For the second time in one Presidential term, major newspapers -- worse, major newspapers owned by the same entity! -- are in fundamental disagreement over the basic facts of a tax cut. Hmm. An exercise in comparison:
Headline: "Leaders in Congress back $350b tax cut"
Analysis: "Nevertheless, it was a substantial victory for the president, who has managed to win tax cuts from Congress three years in a row."
Moral: "The new deal underscored the power of the Senate moderates, who prevented Bush from getting what he wanted despite enjoying Republican control of both chambers of Congress."
Willingness to describe in detail the individual players in the legislative battle, issues such as state aid, or interesting and tense meetings: Nonexistent.
My question: If Bush won a "substantial victory," how did the Senate moderates prevent him from getting what he wanted? Did Bush not want a victory? Is he a masochist? More accurate moral: "The tax cut deal underscored the power of Senate moderates to force Bush to compromise on his more extreme proposals."
Headline: "$318 Billion Deal Is Set in Congress for Cutting Taxes"
Analysis: "After a day of unusually tense negotiations and a series of stormy meetings, House and Senate leaders reached an agreement tonight on a tax-cut bill that is expected to clear Congress before the week is out, giving President Bush a substantial political victory."
Moral: "The impasse was broken, Republican officials said, when Mr. Cheney went to the Capitol for an unusual negotiating session with the principals from each chamber. At the meeting, according to the officials, Mr. Cheney said the president's need for immediate passage of a tax bill outweighed each chamber's need to claim pride of authorship over the final product."
Willingness to go into legislative and individual detail: Present!
My question: Wait a minute! I was under the impression that the reason we were in a conference committee was because the House had approved a $550 billion tax cut and the Senate had approved a $350 billion plan. How, exactly, did they "compromise" on a $318 billion plan? Did the Republicans lose a vote sometime after the initial Senate vote? Why isn't this explained?
Meanwhile, the Washington Post reaches an entirely different analysis from the Globe and the Times, saying: "House and Senate Republican tax writers yesterday reached a tentative agreement on a $350 billion tax cut plan that is considerably smaller than what the House and President Bush wanted but appears to have enough support for quick passage...The deal marks a significant retreat for Bush, who has insisted on the elimination of all taxes on dividends." The Post, while skimpy on details, also has a nice, wonkish little graphic displaying the tax plan (which you can see by looking to your right).
Of course, the largest cognitive dissonance arrives here with the difference in the amount of the tax cut, as reported in the Globe and the Times. Could someone resolve that, please?
All of this mirrors the coverage of the first tax cut, where the newspapers couldn't quite agree whether Bush had just scored a victory or a defeat. I'm inclined to vote for victory. Looking at the big picture -- if, the day before Bush proposed this (or his first) tax cut, you were told that the Administration would pass through $350 billion worth of tax cuts this year, would you be impressed of underwhelmed? Bush's success lies in his ability to stretch the very limit of what the legislative branch would accept of his plan -- not the extent to which he obtained his original proposal, which was merely a bargaining chip anyway.
Sorry for the paucity of posts yesterday. It was simply too beautiful a day to spend much time sitting in front of the computer. Now, on to Jayson Blair.
When Jayson Blair was a young, troubled, promoted-beyond-his-age, drug addict, I had some sympathy for him. His mistakes could plausibly be attributed to environmental, as opposed to dispositional, factors. Going into a mental hospital, and refusing to talk to the media, was the smartest public relations move Blair had made yet.
But it turns out that this image of Blair was incorrect. Now, he's acting like a loudmouthed, unrepentant, publicity-seeking media whore. This Washington Post article is required reading for anybody following Blair. He calls his editors "idiots." He remarks that he laughed when he read the Times' mea culpa. He accuses the Times of racism. He brags, " I know I shouldn't be saying this -- I fooled some of the most brilliant people in journalism." Besides being awful for public relations, it is a blatant affront to logic.
