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.

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

MyDD has some nice graphs to go along with that Gallup poll.
More polls: Gallup is out with a new poll echoing the Ipsos-Reid/Cook poll with Bush again at 58%. This is the first time he has dropped below 60% since 9/11. Gallup has his re-elect at only 34% with 32% saying they will definately vote for someone else. Further down the poll you can see that 55% of respondents think that Bush is not paying enough attention to the economy. Sounds like echos of his father to me.

Bush still gets good numbers on a variety of specific issues, especially on the "strong leader" question. He does show vulnerability on a number of domestic issues with the economy leading the way. If Bush's approval ratings fall further it will be the economy that leades the way. But if Democrats are going to beat Bush in 2004 they will have create doubts it voters' minds about Bush's ability to lead and protect this country. As I argued in a recent article, Dems don't need to win those issues but they do need to at least close the gap. That will mean taking Bush on and challenging his leadership - not in trying to close the daylight between themselves and him.

Some other good news in the poll: While a majority of Americans favor war with Iraq, only 23% would support an invasaion without UN provided evidence that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction.

On the Democratic side of things Lieberman leads with 19% among registered voters and Kerry is second with 17% followed by Gephardt and Edwards with 13% and 12% respectively. I'd say that's good news for Kerry, who is showing surprising strength this early. Graham, who looks like he is in, polled at 7% which is also a strong showing at this point. He will be a player in this race, and his candidacy is bad news for Edwards and good news for Kerry (who could do well in South Carolina of Edwards and Graham split votes).

Monday, January 13, 2003

The one Senator I was waiting to hear from on the new Bush "stimulus" plan was GOP Senator George Voinovich. Voinovich is a long time deficit hawk who has recently been complaining (and rightly so) on the wildly unrealistic budget numbers the White House has been using to justify its recent policies. Voinovich usually directs his balanced budget wrath and Congressional big spenders as opposed to the tax-cutting Bush administration. I was hoping that he would honor his principles and denounce Bush's bloated, budget-busting new plan. Thankfully, he did just that.

It seems that Bush and Rove were attempting to repeat the strategy that worked so well for them with their signature 2001 tax cut plan: throw out a bold, overreaching proposal, line up Republicans behind it and watch as the Democratic caucus splintered, making it impossible to effectively oppose the measure. Then reach a "compromise" near your original goal. But Bush and Rove misplayed their hand this time. The situation is different - the bleak budget picture has made the foolishness of another huge tax cut much more apparent. Democrats are much more unified in their desire to stand firm against Bush. The unpopularity of Bush's policies has made it easier for moderate Democrats to oppose the president. As a result, Red-state Democrats up for re-election in 2004 (like Kent Conrad and Blanche Lincoln) have held the line, as have almost all conservative Democrats like John Breaux. Meanwhile the moderate northeastern wing of the GOP has defected from their own caucus on this issue. Voinovich's opposition is just about the nail in the coffin. He has usually supported the administration line on economic issues, even if that has forced him to go against his deficit hawk beliefs. If the GOP can't hold onto Voinovich, let alone moderates like Chaffee, Collins and Snowe, Bush's plan is going nowhere.

The only question left is just how tough the Democrats will be. Hopefully, the caucus will hold firm and insist that Bush's planned elimination of the tax on dividends is removed completely. Let's hope that any "compromise" this time is closer to the Democrats' more modest proposal.
MyDD links to a new Ipsos-Reid/Cook poll that confirms an earlier CNN/Time poll showing Bush under 60%. The Time poll had Bush at 55%, this poll shows him at 58%. More interesting, and important, are Bush's re-elect numbers that stand at just 42% (with 30% saying they will definitely vote for someone else). Bush's numbers continue on their steady trend downwards.

Karl Rove and his team should be worried. Bush's downward trend has been pretty steady. His policies are not popular and the economy isn't likely to get any better. Moreover, Bush and his team have really put themselves in a minefield right now. More and more Republicans are abandoning his economic plan every day. Justification and support (both at home and abroad) for a war with Iraq continues to dissipate while the North Korean crises that Bush ignored looms larger and larger. A dangerous fight of the White House's own making looms over the horizon in Charles Pickering's nomination. There's little doubt that Rove et al will take drastic steps to keep Bush's poll numbers from sliding further. There's also little doubt that war with Iraq is coming, justification and support be damned. That could boost Bush's popularity again; it could also do the reverse if the war goes anything but smoothly. Regardless of that outcome, the underlying trend is clear: Bush will be very beatable come November of 2004.