Friday, October 31, 2003


I'm depressed.

Kevin Drum points us to a post by Michael Totten that warns that Democrats are the verge of implosion if they don't get with it when it comes to the war on terrorism. Essentially this means that we should side with Zell Miller and throw our support 100% behind George Bush.

Kevin puts it well I think:

Look, guys: if you think we ought to use military force to fight terrorism, I'm with you. But if you think we ought to use that same military force as part of a war of civilizations, count me out. Way, way out. That's not any kind of liberalism I'm familiar with.

And if you want to know why George Bush scares me — despite the fact that I wasn't wildly opposed to invading Iraq and very much hope that we can make the reconstruction work — it's because I'm afraid he agrees with Roger. He's too smart to say it, but I'm afraid it's there anyway.

And that's a brand of Kool-Aid I'm not drinking. You'll have to find yourselves another sucker for that particular poison.

Posters in threads to both Kevin and Michael's posts are talking about Democrats having their heads in the sand because they won't acknowledge that we are fighting this "war of civilizations". The problem with this argument is that it assumes that we are in a war that will, if not fought correctly, will result in the destruction of Western civilization.

Let me point out a simple fact to these people: in his wildest dreams Osama bin Laden could never achieve the kind of civilized destruction these people are imagining.

One poster pointed to this piece by Josh Marshall:

Unlike fascism or communism, militant Islam isn't a rising power, but a threat precisely because of its dysfunction and weakness... If it weren't for the fact that fanatical Islamist terrorists might get their hands on weapons of mass destruction, the sad fact is that few would even care. Of course, the fact that they could get their hands on weapons of mass destruction is a serious caveat. But it does place the issue in a certain context. It is a grave threat, but in a very specific, physical way--a threat to liberal societies but hardly the kind of ideological or political threat that great totalitarianisms posed a half a century ago. Islamist fanatics might destroy a whole city in the West, a catastrophic event. But they'll never conquer or subvert a country. And this is the heart of the difference. To paraphrase Arthur Schlesinger, Islamism is a danger to the West but hardly a danger in the West--or China, or Latin America, or anywhere else where Islam is not already the dominant religion...

Recalling those vivid images of the Twin Towers' collapse, it is uncomfortable to have to argue that someone is overstating the danger of radical Islam. Nevertheless, to confront the very real threat we face, nothing is more important than seeing that danger for what it is--not through the distorting prism of our grandparents' world. We have now toppled one of the worst regimes in the region. We have a foothold in the heartland of Islam. We have to decide how to proceed. Do we declare all-out war with much of the Muslim world or craft an approach more narrowly tailored to secure our safety and advance their freedom? Grandiose visions beget grandiose actions, which often end tragically. And grandiosity is a sin of intellectuals, too.

Perhaps it is something that isn't said because it sounds crass, but Josh has it right: the best bin Laden and his cohorts could hope for would be to level one or two cities. This is nothing compared to the fear of Armageddon that existed during the cold war when many people, myself included, seriously believed that the world would be reduced to a burnt-out cinder within their lifetimes. People who are scared of terrorism today yet did not live through those times have no clue what real fear is like. Yet we managed to survive that time without bombing all of our enemies back to the stone age.

The supporters of Totten's view seem to seriously believe that Democrats, because they oppose Bush's actions, want America to be destroyed by the bin Laden's of the world. It is that kind of rhetoric that depresses me the most. As long as we continue to interpret the actions of others through the presumption of the worst motives then we will never achieve any kind of political peace in this country (or the world).

Let's be clear about this: it is possible to believe that America needs to fight to protect itself while at the same time believing that the way George W. Bush is going about it is dangerous to the safety of the American people. Bush's fans want us to demonstrate that we are willing to defend America. But they seem to think that anything other than the way Bush is doing it is, automatically, a failure.

Only God is infallible. To suggest that people who criticize Bush are, by definition, opposed to protecting the well-being of America is to assert that Bush is infallible.

Do you believe that Bush is God?

Of course not.

Then why do you think he can't be wrong?

It's enough to make me wonder if there is any hope for us at all.

You are the President

You make the choice.

