Saturday, February 01, 2003

The Washington Post reports that the White House knew about North Korea's uranium enrichment program as far back as November 2001, almost a year before they finally went public with the news. I wonder why that was. The Post is kind enough to shed some light on the situation:

The North Korean drive to enrich uranium came as the Bush administration was trying to build support for military action against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on grounds he was hiding a program of weapons of mass destruction and would be more dangerous if he obtained nuclear weapons.

And more important:

Only after Congress had acted and Bush signed the resolution did the White House disclose, in mid-October, that North Korea had a uranium enrichment program.

So the Bush administration knew about the North Korean program well before it pushed for a vote on Iraq. The North Korean government actually confirmed such a program as the Iraq resolution was being debated in Congress. But Bush waited to make the report public until after Congress had given him authorization to use force against Iraq.

For some time, administration critics have been complaining that the Bush administration's obsession with Iraq has been distracting it from more pressing threats. The most oft sited threat is, of coure, Al Qaeda. But North Korea is a close second. It's now clear that the White House ignored mounting evidence of a pending crisis in Korea while it tried to drum up support for war with Iraq. Moreover, it actually withheld key new information about the situation in North Korea from Congress as it was debating perhaps the most important issue of Bush's presidency.

The way the White House has bungled North Korea is simply amazing. To be fair, the Clinton White House did not always get North Korea right either (they too had info that the North was attempting to enrich uranium). But at least their actions were based on the solid and consistent principle that the security of the US was best served engaging the North in an effort to prevent their acquisition of nuclear weapons. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the Bush strategy. Here is a recap:

1. The Administration ignores evidence that the North is attempting to enrich uranium.
2. In an effort to come up with a catch turn of phrase for the 2002 SOTU, the Bush team coins the term "Axis of Evil" and, in need of a non-Muslim axis member, includes North Korea.
3. While pursuing a belligerent approach to fellow axis member Iraq, the White House belittles South Korea's "Sunshine Policy" of engaging the North and directs harsh rhetoric at North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
4. The White House withholds news of North Korea's admission of guilt from Congress until it has authorized force in Iraq.
5. When it finally does announce the news of North Korea's uranium enrichment program, it takes a hard line with Pyongyang including subtle threats about the potential use of force.
6. Unsurprisingly, North Korea reacts by pulling out of the Nuclear Non Proliferation treaty catching the White House flat-footed.
7. The White House backs off from its subtle threat to potentially use force and, instead, takes the option completely off the table. It announces that it will have no dialogue with North Korea and that it will pursue a policy of "economic containment" in concert with the North's neighbors.
8. After the North's neighbors reject such a policy out of hand, as anyone could have predicted they would, the White House backtracks again and says that it is willing to "talk", but not "negotiate," with the North. Whatever that means.
9. After all that bungling, and after having trashed the Clinton approach to North Korea both in the 2000 campaign and after the election, Bush ends up right back where Clinton was but only after having taken the threat of force off the table; alienated the South Koreans, our most important ally in the region; and prompted the North to take a more belligerent approach to nuclear proliferation.

Is the problem all that hard? The North Korean regime are not nice people. It would be best if that regime were to fall from power. But the simple truth is it won't, and while it's around we need to deal with it. The actions of the North are not hard to understand. They have a failing economy but a relatively advanced weapons program. They have always felt that their security is threatened by the American presence in the region. They see their nuclear and missile programs as a way to assure their security (in order to prevent the kind of invasion that Iraq is soon to face), as a way to barter with the West for better security guarantees and economic assistance and as a product that could be exported for hard currency. Meanwhile, the west fears a that a nuclear armed North Korea could destabilize the region and export weapons to terrorist states or terrorists themselves. The outlines for a deal are clearly there - North Korea gets diplomatic recognition, renewed energy assistance and security guarantees. In return, they agree to completely dismantle both their plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities and to ship all processed fissile material out of the country. They would also have to agree to allow completely unfettered inspections and to accept severe limits on the testing and development of missile technology. Finally, the North would have to agree to end the exportation of its missiles and give the US and the UN the legal right to seize shipments of North Korean missiles intended for other nations.