In general, Blair comes across as having a mind that could easily be dismantled by a high school freshman. Which is even more damning for the New York Times. It is one thing to see that the Times would promote a reasonably intelligent black journalist before slightly more intelligent white journalists. It is quite another to see that the Times would hire, and continuously promote, a journalist who didn't graduate college, produced consistently suspect articles, and to top it all off -- acts like an arrogant, ignorant fool when cornered.
The debate over Jayson Blair has broken down into a debate over two causes for this disaster. Either the New York Times' management was negligient and foolish, or affirmative action was flawed and unworkable. It was always a false dichotomy -- both, or neither, could be true. With Blair's latest remarks, we find ourselves closer to the answer. The Times' management reveals itself as incompetent to discover an intellectual grade-schooler within their midsts and the ideal of affirmative action -- which was originally supposed to merely favor minorities who were equally qualified as whites -- reveals itself, in its current form, to wildly promote any minority candidate, despite their intellectual deficiencies.
Principles aside, can the Democrats score political points attacking Bush on national security? Stated differently -- do they need to make some sort of attack in order to win the election?
Politicos can believably argue two different theses, here. On the one hand, the Democratic Party is deeply divided on its foreign policy, and the American public has consistently given Bush high ratings in his foreign policy. On the other, there seems to be a risk in establishing one's position as merely Bush-lite on foreign policy. Not only would it alienate the Democratic base, it would provide everyone else with a far-from-compelling reason to vote for the eventual candidate.
Foreign policy, as we have seen, is a deeply divisive issue. The majority of people seem to either support Bush's policy, or deeply oppose it. We saw this in the mammoth, radical protests preceding the war involving those detesting the President -- and at the same time, the corresponding lack of mainstream, moderate opposition to Bush's foreign policy. Given this reality, there doesn't seem to be much of a market for a "Third Way" Democratic foreign policy.
This conflict is Bush's strongest asset going into November, 2004. The Democrats have begun their first, halting steps to solve this problem in Iowa. Its strategy? Attack Bush on specific issues of foreign policy -- say, not capturing Al-Qaeda operatives or preventing terrorist attacks in Riyadh -- and more broadly, failing to be effective in protecting the American people.
I've always sort of liked Ari Fleischer, so it's too bad to see him go. This is probably just a contrarian streak in me, developed after listening to Josh Marshall ridicule him for a period of years. Honestly, he struck me as a good Press Secretary who was useful at stonewalling the press on certain issues, and bluntly admitting that he wasn't going to reveal certain information to the public (an Administration's right to keep some of its workings private is something that is vastly undervalued today). The more snarky commentators may say that this wasn't a skill; that Fleischer couldn't tell the news corps anything because he was so out of the loop that he didn't know anything. Who knows, they may be right. But regardless of the reasons for his stinginess, Ari Fleischer seemed to make an above average Press Secretary.
Jonathan Alter's factually-empty article on the (purported) erosion of public trust in the press in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, and the cynical eye people view newspaper reporting with, seems to make this the perfect time to defend the New York Times.
In terms of credibility and integrity, our newspapers are -- and are perceived as being -- vastly healthier than they have been at basically any other point in history (the talent for investigative reporting being left out of this particular bill of health). I am curious what time period Alter is comparing today's apparently discredited and untrustworthy newspapers with. It certainly could not have been during World War Two, when the press was under censorship, strict supervision of its actions, and denied key details of the war effort. And I suspect it wasn't during the heyday of the famous Hearst empire, or Joseph Pulitzer's New York World. Yellow journalism did not exactly present the news in black and white. An even closer connection between newspapers and political ideologies was evident further back in history. Many modern newspapers started as a political outfits and only later morphed into a more objective source of news.
This is a fact that only grows more vivid as one investigates journalism in other countries. The different factions in the Spanish Civil War -- both in Spain and abroad -- described two completely different wars. It reached the level that George Orwell despaired if mankind was losing its ability to separate reality and desires at all.