Time's running out

MSNBC's Demo Derby makes a valuable point: while there may be three months to go before the Iowa Caucuses, the opportunities available for Dean's opponents to catch up to him are dwindling at a much faster rate. Why? Because we are entering the holiday season and people are going to focus more attention on what presents to buy for the kids than who they want to be the next President.

This installment of Demo Derby takes urgent note of the calendar: Halloween is here, Thanksgiving is upon us in a few weeks, then we have the Christmas holiday season, so voters’ minds will be distracted for some time. What’s more important on Dec. 20, Howard Dean’s stand on Medicare or that gift you still haven’t bought for your spouse? The Iowa caucuses take place a little over three weeks after Christmas.

The power of distributed networks

There is a fascinating post over on Escapable Logic that talks about the power of distributed networks to disrupt more centrally organized structures. These distributed networks are composed of self-organizing entities that can disrupt of more traditional centralized organizations because the latter have problems comprehending where the next attack will come from. The post identifies two such examples of disruptive networks: Al-Qaeda and the Howard Dean campaign(*).

Both are, to a limited extent, focused around specific individuals (Osama bin Laden and Howard Dean), but the networks that surround them rely more on their own initiative to engage the opposition rather than relying on directives from the head office. The result are organizations that are much harder to predict and defend against because the traditional approach of disrupting an organization at key choke-points simply won't work if you can't identify those choke points.

This harkens back to the core principle behind the internet: rather than wasting resources trying to correct a problem, a distributed network simple "routes around it". How does it do this? By leaving the responsibility for making those routing decisions with the low-level functionaries in the network.

I've often felt that those who are convinced that Dean will fail are focused to much on the particulars of the candidate while missing the larger picture of what Dean's campaign represents. Yes, Dean is vulnerable on several fronts, but so is any candidate (Bush could have been brought down in 2000 by any number of means). The way to deal with this problem is not simply to find a better candidate but to find a way to "route around the problem".

This is not to say that distributed networks are the answer to all of our problems. They have problems of their own (as any experienced network engineer will be more than happy to tell you). Nor is it impossible that Dean's vulnerabilities won't eventually bring him down. But any honest assessment of his chances has to look beyond the simplistic analysis of his stands on the issues and look at the broader picture of how his campaign operates.

It could be argued that the GOP machine is also a distributed network what with its interlocking network of think-tanks, media operations and grassroots evangelicals. Perhaps that is why the Democrats have had such a tough time beating it in recent times. They have tried repeatedly to bring them down through traditional campaigning and have been stymied at nearly ever juncture.

Maybe, in 2004, we will need our own distributed network to beat them back and restore parity to our political system.


(*) The fact that this concept can be applied to both negative and positive forces (Al-Qaeda and the Dean campaign) indicates that it is a structure that is amoral in its application.

Thursday, October 30, 2003

Goin' courtin'

MSNBC on the likely SEIU endorsement:

SEIU's "passion is with Dean," [union spokeswoman Sara] Howard said. "He's gained the most support among our members. There's no chance of an endorsement going to anyone else."

While it is not a done deal it is almost certain that SEIU support will not go to anyone but Dean.

This creates an interesting dynamic. Dick Gephardt knows that he can't get the nod from the union, but he might think he can stop them from giving the nod to Dean (just like Dean managed to halt Gephardt's drive to get the AFL-CIO endorsement). This might be possible. But there is another factor at play here: the other big service union endorsement that may come from the AFSCME. Apparently the leader of the AFSCME does not like the leader of the SEIU so the conventional wisdom is that if SEIU endorses Dean then AFSCME will most likely drop any idea of endorsing Dean as well.

But the SEIU leadership knows this as well so the fact that AFSCME is waiting on their decision might actually give them the final push over the fence. Both of them want to be known as kingmakers in this race so both of them would probably be desirous to be the first to endorse Dean if either of them are going to endorse him.

In other words, Dean may be in the enviable position of being courted by the two biggest unions in America.

Making an example of Alabama

Hesiod has been a good advocate lately for the argument that Democrats should not run away from the "raise taxes" issue. In the comments section a poster named Derelict talks about the repeatedly sited example of the failed attempt to raise taxes in Alabama:

Ah, be happy about Alabama. Be very happy about it. Because Alabama (a red state, if I remember) will be next year's poster child for just how fucked up the no-tax people are. It will stand as Norquist's Pyrhhic Victory--a triumph he coordinated that will come crashing down around his ears.