While Bush concentrates on Iraq and refuses to "negotiate" the North is charging ahead with a nuclear program that holds a far greater threat to this nation than Iraq ever will. The US should be at the table with North Korea right now offering the North the incentives outlined above while continuing to threaten to use force to end the North's nuclear program if it won't do it voluntarily. Instead, the White House is offering neither any carrots nor any sticks. And the situation deteriorates.
It's been a while between posts - what can I say, I sometimes have more important things to do than update this blog. The big news of the week, of course, was Bush's State of the Union speech. There's a lot to say about, but most of it has already been said by others. You can find a good summary and analysis over at The Daily Kos. I have to make one belated point though. Bush is at it again with these aluminum tubes.

In the SOTU, Bush once again points to Iraq's purchase of aluminum tubes as evidence that they have been attempting to resurrect their dormant nuclear program. As I noted in the post below, UN, UK and even US intelligence agency declared that these tubes were far more likely meant for use in the construction of conventional weapons, namely rocket launched artillery. Now, it was one thing for the Bush team to prematurely latch onto some very sketchy evidence in a desperate attempt to justify accusations that it, apparently, has no true evidence for. It's another to go back to that well after this claim was discredited entirely. It's call dishonesty, and it's becoming a hallmark of this administration.

Friday, January 24, 2003

What does it say about this administration when it's becoming almost as hard to trust what the White House is saying about Iraq as it is to trust what Saddam Hussein is saying about the US? It turns out that the evidentiary centerpiece of the case Bush attempted to lay out against Iraq in his September 12 speech at the UN is, well, a fabrication.

The issue in question are aluminum tubes that Iraq attempted to purchase. The White House claimed that these tubes were for use in centrifuges needed to enrich uranium. Condi Rice told us that the tubes were "only really suited for nuclear weapons programs."

As it turns out, the tubes are actually perfectly suited for use in the same type of 81mm multiple rocket launchers that Iraq has produced in the past. It also turns out, according to the IAEA, that they are "not directly suitable" for use in uranium enrichment. They could be used for such a purpose, but only after expensive modification.

Here's what David Albright, a former IAEA inspector had to say:

In this case, I fear that the information was put out there for a short-term political goal: to convince people that Saddam Hussein is close to acquiring nuclear weapons.

No wonder support for this war is dwindling at home and abroad.
TNR has an interesting article up chronicling the pro-choice homage that all of the leading Democratic contenders paid to NARAL. There are several interesting tidbits. Ryan Lizza writes:

John Edwards seems to go through cycles of exceedingly high expectations and intense media buzz punctuated by disappointing public performances that leave one wondering, "What is all the fuss about?"

And then goes on to describe the enthusiasm that Democratic operatives seems to have for edwards and the lack of enthusiasm that everyone else seems to have for him. He also claims that Edwards is the candidate the White House fears the most. Does being an attractive southerner count that much? Edwards doesn't have game, and all of these Democrats who are so eager to sign him up are going to wish they had thought twice when he fails to meet expectations in South Carolina.

Lizza also makes the same point about Lieberman that I made in an earlier post - he's doing well in the polls right now but how is he going to translate that into early success? He has no shot in Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina. After he gets drubbed in those three primaries I don't think his name recognition will matter that much.

Most interesting is Lizza's description of the looming Dean v. Kerry tilt in New Hampshire (and it will come down to those two candidates) as a rematch of Bradley and Gore, with many of Bradley's 2000 staffers working for Dean and many for Gore's working for Kerry. He makes the very good point that independents, who can vote in the Democratic primary, could decide things in New Hampshire and Dean is poised to capture the independents that Bradley lost to McCain in 2000. The biggest surprise to me was Jim Jeffords endorsement of Dean, saying, "He's my man." Of course, Dean has a home court advantage with Jeffords, but having a popular independent from a neighboring state endorse you can only help with those New Hampshire independents.
When things fall apart they really fall apart. It's really heartening to see things blowing up in the Bush team's face the way they are right now. Let's see:

