Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Messin' about in Political Muck

The Wiki-Leaks Gusher and Afghan Policy
The flood of classified documents recently released on Wiki-Leaks, and analyzed by the press, are analogous to the Pentagon Papers leaked by Daniel Ellsberg in the latter stages of the Vietnam conflict (1971). They give a factual basis for many arguments made by critics or opponents of the war, and they force the Administration leading the war effort into a contorted posture. The Obama administration took a stance defending not the futility of past war efforts by administrations of both parties, but their right to maintain secrets from the public for the sake of the war's conduct.

Like the Ellsberg papers, the documents confirm what background reports have always said (for example, about civilian casualties, and about Pakistan's intelligence agency's continuing contacts with insurgency leaders), and they reveal the difficulties of the military in conducting wars of counterinsurgency in hostile territory, with neighboring countries with different motivations from ours. They give plenty of encouragement to the enemy, though their target is the US domestic population, and specifically to rally opposition to the war, so the leaker is living on a narrow line between behind being protected by press freedom and taking a hit for criminal behavior. The military has hit out at the leaks for disclosing the identities of Afghan collaborators, endangering their lives and their families: certainly this is egregious, probably unintentional (there were 97,000 documents leaked, but others were withheld for this kind of reason), and possibly exaggerated.

We don't know yet the source of the Afghan leaks or that person's relation to the war effort, though I tend to doubt he/she is in the active military (Ellsberg was a civilian contractor from a think-tank working with the military).

Defining Down Victory
Contributing to the sense that the debate on the strategy and outlook may be near a pivotal phase, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, contributes a very significant opinion piece in last week's Newsweek headlined, "We're not Winning. It's not worth it." To its credit, though, the piece is not quite as simplistic as that, though it does come out against merely staying the course through mid-2011 and beginning the slow withdrawal the US military will likely urge after that.

The advice is not just to cut and run, or even to cut forces and conduct a remote war with drones against Al Qaeda (as some, like VP Biden, recommended at the last strategy review). That strategy, Haass argues, will almost surely lead to the collapse of the Karzai government and put the Taliban in charge in much of the country--possibly leading to a new civil war like the one experienced in the '90's. He doesn't put much faith in the strategy of reconciliation with the Taliban organization (which I see Karzai himself as favoring); instead he opts for an approach he calls "decentralization", with the weakness of the central government being fully embraced, local militias empowered to fight the Taliban (if they so choose), accepting some return in force of insurgent elements, as long as they do not permit the restoration of Al-Qaeda activity.

Haass is one of those foreign policy centrists respected by all parties, so his movement away from the current policy likely reflects some real shift in Washington civilian views of the conflict, and, as such, gives a preview of a policy shift likely to occur in the planned review in December. I think the military will still be itching for one good offensive effort to take on the Taliban in Kandahar, but I'm not certain they will still get that (now delayed) chance.

Elizabeth Warren, for Consumer Advocate
Warren's suggestions have led to the creation in the new financial reform bill of a new agency to watch banks and (most) other financial companies for unfair practices toward consumers. It is now Obama's choice to make a nomination for head of that new agency, and progressive forces are putting forward the Harvard prof.

The "industry" spokespeople/lobbyists are softly opposing her nomination, praising her talents but preferring someone more sympathetic to their point of view (what they call "balanced"). Sen. Chris Dodd, the floor leader of the recent legislation, who is in his last year in the Senate, doesn't think Warren can get the 60 votes to be confirmed, so he is gently tip-toeing the bankers' line.

This is one battle Obama should take on. Republicans who try to filibuster Warren's approval would be defending an extremely unpopular position. If they succeed, that will only make the Democrats look better to voters.

Another issue which should only work to the Democrats' favor is the debate on extending the Bushite tax cuts past 2010, when they are due to expire from the original 2001 legislation. Obama would like the cuts for the middle-class to be extended, but not for those with incomes over $250,000. The Republicans would like them all to be extended, or even made permanent. Either the Democrats will get their way, or the Republicans will be exposed as favoring the rich and increasing the deficit; in the latter case, no legislation would be approved and the tax cuts would expire for all (which would reduce the deficit sharply).

Election 2010 Update

My personal views, strategies, and tactics for the 2010 election have not changed; I still expect the Democrats to hold the Senate safely, but with a reduced margin, the House more or less the same (loss of some 25-30 seats). I suggest people give a close look to statehouse elections (legislatures and governorships) which are in some danger, and which will have an important effect on the redistricting of electoral districts after the 2010 Census results. I would encourage giving either to local House candidates in close races, or to the DCCC; I do not encourage giving to the DSCC, but to candidates in certain specific races (Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Colorado) who are both worthwhile and in close contests.

There have been a few specific changes in Senate races since my late February analysis. One change is the West Virginia seat of the late Robert Byrd (a great constitutionalist, and a good example both of the leverage states get by returning the same person, election after election, and how that person can grow in the job); that has moved from uncontested to one in which we should expect Democratic victory in the special election to retain control of the seat (by current Gov. Manchin).

Mostly, Senate elections are going in the direction I expected back in March, and the net effect is positive for the Democrats. The largest trend is that the Republican Senate candidates backed by Tea Party activists are finding that the hard-core rightist views the TP requires are not doing so well in general elections in most states. The smartest ones may be able to tack away from the TP enough to hold their share of moderates, but some are getting caught in their own billowing canvas.