The budget cuts that went through in Alabama last month (September) were just the beginning. Next year is going to really show what's what. Almost 6,000 teachers will be getting the axe, with projected class sizes heading for more than 40 kids per.

The State Trooper force will be chopped, and the troopers will be restricted to about 50 miles of driving per day, according to one source in Alabama.

Thousands of criminals will be released, and the courts and municipal police will be cut drastically.

And so it goes. By this time next year, Joe Average Alabaman will really be seeing what his NO vote meant. And so will the rest of the country. Holding Alabama up as an example of what excessive tax cutting can do will make a great illustration for any Democrat who advocates more Federal revenues.

Neither Joe Average Alabaman nor Joe Average American will see these results if Democrats don't loudly highlight them. The secret of the Republicans long-term success is that the Democrats have run away from the fight instead of making it clear just what are the consequences of the "cut taxes cut taxes cut taxes" strategy. For Democrats to win on this issue they have to make it clear to people just what it is they are giving up if they continue to hold on to their Bush tax cuts.

Derelict has it right that Alabama could prove a useful example for a national campaign. Talk about how the voters of Alabama were unwilling to raise their taxes and are now suffering the consequences. Then ask the voters if they want to suffer the same fate.

The choice has to be presented in the clearest terms to the electorate. Alabama might not appreciate being turned into a national poster child for anti-tax fever, but then the Democrats don't have much chance of winning their anyway.

Dean: union man?

The union winds are shifting in Dean's direction. His campaign has been working for months to break the lock that Gephardt and more traditional Democrats have on the union vote and their efforts are finally starting to pay off. First came the IUPAT and California Teachers endorsements last week. Now comes word from Business Week that Dean is almost certain to get the endorsement of the SEIU, one of the two largest unions in the country.

What's more, it appears that other major unions like AFSCME, CWA and IBEW are seriously looking at Dean as well. Apparently the leadership of AFSCME has soured on Wesley Clark, especially since the general decided to pull out of the Iowa race. If Dean gets SEIU plus any one of those three then the union momentum will definitely be on Dean's side.

This is not just a matter of the legs that these endorsements will give to the Dean campaign (and that help will be considerable). It is also an indication to the political establishment that Dead could be as good at playing the insiders game as he is at rallying the grassroots. Winning over union support requires a lot of glad-handing, back-scratching and deal-making. The very kind of skills that will be necessary for a Dean administration to accomplish anything once it comes into office. The fact that Dean, who one year ago was an essential unknown within the national union ranks, is managing to pull support away from long-time union supporters like Gephardt speaks volumes towards his ability to build viable coalitions.

Those who think that Dean's success is merely a by-product of his feeding red-meat to the base are sadly misreading what is going on.

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Zell Miller to endorse Bush (not a joke)

I really wish Zell would make it official and just switch party registration.

War isn't cheap

Read this important editorial by Richard Hart Sinnreich that makes a point that few of the Bushies seem to understand: winning is defined by the losers. It is only when your opponent accepts the fact that they have lost that you have truly won.

... Very few wars have ended in the loser's annihilation. Most end instead with his acceptance of defeat, aware that no amount of courage, stamina or self-sacrifice can reverse the outcome. The challenge is to bring that condition about as quickly and inexpensively as possible.

But history repeatedly has demonstrated that fighting a war quickly and cheaply doesn't guarantee winning it quickly and cheaply. Indeed, the two more often than not tend to be mutually exclusive. It was for that reason above all that Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz was right to insist that the most vital judgment before going to war is understanding the kind of war on which one is embarking.

Rumsfeld's "war on the cheap" strategy may be the biggest blunder of all.

Update: Josh Marshal expanded on this concept in a column published before the war (March 19th) about the reconstruction of Germany and Japan after World War II. He makes the point that the success of the post-war program in those countries was based, in part, on the totality of the defeat they suffered at the hands of the allies:

Violence, death and destruction on such a massive scale have a profound conditioning effect on the psyches of individuals. And the same applies to whole nations. Japan and Germany weren’t just ‘defeated’ or ‘occupied,’ they were crushed — not just their armies, but their civilian populations too. This led to a sort of national humiliation and a transformative willingness to embrace defeat and change.