The coalition for war is falling apart. France and Germany are out and with them UN and Security Council approval. As MyDD reports, public support in Britain for a war not backed by the UN has dwindeled to a pathetic 10%. Will Blair still commit UK troops to the conflict even if it could mean his job? The Labor Party is in a pretty dominant position in Britain right now, but can any party survive such an unpopular choice on this important a decision? Or, more to the point, will the Labor party revolt and dump Blair if he continues to pursue a policy so out of tune with its members? Meanwhile US support for the war is dropping. That might be the only thing that could avert a war. If general Rove decides that a war will cost Bush politically, it might not happen.

Bush's "stimulus" package continues to take hits. A new Wall Street Journal poll shows that only 35% of Americans think Bush's plan will be "very" or "fairly" effective. And there's now news that the head of Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, Glenn Hubbard, will be stepping down making it a trifecta of disgraced supply-siders leaving the administration. Kos spreads the rumor that Hubbard will be replaced by deficit hawk Gregory Mankiw. How exactly does the White House hope to have any credibility pushing its supply side plans when it has replaced three supply-siders with deficit hawks like Mankiw, John Snow and Stephen Friedman? Does this signal a change in White House policy? Will they abandon their terrible "stimulus" plan? We can only hope - but don't hold your breath. Thankfully, it looks to be dead in the Senate anyway.

Bush continues to look like an idiot on Korea. Even the conservative pundits are out for blood.

No wonder Bush's poll numbers keep dropping. That same WSJ poll has him at 54%. The State of the Union is coming up. You can bet Rove has planted some doozy in there somewhere. Will we get another "Axis of Evil?"

Thursday, January 23, 2003

One of the best thing about The Daily Kos is Kos's periodic "cattle calls" that rank the Democratic fields and discuss how each candidate has faired recently. Kos posted his latest on the 20th (I'm late I know).

I agree with a lot of his sentiments. Kerry is clearly the front runner, even though Lieberman leads in all the polls. Those polls mean nothing, in my opinion, and are only a result of Lieberman's high name recognition. Lieberman will be a player for sure - he'll have the money and he has the right wing of the party to himself. But I don't see any way he can win when the electorate is so much more liberal than he. Not to mention that he's not likely to do well in any of the first 3 primaries.

Where I disagree is his ranking of Edwards. Admittedly, Edwards is doing well at the polls, much better than he was a month ago when it looked like he might be out of it before it began. His well organized roll-out was effective and no doubt helped improve his standing. I still think he has an uphill road - he has to win SC something that is far from certain with Sharpton, Moseley-Braun and potentially Graham in the field. Graham is the key there, for Edwards. The announcement that he will undergo heart surgery may just kill his campaign (even if the surgery itself doesn't inhibit him, the fact that he is having it will hurt his viability). If Graham is out, Edwards looks a lot better. But he can't tank it in Iowa or New Hampshire either and I've seen nothing to indicate that he has made progress in either state. Graham would have ranked higher than Kos had him, but this surgery changes that. Dean would rank a lot higher in my estimation. I'd even put him at number 3 right now. I know it sounds ludicrous, but he has had a killer month with some great media, a strong showing in the most recent NH poll and a lot of success on the ground in Iowa. He is even being mentioned as a possible winner in Iowa - that's credibility that could help him start raising more money. He needs to be careful that he doesn't raise expectations too high, however. If he comes out of nowhere to win or place a strong second in Iowa that could lunch him to a big win in NH and beyond. But it won't have nearly the impact if success is expected. I agree with Kos that Gephardt is looking sorry.

Two other notes. Kos repeats the various reports that Biden is out. This is not true. Biden may very well jump into the race at a later time. He also lists McCain as an "intriguing possibility." McCain as the VP on the ticket is a fantasy of mine, but do we really want a Republican heading the Democratic ticket? I'd rather lose than totally abdicate like that. Now, as the number two guy on the ticket, he would be perfect.

I'll be writing an article with a more detailed look at the field soon. Look for it on the right.