On the Republican side, they hold 23 seats not contested this year, and are clear favorites in 14 more (unchanged since March, though the identity of the certain conservative Republican Senator in Utah has changed from Robert Bennett to somebody else). There are three more I continue to expect them to win: in Kansas, North Carolina, and Arizona--but that is two decreased from the past analysis, due to the movement in Kentucky and Florida. In Kentucky, Tea Party Republican Rand Paul's extreme views have moved that normally Republican-favoring state's race to a tossup, and Charlie Crist's emergence as a viable Independent candidate in Florida makes him now a slight favorite over both the Republican and Democratic candidates.

Of the six races I identified as tossups in March, I still consider three (plus Kentucky) to be such: Pennsylvania (Specter's seat, with Democratic Joe Sestak in a tough race he may win), Colorado (with worthy temporary Senator Michael Bennet still facing tough battles in both the primary and general election, though the TP effect may help in the latter) and New Hampshire (where Paul Hodes is looking stronger now, as I expected, but is still not a clear favorite).

Two races I have moved from tossup to leaning Republican, the leaders being Rob Portman in Ohio and Roy Blunt in Missouri (never had too much hope in either); and one has moved from tossup to leaning Democratic (Harry Reid in Nevada, thanks to lots of money and a thick TP Republican nominee). I see some weakness in Patty Murray's race for re-election in Washington, due to the rise of a strong Republican opponent (Dino Rossi) and have downgraded her chances from expecting her re-election to a weak leaner in her favor.

So, compared to the current 57-41-2 breakdown (independents Lieberman and Sanders being the last two), I take the seats not up for grabs this year and add those where the races are safe or I clearly expect one side to win, and we get 49-40-2; adding the five "leaners" I get 51-42-3 (Crist added to the independents). Of the remaining four tossups I look for three of them to go Democratic--partly due to favorable Senate debates in the run-up to the election, partly due to TP Effect and strong candidates--so my prediction is 54-43-3. I think if Crist is elected, he will try to peel off Joe Lieberman into a small Independents' caucus (those two, plus potentially a couple of Blue Dogs and New England moderate Republicans), but that will fail and he will then join the Democrats, to punish the state Republicans who turned against him in the primary. That would make a Democratic caucus of 57, just two less than the current number.

I cannot put in the time to analyze the House race in full detail, though my original prediction of 25-30 seats lost by the Democrats still feels right (they need to keep it to 39 or less to hold control). The Republicans are basing their Congressional campaign on their loathing of Nancy Pelosi; that will no doubt rally their troops, but when it comes time to consider, fear of handing control to John Boehnert is just as likely to dismay independents. Mostly, though, House races are determined by local political alignments and perceptions of parties' nominees, rather than national figures. Democratic retirements and soft seats taken in Republican-leaning districts in 2006 and 2008 offer plenty of attractive targets, but I'm not expecting a Republican sweep of those seats.

In our state of New Mexico, we have three Representatives, each with a first-term Democrat: our district, heavily Democratic, is extremely safe for Ben Ray Lujan, the son of a longtime party politico who has done better than I could have thought. The southern district had an extremely right-wing Democrat elected, Harry Teague; he looks likely to lose, to which I would say "no great loss", except that his opponent is arch-right-winger Steve Pearce, who gave up his seat in an unsuccessful attempt to run for the Senate seat won by Tom Udall. The one I'm most concerned is the middle district in the Albuquerque area, which historically has gone to Republican candidates in close elections, and I may give to the endangered incumbent, Martin Heinrich. His loss would be a strong negative indicator for the Democrats' ability to hold their majority.

In the statewide elections, the Republicans have cleverly put up a Hispanic woman candidate for governor, Susanna Martinez, a tough-talking prosecutor, and she has a real chance of winning. This result could make for a standoff in critical Congressional redistricting battles, as I don't think the Republicans can get control of the legislature.
Arizona Law Enjoined
The decision announced today to block implementation of some provisions of the Arizona law to combat illegal immigration seems very sound. It is the "reasonable suspicion" provision which requires local law enforcement to check the immigration status of people stopped or arrested if they suspect they are illegal immigrants--that provision is too vague and will certainly lead to racial profiling if implemented.

To give an example, while an Arizona driver's license would provide satisfactory proof of citizenship to the detained individual suspected of being an illegal, a New Mexico driver's license would not--because NM allows illegal immigrants to have a license, with very good reason I might add. Now, as an Anglo, I could be subjected to a requirement to provide proof of citizenship (say, a passport, which I do have, though many Americans do not), but I would traverse the state's speedways (excuse me, interstate highways) without fear of being detained and deported, while an Hispanic New Mexican would have no such assurance.

The Mathematics of Voting
This is the name of a new book analyzing various voting methods from a mathematical perspective by George Szpero. In the July 26 New Yorker former Economist editor Anthony Gottlieb has a very informative and entertaining review of the book.

Not unexpectedly, Briton Gottlieb gives a lot of attention to the recent British elections and the permutations caused by the strong third party (which we covered extensively). He tries not to take sides but does point out the seeming inequity of the Liberal Democrats winning over 20% of popular votes but less than 4% of seats. He sees the US, I'd say correctly, as hopelessly mired in an antiquated anti-democratic rut (though he doesn't comment on the imaginative legislative initiative in states, slowly gaining ground, to disempower the presidential Electoral College and empower a popular majority). He has an incredible paragraph in the lead describing the Byzantine, laughably complex, but well-intentioned, historic method used in the Venetian Republican to select a new doge (the doges were a small council with huge powers). He doesn't say much about whether the book he's reviewing is worth reading.

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