The point? Newspapers today are at the height of their credibility, and are trusted by a broader audience, than any other point in history. This probably will not change. The New York Times, despite the Jayson Blair scandal, remains at the pinnacle of this journalistic credibility. The Times won an amazing seven Pulitzers last year. Conservatives and even some liberals may bash it, but at the beginning of the day, they still read it. Andrew Sullivan may trash its copy and its editors daily, but he still quotes from it. Despite its faults, the New York Times is still the best newspaper in America -- and again, that doesn't seem to be changing any time soon.
When it comes to religion, Osama could never be accused of agnosticism. But when it comes to Osama, I think the rest of us are forced into a sort of uncomfortable agnosticism regarding his continued existence.
MSNBC buries the lede in its report on the Saudi bombings. The interesting sentences, buried beneath the anemic headline "Saudis arrest 4," are:
"The [Saudi] government had said the 19 [suspects in the terrorist acts] were believed to be receiving orders directly from Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born dissident who leads al-Qaida, and had been planning to use the seized weapons to attack the Saudi royal family as well as American and British interests."
"As for al-Qaida’s role in Riyadh, U.S. intelligence officials told NBC News on Thursday they believed bin Laden approved the plans for it several months ago and gave the final go-ahead within the past few weeks. They said the role played by bin Laden, 46, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, was a strong signal that he remained in control of al-Qaida from his presumed hiding place in the lawless 'no man’s land' along the Afghan-Pakistani border...Bin Laden’s fervor may have created a split within the top leadership of al-Qaida, the officials said. They said bin Laden’s enthusiasm for launching more frequent attacks against bigger targets had alarmed other al-Qaida leaders who argue that the network may have been stretched too thin to pull off such an ambitious campaign."(emphasis mine)
Just because an audio tape purporting to be the voice of Osama bin Laden references current events, doesn't mean the voice is actually that of bin Laden's. The government has been reticent to publically say whether or not they believe these audio tapes are actually recorded by the Supreme Commander himself -- and this is possibly because they simply cannot tell. Years later, bin Laden still has not proved definitively whether he is alive or dead. Why doesn't he make visual recordings any more? Perhaps he's injured, or perhaps he's radically changed his appearance -- or perhaps he's dead. When those who lead violent lives drop off the face of the earth for over a year, it's not insane to believe that the violent life got the better of them; or conversely, that they've dropped off the earth to prevent it from doing so.
When there aren't enough facts to arrive at a conclusion on a given subject, the logical thing to do is merely to say so -- that is, remain agnostic on the subject. Even if it would be great to know the answer. Even if you can score political points by merely guessing at the answer. Even if you're a pundit.
Ever since the military victory in Baghdad, one has not had to look very far for a veritable Greek chorus enunciating the failures of the American military in Baghdad: Anarchy on the streets, looting of national treasures, the beginnings of a theocracy, local gangs, terrorists setting up shop, lack of basic necessities for the Iraqi pople, lack of aid, and (rather strangely, given the other objections) that American troops are using an excess of force to maintain order.
I have some doubts as to the veracity, or legitimacy, of some of these complaints. I am fairly certain that others are true -- and that they are, indeed, failures.
But certainly, these failures don't describe the entire situation in Baghdad. There's a lot going on over there right now, and there's bound to be both failures and successes. So overall, is there any way to ascertain the true state of Baghdad? (The question of the State of Iraq will just have to wait).
The reports on the conditions in Baghdad from an Iraqi native, who would know what conditions in Baghdad were pre-war and who experienced the efficacy of a similar rebuilding of Baghdad following the first Gulf War sure would be useful! And -- who would have guessed it -- there exists such a source in Salam Pax, an Iraqi blogger living in Baghdad. Let's see what he has to say:
"5 US Dollars for a single hour of browsing. Talk about someone milking it, I wonder if they would let me pay for only half an hour. I am not complaining; I would not have believed anyone who would have told me a week ago that I will be able to browse at all. There are more of these centers popping up here and there so the prices will go down. Besides I have heard today that a NGO called [Communication sans frontiers] has arrived in Iraq and will help. They will probably be doing what the Red Cross is doing, a center in Baghdad and a team moving around Iraq."