Tapped has been having an interesting running discussion of the disparity between the electoral power that the conservative plain states have and their relatively small populations. They note that were you to assume that each senator represents half of his state's population (since each state has two senators) then Democrats would represent about 155 million people and Republicans about 125 million people. This also neglects the population of Washington DC, who would likely send two Democrats to the Senate if they were given the chance (which they should be).

There's little question that the Senate is a rather undemocratic institution - why should states like The Dakota or even my own Delaware be given the same say as states with 50 times more people? And since the Electoral College system is based on the number of senators and representatives these same biases are translated into that as well.

Tapped's main argument is that this bias favor conservatives, since most of the over-represented states fall in the highly Republican plains and mountain areas. This is certainly true. And the level of bias is likely to continue to grow as population flows away from rural areas towards urban population centers.

But how much does this really effect things? The House, which is much more representative of the true population differences in the stats, is titled towards the Republicans and about the same level that the Senate is. And there are plenty of Democratic senators in red states and Republicans in blue states. I think where it is more important is in the Electoral College. If each state were given only the same number of votes as it had representatives (and was not given two additional votes for each Senator), Al Gore would now be president and not George Bush.

I'm not sure how you fix this problem. Every electoral system had its built in biases. Certainly, there is never going to be enough consensus to radically alter the Senate. Some have proposed scrapping the Electoral College and directly electing the president but I think that creates more problems than it solves. The electoral college forces candidates to attempt to win disparate blocks of voters in different areas of the country with different values, in a direct election I fear that the election would come down only to the turnout of each party's base, especially in big cities.

I don't think it would be a bad idea to eliminate the electoral votes that the states receive for each Senator. As I wrote in a recent article, each state should also resort to instant runoff voting so that it takes a majority and not a plurality to win the electoral votes of each state.

All in all it's an interesting problem. Hopefully Tapped will start posting some potential solutions.

Monday, January 20, 2003

OK how disturbing is this:

"Look," said Daschle, who was then majority leader. "Nobody at this table can put a dollar value on human life -- "

"Sure we can!" interrupted the outsider at the table, the White House envoy to the talks.

That was Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., the Indianapolis pharmaceuticals executive who had been President Bush's out-of-nowhere choice to run the Office of Management and Budget. As the bleary-eyed legislators turned wide-eyed, the blunt-spoken little man with the crooked nose and the comb-over ordered an aide to find him the actuarial studies. "We've got numbers on that," Daniels explained.

Those are quotes from the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Why does it nor surprise me that they “have numbers on that?”

More to the point – Daniels represents the absurdity of this administration perfectly. How can anyone take him, or the administration, seriously when he talks about reigning in spending but still advocates unlimited tax cut? The Bushies are now telling us that deficits don’t matter. That’s a big change from what they were saying two years ago (or two weeks ago for that matter).

Hey Mitch (and you too Glenn Hubbard): if deficits don’t matter then why are you so opposed to an extra billion or two to protect our citizens from further terror attacks? And if they do matter how can you support these ridiculous tax cuts?

The intellectual inconsistency (actually dishonesty is a better word) of this administration is unprecedented.

Dick's in big trouble. The headline says it all really.

If Gephardt can't win Iowa he is done - any Gephardt scenario has to start with a big win in Iowa. The expectations there are too high for him to survive anything less, much like Kerry in New Hampshire.

The most interesting part of the article, I thought, was this:

Gephardt won the Iowa presidential caucuses in 1988, and because of his next-door-neighbor status and close ties to organized labor, he is considered the man to beat in the 2004 caucuses. But around the table, Gephardt was viewed dismissively as a candidate from the past, and the names of newcomers John F. Kerry, a Massachusetts senator, and former Vermont governor Howard Dean prompted far more favorable responses.

This doesn’t surprise me in the least. I’ve long thought Kerry and Dean to be the two strongest candidates, just how well they would do in Iowa I didn’t (and still don’t) know. I have heard, though, from sources on the ground in Iowa that Edwards’ early visits there have tanked while Dean has been received very well. Dean is going to be around for the long haul, despite what most pundits have to say. I think it will come down to one of Kerry or Dean and probably Lieberman as the last two standing. I don’t think both Dean and Kerry can survive until the end – it won’t come down to two New England liberals. I think whichever one of those two makes it to the end wins the nomination. Right now I’d give the edge to Kerry, but that could change.

