the process of conferring with other justices. This argument is equally specious – certainly, judges views may change with time (though in some cases we may question how genuine the change of heart is), and no one asks an apointee to pledge not to listen to new viewpoints, but if the only people with well-reasoned, prudent opinions on Supreme Court decisions are Supreme Court Justices, then there isn’t much point in having judicial confirmation hearings at all. The idea that Supreme Court Justices, by nature of having to debate with their colleagues and write opinions, have earned some qualitatively different right to their judgments doesn’t seem in keeping with the humility which Roberts claims as the hallmark of his judicial philosophy. And if announcing positions on prior cases without having been on the Court for them is imprudent, his comments about Lochner and Brown are as much so as his comments on Hamdi. The real pattern in what he does and doesn’t discuss it seems, it which cases the public as a whole is likely to be reassured by his positions on and which ones he’d be safer keeping his mouth shut about.

ON EMBOLDENING

In the wake of Russ Feingold’s call last week for a clearly-defined timetable for withdrawl of American troops from Iraq, President Bush has been stirring himself from his vacation long enough to offer a series of iterations of the same tired argument that announcing plans to withdraw troops would be letting the terrorists win (a category which, to review, includes smkoing pot, buying knock-off merchandise, and treating intelligence claims with skepticism, but doesn’t include buying an SUV, writing gay people out of the constitution, or renewing the PATRIOT Act). The latest edition of this argument, deployed for the liberal policy threat du jour, is dressed up in tactical sounding language about “emboldening” terrorists, but the thrust is nothing new: There are evil people who must be defied, and they want us to take troops out of Iraq, so we must do the opposite. Comforting rhetoric for some, but not much of a military strategy.

In Iraq, as elsewhere, there may be a certain number of fanatics willing to sacrifice anything under any circumstances, but there’s a much larger number of people who weigh their choices based on an array of perceptual, factual, emotional, and social, factors which drive one towards or against an act of terrirism. Bush would have us believe that an announcement of a schedule for American withdrawl would inspire more of these people to take Iraqi and foreign lives. This would require that there be a significant number of angry people not currently “emboldened” to take action because it seems futile, who on hearing that US troops would be leaving would decide that insurgents could make a dent after all and would suddenly become violent, targeting – according to Bush’s rhetoric – the very troops whose tenure in Iraq had just been announced to be temporary. The sad truth is that terrorists are indeed making a dent in Iraq, and they seem to be plenty emboldened. More credible, I’d say, is the opposite theory: the creation of a clear timetable for American withdrawl, with doing little to satiate insurgent leaders, would deprive them of their greatest recruiting tool and send a signal well beyond Iraq’s borders that the United States government does not have imperial ambitions in the country. As Feingold himself argued two months ago:

When I was in Baghdad in February, a senior coalition officer told me that he believes the U.S. could “take the wind out of the sails of the insurgents” by providing a clear, public plan and timeframe for the remaining U.S. mission. He thought this could rob them of their recruiting momentum. I also think it could rob them of some unity. All reports indicate that the forces fighting U.S. troops and attacking Iraqi police, soldiers, and civilians are a disparate bunch with different agendas, from embittered former regime elements to foreign fighters. The one thing that unites them is opposition to America’s presence in Iraq. Remove that factor, and we may see a more divided, less effective, more easily defeated insurgency.

SEPARATED AT BIRTH, REUNITED AT THE FIRST DEBATE?

My hard-core jealousy of the people of Wisconsin for having the representation of Russ Feingold (D-WI) is no secret here. Neither is my (significantly diminished for ’08 in light of his recent divorce news, but still springing eternal) hope to see him run for President. If somehow he did seize that nomination, there’s a decent chance he’d be squaring off against another Senator, Sam Brownback (R-KS), who in the wake of Bill Frist’s filibuster semi-implosion and Rick Santorum’s likely ’06 defeat has an excellent claim to the loyalties of religious conservatives. A Feingold-Brownback face-off would be a delight to watch, not only because we would win, but because it would provide a real clash of alternative visions and ideologies which, if you haven’t noticed, is not the main thing for which US Presidential elections are famous. But it would also be memorable (remember, you heard it hear first) for another striking but as-yet un-remarked upon (until now) reason.

Russ Feingold and Sam Brownback look like the same person.

That’s right. What they lack in ideological similarity, they make up in similar appearance. Sam Brownback looks like a slightly more awkward, slightly less attractive Russ Feingold.

Don’t believe me? Decide for yourself:

Feingold and Brownback: You can tell their abortion stances apart – unlike their har-cuts. Just remember: You saw it here first.