True defeat changes people and nations too. The fact that our subsequent occupation turned out to be so benign was extremely important. But part of that importance was the contrast between how much these populations had suffered during the war and how much better things got for them after we took over.

What is ironic about this is that the idea of "transformative defeat" is a concept embraced by the neo-cons. Yet it is the neo-cons who have also tried to push the idea of "war on the cheap" (both in terms of cash and lives lost), perhaps because they realized that an expensive war, a bloody war, would be a hard sell in modern America. The problem is that the two ideas appear to be mutually incompatible. You can't produce a "transformative defeat" without the humiliation that comes from a total defeat, yet a total defeat is an expensive proposition for the victor as well as the defeated.

What is doubly ironic is that the Iraq war may turn out to be one of our most expensive wars, yet the failure to push it towards a "transformative defeat" may make it one of our most costly failures.

One has to wonder if it could not lead to our own "transformative defeat".

The responsibility era

CNN opines, in regards the banner flap, that:

Assigning responsibility elsewhere, especially to the military, is not a typical move for the Bush administration...

Tresy dutifully supplies a list of counter-examples.

A harder task would be listing the times when this administration has taken responsibility for something bad.

"I'm going to kill the President"

Now this sounds like the ultimate in participatory theater. Just getting tickets to this show is an exercise in paranoia.

Hell, just publishing this post is an exercise in paranoia. The title alone will probably result in a file being opened on me somewhere (if one hasn't been opened already). But that's kind of the point isn't it?

It's all about fear.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Praise for Lieberman

I am most certainly not a fan of Joe Lieberman. But I will give him props for his comment on the whole banner flap (Kos has good posts on it here and here):

"Today was another banner day in George Bush's quest to bring honor and integrity to the White House," Lieberman said. "If he wanted to prove he has trouble leveling with the American people, mission accomplished."

Two snaps up Joe!

It's all in the wrapping

I'm noticing an interesting sea-change in opinion about the Democratic race. As long as it appeared that the nomination was up in the air, criticism of Dean was generally directed towards voters with the message that "it would be a bad idea to nominate this guy because he would lose to Bush in a landslide". However, in recent days, I've noticed an increase in comments that seem to be directed at Dean himself, specifically urging him to alter his positions on key issues because the commentator sees them as political losers.

Could it be that we have reached the acceptance stage as far as the prospect of a Dean nomination is concerned? Could it be that they are shifting their comments because they realize that avoiding Dean may no longer be an option (Clark has yet to really take off, despite his initial splash)? Perhaps. But are they right to urge Dean to shift his positions on these key issues?

Consider the question of taxes. MWO just today issued a call to send letters to Dean urging him to backtrack on his "repeal ALL of Bush's tax cut" position. They are concerned that the Republicans will simply push a "Dean wants to raise your taxes" theme and destroy any chance he might have of beating Bush. They are partly right about the former while almost certainly wrong about the latter. The simple truth is that the Republicans will pain the Democratic nominee as a "tax and spend liberal" no matter who we put forth. The issue is not one of avoiding the inevitable attacks but how we deal with them once they come.

Hesiod makes the point about this:

If you are a voter who thinks taxes is an important issue, would you vote for the party that wanted to cut your taxes a little...or the one that wanted to cut them a lot? Anyone sitting on the fence, and pondering whether the tax cuts are a good idea or not will wonder why they should vote for the Democratic candidate, when they actually admit that raising taxes is a bad idea. Why not just vote for the Republicans? They seem to be CONVINCED they are right about the benefits of tax cuts, even if you are not sure. And, heck, even the Democrats agree with them. So, the Republicans must be right about taxes!

By refusing to even DEBATE this issue, the Democrats are basically admitting defeat before we've even engaged the argument.

The biggest mistake the Democrats have made in recent years is in focusing to much on the particulars of issues and not enough on the framing of messages. In nearly every national poll, on pretty much every single major issue facing America today, the people come down closer to the Democratic position than the Republican. Yet the Republicans keep winning.


Because the Republicans know how to frame the issue so as to make their point of view sound more appealing.