Also interesting were comments by Governor Tom Vilsack:

"The conventional wisdom assumes that labor is with Gephardt, and I don't know that that's true," Vilsack said. "I don't think that [labor unions] necessarily are sold on any candidate at this point. There are an awful lot of other groups that could provide a base for any candidate."

More bad news for Gephardt. The two things he has going for him are Iowa and labor – could both be failing? I don’t know. Keep in mind this article is based on interviews with 10 Democrats – hardly a scientifically accurate sample. But it reinforces whispers that have been floating around. More important, in this game perception can become reality and you can bet the Gephardt camp isn’t happy this article is on the front page of the Post.

Saturday, January 18, 2003

From the it's-not-exactly-a-surprise department, the White House plans on giving in to the right-wing of the party and nominating very conservative judges to fill any vacancies on the Supreme Court.

The good news is this might prevent them from nominating Alberto Gonzalez who Democrats would have a hard time fighting against. The bad news is that we could end up with some really bad, and young, right-wingers on the Court.

This is crunch time for Democrats. The right has made controlling the judiciary one of their primary goals and they have been very successful. Democrats and liberals have been far to squeemish on this issue. I don't know why = perhaps because many don't recognize the importance or perhaps because Democrats still want to believe that the courts shouldn't be politicized. They shouldn't be, but it's too late for that. The right has made this a war - we need to fight back. If the Democrats in the Senate fold on this one, we'll be regretting it for a long, long time.

It starts with Pickering and Owen. Let's beat them back to let Bush know that when he tries to nominate an ultra-conservative for the Court he's going to have to pay a price
One last note from that same article. Washington governor Gary Locke will give the Democratic response to Bush State of the Union address. Locke has been playing an increasingly visible roll in the party. Look to see more of him in the months and years ahead.
In the you've-gotta-love-it department, and from the same Post article, Stephen Moore's uber-supply-side Club For Growth is promoting primary challengers to John McCain and Arlen Specter. Now, McCain is one of the few Republicans I'd rather see stay in the Senate. But I love seeing Stephen Moore do his damndest to tear the Republican Party apart. The Club for Growth has supported conservative Republicans against more moderate incumbents in primaries before with some success (John Sununu for example), but they've also allowed Democrats to pick off seats from too-conservative Republicans.

The decision to challenge McCain, if Congressman Jeff Flake can be convinced to do so, could be costly for the GOP. McCain still insists that he's content to remain in the GOP but the White House continues to do all it can to piss the man off - most recently blocking his choice for commissioners on the FEC and the independent panel to investigate 9/11. Plus McCain has continued to oppose most of Bush's economic agenda (which is why Moore is so hot for him) and let's not forget that he has to still feel incredible resentment for his treatment during the 2000 primaries. So far the Bush team has been critical of Moore's comments - but they seem to be madder that he's been talking this up in public than that he's talking it up at all. Moore is, after all, one of the Bush administration's best friends. Would McCain ever decide to bolt the party? I don't know but a right-wing challenge, especially if it's implicitly backed by the White House, could be the last straw. And that could mean McCain might run for reelection as in independent or even run for president again. Or perhaps, in my dream scenario, he could end up as the Democrats' VP nominee - Kerry-McCain anyone?

As for Specter, he could be vulnerable if the Democrats find a strong candidate (Bob Casey Jr. perhaps?). A Moore backed primary challenge by Pat Toomey would make him even more so. Plus candidacies by Toomey and/or Flake would leave open House seats that Democrats would have a chance to pick up.

In general, Moore's plans will lead to GOP infighting that will only help the Democrats. The moderate Main Street Partnership has indicated their willingness to take the Club for Growth on. "We're willing to go head to head," Partnership ED Sarah Resnick said in the WSJ. As Resnick noted, money that the Club and the Partnership use to batter each other can't be spent on battling Democrats. So keep up the good work Stephen!