"...But I am sounding now like the Taxi drivers I have fights with whenever I get into one. Besides asking for outrageous fares (you can’t blame them gas prices have gone up 10 times, if you can get it) but they start grumbling and mumbling and at a point they would say something like “well it wasn’t like the mess it is now when we had saddam”. This is usually my cue for going into rage-mode. We Iraqis seem to have very short memories, or we simply block the bad times out. I ask them how long it took for us to get the electricity back again after he last war? 2 years until things got to what they are now, after 2 months of war. I ask them how was the water? Bad. Gas for car? None existent. Work? Lots of sitting in street tea shops. And how did everything get back? Hussain Kamel used to literally beat and whip people to do the impossible task of rebuilding. Then the question that would shut them up, so, dear Mr. Taxi driver would you like to have your saddam back? Aren’t we just really glad that we can now at least have hope for a new Iraq? Or are we Iraqis just a bunch of impatient fools who do nothing better than grumble and whine? Patience, you have waited for 35 years for days like these so get to working instead of whining. End of conversation."
Salam does temper his praise of the American rebuilding with complaints about the lack of imaginativeness of the American leadership, and his joy at the Iraqi liberation with descriptions of the horror of war. But Pax sees the individual failures of the American effort as unfortunate, but not resulting in the overall failure of the American rebuilding effort. He urges himself to be patient; " God needed seven days to finish his work and all that."
All lessons that more than a few pundits, overexcited at their newest toy argument, could stand to learn.
Is the terrorism in Casablanca an important event in the global war on terror? It's worth noting that this sort of terrorism isn't new to this part of the world; if it happened before September 11, 2001, it wouldn't be news. This sort of terrorism, while unquestionably horrific and tragic, does not show any new or rejuvenated strength of terrorist organizations worldwide. What it does show is that terrorist organizations are still far from crippled -- that they still have havens throughout the world, and are capable of striking the less-protected areas of the civilized world.
Many commentators have used the attacks in Saudia Arabia, and now in Casablanca, to criticize the Administration's declarations of successes against Al Qaeda. This amounts to the mistake of failing to separate the trees from the forest. We've done some good things against Al Qaeda -- we have had successes. I have full faith that terrorist organizations are weaker than on September 12, 2001. But we shouldn't mistake a few successes with total victory, and a weakened international terrorist infrastructure with a totally defeated one.
David Adesnik, of Oxblog, is absolutely right about the New York Times' "Bush's Stagecraft" article. Adesnik writes, "[George W.'s] success rests more on substance than image, even if that same substance often antagonizes voters as well... in the broader scheme of things, ideas are what matter most. So let's argue about ideas."
I'm sure Bush does have a great communications staff -- probably put together in part by the great political operative Karl Rove. And it probably does have some effect on Bush's efficacy. But there are simply far larger and easier explanations for Bush's successes: a clear, popular foreign policy (which contrasts with the garbled, weak foreign policy of the opposition), and a willingness to stay on message and put his popularity on the line regarding tax cuts.
The communications prowess of the White House no doubt helps Bush. But it is the same qualities that made Bush a political hit in Texas -- an ability to stay on message, put his political capital on the line, and have a short list of achievable goals to draw from -- that has made him a political hit in Washington D.C.
Josh Marshall is all over the Fleeing Texas Democrats story. Which is to say, he's written quite a bit about it. I'll be frank and say that, even after reading his posting a number of times, I'm not entirely sure exactly what has gotten him in such a fine lather about it. Tom DeLay apparently sought federal help -- including help from the Department of Homeland Security -- to track down the Democrats who were evading the Texas legislature in order to prevent a quorum from being present.