The Democrats don't need better issues to sell. They need a better salesman to sell them.

This constant obsession over the right formula of issues just feeds into the public perception that the Democrats are panderers. I think the secret to Dean's appeal is that he presents his ideas with a conviction that voters just aren't used to seeing from a Democrat. They don't feel laboratory tested. They feel like he actually believes what he is saying. If you ever get a chance I would recommend watching Frank Luntz's America's Voices program over on MSNBC. Luntz (a Republican pollster by the way) has made the point repeatedly that his focus-group audiences respond favorably to Dean even when they don't necessarily agree with his stands on a particular issue just like how ordinary people react to George W. Bush!

Hesiod is right that, by taking a calculated approach to this issue (and other issues as well) and only stepping half-way away from Bush, the Democrats just come off looking like they are mere shadows of Bush. When the Democratic response to Bush's $700 billion tax cut is to say, "no, let's have only a $350 billion tax cut", then the Republicans have already won..

We have to fight these guys head on. We can't allow them to assume the moral high ground on all of these issues.

When they say that Democrats just want to raise taxes they should respond, "Which would you rather have: the Clinton economy or the Bush tax cuts?"

When they say that Democrats want to legalize gay marriage they should respond, "Why are you opposed to homosexuals having the same hospital visitation rights as heterosexual couples?"

When they say that Democrats are afraid to go into battle to defend America they should respond, "Why are you so eager to bog us down in new battles when you haven't even finished previous ones?"

The Democrats need to put the Republicans on the defensive. If the Democratic nominee cannot do that then he will lose in 2004 no matter how stellar his resume is. Dean has already proven to me that he can do it. I've yet to see any other candidate who can do likewise.

Update: Oh, I forgot to add one more thing to this.

Democrats continue to run scared of the past. The argument against Dean's tax cut position invariably comes back to Walter Mondale's pledge to raise taxes in 1984. Analyst look at that race, where Mondale lost in a landslide, and conclude that that message is a political killer.

Does it ever occur to anyone that Mondale lost because he was simply a bad candidate going up against one of the most natural and likable politicians of our age while having to run on a record from the Carter administration?

The analysts focus so much on the issue (raise/lower taxes) that they lose sight of the personalities involved. Gore, by any rational indicator, should have beaten Dubya by a huge margin. He did not. Was it his message? Or was it just that he wasn't a very good candidate.

The key here is to focus on what works, not on what doesn't work. Why does Bush succeed, despite his positions being so diametrically opposed to the direction most Americans want this country to take? Because he comes off as a guy people trust despite his stance on the issues, not because of them.

Update 2: Over in Hesiod's comment section a poster named Dana Blankenhorn made the following astute observation:

Howard Dean really believes he can convince the majority of Americans that up is up and down is down, despite the Bushies and press trying to convince them of the contrary. Against that, an argument that "a little up is down" doesn't sound like a very sound argument.

Monday, October 27, 2003


The White House could save money on air-conditioning by just sitting these two next to each other.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

The care and feeding of volunteers

On one of the many Dean mailing lists I belong to someone posted a comment about how political campaigns need experienced political creatives (people who can think up great ideas for advancing the campaign) as well as the base of enthusiastic but inexperienced volunteers. He commented that "it can be a challenge to get both groups to see the value of each other, but it is a real winning combination when it happens."


The thing that annoys me is when I read stories that suggest that, because volunteers are amateurs, they don't have anything positive to contribute to the campaign. They are looked down for their apparent naivete about what can and cannot be done in a political campaign.

The Dean campaign is the first that I am aware of that seems to fully appreciate the importance of grassroots energy. All the great campaign ideas in the world wouldn't be worth shit if they didn't have the raw material of a passionate base to make them a reality.

Think of the Sleepless Summer Tour. The idea of the Tour was a great one in and of itself: highlight the laziness of George W. Bush by running an intense, multi-day, multi-state rally at the same time Dubya is sleeping in Crawford. But if Dean didn't have the 5000+ crowds coming to those rallies they would have been an asterisks on the political landscape. What brought those people there? The feeling that if they came they would actually be appreciated for their efforts.

The Bush and Rove know how to feed their base. Dean and Trippi know how to feed us. That alone makes me confident that Dean can beat Dubya.