An aside - I can't help but mention that Stephen Moore was the guy who guaranteed us that the 1993 Clinton deficit reduction plan would "torpedo" the economy and insisted that anything after 1993 could not be blamed on the Republicans. How wrong can you be? But he, and the Bush supply-siders, are still at it.
In the you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me department, disgraced former senator Carol Moseley-Braun is talking about joining the already crowded Democratic field. This is interesting on three fronts:

First, this really alters the dynamic of the race. Moseley-Braun would be the only woman and one of two blacks in the field, so she would have a natural constituency advantage. This would be a disaster for Al Sharpton, who is banking on winning a lot of black votes in Southern primaries. As such, it is probably a good thing for the party - splitting Sharpton's votes would probably ensure that one of the legitimate candidates in the race would win most southern primaries. The prospect of Sharpton going to into the convention with a bunch of delegates from southern primary wins is not a bright one for Democrats. With the field growing and growing, and so many different constituencies being represented, the possibility that we might have a meaningful convention is growing. With the front-loaded primary schedule we'll still probably see a lot of candidates eliminated early and the race will probably boil down to two or three contenders, one of whom will walk away from Super Tuesday or Southern Tuesday with the nomination. But if enough candidates stick around long enough and win enough primaries, the Democrats could go into the convention without the nominee being set. That would certainly make for a more interesting, and more watched, convention. But would it be good for the party? I kind of think it might.

Second, this means Moseley-Braun won't be running for her old Senate seat in Illinois. That's also good news. The Democrats have several strong challengers lined up, including Blair Hull, but Moseley-Braun would likely have repeated her 1992 primary shocker by winning a lot of black and women votes while the rich white boys split the rest. Unlike 1992, Moseley-Braun would probably not win in the general. Republican Peter Fitzgerald is probably the most vulnerable incumbent in the Senate and a Moseley-Braun candidacy would have wasted a great pick-up opportunity for the Dems. That Illinois race is likely to be the most interesting in the country. Fitzgerald could see a primary challenge from the left or from the right. And what role will Rove and Bush play in protecting or challenging Fitzgerald? Illinois is a state they'd like to contest in 2004 (though they're dreaming if they think they can pull it off).

Third, can't we find some better black Democrats to run? We've got Sharpton and Moseley-Braun - both of whom carry a lot of baggage and leave a hell of a lot to be desired. The Democratic Party should be ashamed that it has not done a better job of encouraging and promoting mainstream black candidates. Black activists like Sharpton and Jesse Jackson have accomplished a lot for the african-american community, but it does no good for the party to have Sharpton or Moseley-Braun represent the black face of the party. The fact that there are no black senators or governors is a real problem and a real shame. The fact that there are no blacks who are real players in the party is also a shame, both because african-americans are a core constituency of the party who deserve better representation within the party and within the government and because the party would present a much stronger image to voters if we could show off strong black leaders who aren't leftist activists. Look at what Colin Powell has done for the GOP. The fact that he seems to be the only person in the world who doesn't realize that he is really a Democrat is beside the point. I thought Ron Kirk could have been the first in a new line of black Democratic leaders and the party tried hard to elect him to the Senate from Texas. Unfortunately he lost. Hopefully he'll be back. If not him perhaps Harold Ford Jr. will step up and take that mantel. Whoever it is, the Democratic Party should make it a priority to identify and support black leaders and candidates with potential. Hopefully in the next contested election the party will be able to put forward to quality black candidates. And perhaps a few women too.

Friday, January 17, 2003

This is quite possibly the most disturbing thing I have ever seen.

My buddy gave me "George W. Bush and His Family Paper Dolls" for Christmas. This was in there. I can't decided which is funnier - the cowboy boots or the fact that Tom Tierny decide to sign this particular doll and not the other ones.
Gregg Easterbrook has a very detailed article in the last issue of The New Republic that takes on the devil's spawn that is the SUV. It's actually a review of Keith Bradsher's new book "High and Mighty: SUVs--The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way."