Now, I'll be frank and say that I haven't quite gotten my mind wrapped around this entirely. But there is a law in Texas that allows for the arrest of these Democrats (as stupid as I think that may be). It seems what DeLay is possibly guilty of is asking help from the federal government, instead of help from the states. Well, okay, that sounds bad, and I'll be especially pissed if he's leaching off resources that should be used to fight terrorism. But Marshall is unusually disorganized in making his point on this one, and I'll wait for a more succinct explanation of what DeLay did before drawing judgement on how bad it really is.
But Marshall's missing the real story. Why in God's name is a law that calls for the arrest of a Congressmen when they assert their constitutional right to not vote, or not be present at a given place despite government dictat, constitutional? Marshall sneers at the actual prosecution of this law in a few places, tantalizingly hinted that it may be, you know, undemocratic, but he doesn't make it his central point (he's more interested in scoring a hit against DeLay).
C'mon Josh! Pick apart those sneers, and you'll come across a strong argument!
A day or two ago, I mentioned a comment which made the point that, though Jayson Blair was probably the beneficiary of affirmative action gone wrong, this one failure does not prove the wholesale failure of affirmative action. I said I'd comment on this line of thinking -- and I do like to keep my promises.
I'm commenting on this particular aspect of the Blair fiasco because it has broad implications -- do individual anecdotes give us any insight into the value of broad public policy actions, or do they merely distort the big picture in favor of one side or another? It doesn't seem to take a big leap, using this line of thought, to decide that any individual examples or events are irrelevant when considering the value of a policy.
This view, obviously, has a certain appeal to it. A camera, after all, only reveals all in its limiting frame -- in the direction it is pointed at. But I don't think this principle describes the whole picture -- and I think it misunderstands the criticism of affirmative action being made in relation to Jayson Blair. The point is not -- and was never-- that because Jayson Blair was an utter failure as a journalist, and because he benefited from affirmative action, that affirmative action is necessarily bad policy. In objecting to that argument, the commenter was undoubtably correct. However, by pointing out affirmative action's failures in Blair's case, one gains a greater understanding of the case against affirmative action.
Of course, the Blair story isn't the whole picture on affirmative action. But just because one case doesn't provide all the answers, and instead, only puts one part of the picture in greater focus, doesn't mean that part shouldn't be put into greater focus. So where does that leave us? Regarding the principle of anecdotes, it tells us that they're useful for illuminating portions of larger pictures, but should not be mistaken for the complete picture. Regarding affirmative action, it tells us that affirmative action's critics have demonstrated quite clearly the faults and flaws of the program through these anecdotes.
Are there competing anecdotes? Are there stories of blacks who have risen up in society due to affirmative action, and proven their worth to hold their positions? More importantly -- are there stories that show that these events have built bridges between the races, creating racial harmony and a spirit of equality? Most likely there are some -- though they are far less publicized than anecdotal criticisms of affirmative action. Undoubtably, successful blacks do not like admitting that their initial success had to do with affirmative action. Which is, in itself, an indictment of affirmative action's success, even among those it has made successful.
Anecdotes can never tell the whole story. In an issue as wide-ranging as affirmative action, there are millions of possible anecdotes floating around in American society, just waiting for a journalist to come along and magnify it out of all proportion to the others. However, it should give us pause that, out of all of these floating anectdotes, and given all the possible journalists of all different political persuasions, primarily negative affirmative action anectdotes are highlighted. There is a perfectly good chance that this is due to the paucity of positive affirmative action anectdotes, or the basic difficulty of lionizing individual events that, by nature of the policy, are unfair and arbitrary.
In other words, the great collection of anecdotes gathered on a given policy has the ability to flesh out each side's argument. It also provides an in-depth and well-researched poll on the social benefits of the policy -- which has a value that is far more than anecdotal.