You should really read the article (if not the book) for a full report on the SUV boondoggle but I'll give a quick summary. Basically, SUVs are bad for consumers, the country and the environment while offering little or no benefits over traditional cars and costing significantly more.

Despite the propaganda distributed by the auto industry and its backers in Congress, SUVs are much less safe than regular cars both for the people driving them and for other people on the road. Drivers of cars that get into accidents with SUVs die at a much higher rate than those that crash with other types of vehicles. Drivers of SUVs are more prone to fatalities as well, both because the frames of SUVs, which aren't a single body like most car frames are, protect their passengers less well than regular cars (contrary to popular belief) and because SUVs are much more prone to rollovers which are extremely fatal. Bradshear concludes that 1000-2000 people needlessly die in SUV rollover crashes every year in the US, a danger confirmed by a recent study released by the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

SUVs also guzzle far more gas than regular cars. Because of dozens of needless loopholes, SUVs face hardly any real mileage standards. Though SUV and "light" truck fleets must meet a 20.7 MPG standard, thanks to loopholes many SUVs get only about 10 MPG or so - thus they emit smog creating and greenhouse gasses at a rate almost three times as high as normal cars. That also means they use up almost three times as much Middle Eastern oil. SUVs by themselves divert $30 billion in oil money annually to Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The most frustrating aspect of this is that SUVs need not be so inefficient. There are loopholes built into the system that actually encourage automakers to make their cars heavier and less efficient. A 1970's era loophole allowed vehicles over 6000 pounds to be exempted from mileage standards. This was intended to prevent rules for passenger cars from affecting "real" trucks but now automakers beef their SUVs up so they can exceed the 6000 pound limit and ignore efficiency standards. Automakers have the technology to build fuel efficient SUVs but don't because they channel those advances into greater power and acceleration in their engines and simply because the law doesn't require them to take efficiency into account.

And what do drivers of SUVs get for their reduced safety and reduced efficiency? Not much. SUVs are useful for people who actually take them off road but they provide little advantage over front-wheel drive cars on the highways even in the snow. Moreover, most SUVs are so heavy that they are not supposed to carry a very large load. In fact, the pre-2002 Ford Explorer had a maximum safe load of 1300 pounds - exactly the same as the Ford Taurus. People who exceeded this maximum safe load greatly contributed to the rash of tire blowout rollovers in Ford Explorers a few years back.

People buy SUVs because they think they're safer. But they're not. People buy them because they think they're better in snow, but they're not. People buy them because they think they can haul more with them, but they can't. Not only do they do this, but they pay a premium to do so - because SUV are so popular automakers jack up the prices and make a small fortune. Why are people so willing to pay more for much less? Part of it is the propaganda that the auto industry successfully distributes. Part of it is the shameful way many in our government, especially those who represent SUV making or oil producing constituencies, have helped the auto industry perpetuate these lies. But part of it lies with vain, immature consumers who see their SUVs as a status symbol.

If there were one thing this country could do to improve life for all its citizens, I think a forward-thinking, comprehensive energy plan would be it. Rewriting the standards for all cars, but especially SUVs would be a big part of it. The rules should be totally rewritten to remove all of those ridiculous loopholes and SUVs should be made to meet a strict mileage standard - not a fleet wide standard but a minimum mileage standard for each SUV, perhaps around 27 MPG (which is still a lot lower than we could achieve right now). Safety rules should be rewritten too, to require automakers to use designs that are lighter and less prone to rollovers, making the cars safer for their own drivers and others.

People could still have their SUVs. They'd still be four-wheel drive. If they were lighter they could actually carry a larger load. They could still look shiny and let all their owners' neighbors know just how rich and important they are. But they'd be safer, friendlier on the environment and they wouldn't help to put us so firmly in the grip of Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern oil producers.

Thursday, January 16, 2003

Democrats need to tread very carefully on the issue of tort reform and medical malpractice insurance. President Bush was in Pennsylvania today to push tort reform, which was one of his signature issues back when he was governor of Texas. This appearance was mostly political and was aimed squarely at John Edwards, a former trial lawyer who the Bush team would like to define before he ever gets a chance to define himself. You can bet that if Edwards is the eventual nominee, Bush will hit him hard with this issue.

Edwards should be concerned, and so should other Democrats. Health Care will likely be a big issue over the next two years. There are three main sub-issues that need to be dealt with. One in the cost and availability of prescription drugs for both seniors and everyone else. The second is making insurance available to more Americans. The third is the growing problem of the cost of malpractice insurance. Malpractice insurance is becoming a bigger and bigger problem - the recent strike by surgeons in West Virginia is just one example. By 2004, this could be a powerful issue among voters and it gives Bush and Republicans an incredible opportunity to lump Democrats in with "greedy trial lawyers" who care more about a profit than about quality medical care.

This is not to say that Bush is right on the issue. Or that he is totally wrong. In all reality, some kind of reform to limit excessive jury awards is needed. Bush and his allies go too far in trying to protect their insurance industry backers, but there is a middle ground for compromise. There are other remedies that provide some immediate help as well, such as the federal government increasing Medicare and Medicaid payments to states who can then funnel that money to hospitals and doctors in danger of going under.

Democrats shouldn't just roll over and pass Bush's "tort reform" measures. The point is, though, that if they oppose Bush on this issue without attempting to reach a middle ground they run a real risk of paying for it at the polls in 2004. On most issues I think the Democrats can actually score political points by being tough with Bush. This is not once of them. At some point, the Democrats (or perhaps simply the eventual Democratic nominee) will have to put forward a clear plan on how to improve health care in this country. Howard Dean has already said this will be a centerpiece of his campaign. If he or other Democrats concentrate on drug prices and insurance availability, as important as they are, but ignore the issue of malpractice insurance, they will regret it in November.
A new poll of New Hampshire voters has Kerry in front (no surprise) and Howard Dean running a strong second. The Boston Globe has an interesting article about the nascent Dean campaign, making the point that things are moving more quickly than the campaign anticipated.

Dean has worked a lot harder in Iowa and New Hampshire than most of the Democratic field so far in terms of putting in the time laying the ground work, meeting with activists and trying to raise his profile among the Democratic faithful. At some point that will pay off for him, the question is just how much. But his campaign has to be pleased right now - that New Hampshire poll is probably more than they could have hoped for at this point. He has received some good press in the past few weeks and recently won the Paul Wellstone award from the AFL-CIO, a nice feather in his cap when courting labor. Dean has also recently been winning non-scientific internet polls on sites frequented by liberal and Democratic partisans - a leading indicator that his efforts to build support among activists might be working.

But as the Globe piece states, Dean's big trouble right now is money. If Dean can pull of strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, money will start to come in. But he'll need more money than he's been able to raise so far to do well in those states. In Steve Grossman he has a capable finance chairman. It will be interesting to see if he can get Dean over the hump.
President Bush has finally decided to weigh in on the University of Michigan affirmative action case. Why it took him so long to do so I don't know, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that he stood with his stated convictions. I don't agree with his position; I think affirmative action is important both to help reverse racial biases that prevent minorities from receiving the education they need and to ensure the best educational experience for all students by exposing them to a diverse environment. I also think that Senator Biden made a good point on Hardball last night that if you are against affirmative action based on race you should also be against it based on legacy and other factors. Bush, of course, owes pretty much everything he's ever had in life to legacy so we're unlikely to hear him argue that that kind of affirmative action is unfair.

Still, Bush has consistently opposed affirmative action. And while I think that is the wrong position, it's not wholly indefensible. Considering the firestorm that has erupted recently over Trent Lott, a storm Bush has stoked further be renominating Charles Pickering, I had half figured that Bush would bail on affirmative action in an attempt to soften his image on civil rights. Perhaps Karl Rove calculated that a reversal on this issue would be more costly politically both with his base and with swing voters who would disapprove of his flip-flop. Whatever the reason, this has always been Bush's position and this is the stance he should be taking now based on that. It's the wrong position, but at least he is trying to make the honest case for what he believes - that is something he has not always done.