Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Noise Machine at Work

The U.S. right wing noise machine - including its blog component along with talk radio and FOX - occasionally selects something said by a liberal or a Democrat and decides that it is worth making a huge fuss over on the grounds that it is beyond the pale in terms of patriotism. They have done this recently with respect to a speech made by Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin on the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo. One conservative blogger, Hugh Hewitt, even quoted extensively from the speech in order to justify his call for a Senate censure of Durbin.

I do find their commentary disturbing. It suggests a type of blind lunatic partisanship that it is completely out of touch with reality. Here is what Hewitt suggests:

SENATE MAJORITY LEADER BILL FRIST and Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter should move this week to initiate a censure resolution of Illinois Senator Dick Durbin for his remarks on the Senate's floor on June 14, 2005. Not only did Durbin's remarks injure America's position in the world, provide an enormous propaganda victory to the enemy, and slander the United States military, they also represent an escalation in the political rhetoric of the left, which is designed to undermine the public's confidence in the military, the administration, and the war.

Bill Kristol, former chief of staff to Dan Quayle when he served as Vice-President, said the same thing.

What part of Durbin’s speech has them in a lather? It is the following passage:

When you read some of the graphic descriptions of what has occurred here -- I almost hesitate to put them in the record, and yet they have to be added to this debate. Let me read to you what one FBI agent saw. And I quote from his report:

On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more. On one occasion, the air conditioning had been turned down so far and the temperature was so cold in the room, that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold....On another occasion, the [air conditioner] had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his hair out throughout the night. On another occasion, not only was the temperature unbearably hot, but extremely loud rap music was being played in the room, and had been since the day before, with the detainee chained hand and foot in the fetal position on the tile floor.

If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime -- Pol Pot or others -- that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners.

It is not too late. I hope we will learn from history. I hope we will change course.

It is clear that he laments the evidence of torture and mistreatment supplied by the FBI and argues, quite correctly, that if one did not know the source, one might well attribute this behaviour to Nazis, gulags, etc.

For the right wingers (or wingnuts as they are known) this statement is simply an attack on the U.S. military as being essentially like Nazis, gulags, etc. rather than a straightforward attack on the specific behaviours at issue. Hence the calls for censure.

The underlining emphasizes his true meaning and therefore how completely reasonable his statements are. But try telling that to the wingnuts.

Ironically, the most effective rebuttal to the loony right has come from conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan who poses the pertinent question.

I've now read and re-read Senator Dick Durbin's comments on interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay. They are completely, perfectly respectable. The rank hysteria being perpetrated by some on the right is what is shameful. Hugh Hewitt should answer one single question: does he doubt the FBI interrogator who witnessed the appalling treatment of some detainees at Guantanamo?

I also strongly recommend this post by Kevin Drum, and this one, plus this commentary by Matthew Yglesias, who correctly describes the right as falling into an “ethical black hole”.

And to give them credit (via Atrios), here is an editorial from the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

The comments that were criticized came late in a long, thoughtful speech on the Senate floor in which Durbin reflected on the United States' obligation to be better than reprehensible regimes of the past. He talked at some length about mistakes American presidents made in previous wars (repealing habeas corpus during the Civil War, interning Americans of Japanese descent during World War II, taking over the steel industry during the Korean War), and he urged President Bush to recognize and rectify his mistake in prisoner treatment during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. …
Durbin was spot on in his assessment of Guantanamo. That's why he was so roundly attacked. He told the truth. And his message is of vital importance; the United States is better than this.

Or ought to be is more like it. But it is the influential character of attacks like this that make one despair of the future of political debate in the U.S.

UPDATE: Durbin has now apologized. Demonstrates the political strength of the noise machine, sadly.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Democrats and the Bubba Vote

There is an ongoing debate within the Democratic Party about its failure to address the economic concerns about culturally conservative “Bubba” vote in the south, who are voting against their economic interests by supporting Republicans. It is the principal subject of a much discussed book that laments the phenomenon: What’s the Matter with Kansas by Thomas Frank. I found the book to be analytically weak and not all that helpful.

It seems to me this post by Kevin Drum poses the issue well:

So exactly what economic interests are they voting against? Forget the Krugmanesque (or Drumesque) arguments about regressive taxes or rising income inequality. They may be true, but they're way too abstract. If you want to convince these guys that their economic interests lie with Democrats, we need to offer them something real: local clinics, free healthcare, tax rebates, something. Right now, I don't think these voters believe that Democrats are actually promising anything that would make a genuine difference in their lives.

I think the most important answer to the “dilemma” posed by Drum is for the Dems to push for single payer health care. However much they are fought by special interests, at the end of the day the program would clearly be in the interests of the white working class “Bubbas” and many others.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Elizabeth Drew on Corruption

There have been numerous gripes in the Conservative blogosphere in Canada about Liberal corruption. However, as I have commented before, corruption sponsorship-style simply pales in comparison with the everyday life of politics south of the border. Elizabeth Drew summarizes this well in an article in the New York Review of Books. An excerpt says it all:

Corruption has always been present in Washington, but in recent years it has become more sophisticated, pervasive, and blatant than ever. A friend of mine who works closely with lobbyists says, "There are no restraints now; business groups and lobbyists are going crazy—they're in every room on Capitol Hill writing the legislation. You can't move on the Hill without giving money."

Now that is real corruption.

The Health Policy Experts on the SCC

Several points about the Supreme Court of Canada decision on health care.

First the media did an absolutely dreadful job of reporting its actual contents. The majority ruling found that the restrictions violated the Quebec Charter. However, one member of the majority refused to offer an opinion on whether it violated the Canadian Charter so the ruling was evenly divided, and therefore no constitutional decision was rendered. The Quebec Charter is not constitutional but an ordinary piece of legislation. Thus Quebec’s decision to abide by the ruling is entirely discretionary. While the Quebec Charter does have an override clause (s. 52), the reality is that any Quebec government is free to legislatively overturn any Quebec Charter decision it doesn’t like. The constraints are political not legal. Virtually all the reporting was seriously confused about this. And this is an issue that belongs in the realm of politics, not constitutional rights.

It follows therefore that one cannot use the notwithstanding clause in the Canadian Charter yet, as there is no ruling to actually override. You could have been easily confused about this, for example, by stories such as this one. This case, however, does tell us why should retain s. 33 and recognize that someday it will be necessary to use it. Courts can behave in truly appalling ways.

This brings us to the politics of the matter. On the issues raised by two-tier health care I won’t comment except to note there was an excellent column on this subject in the Star by Thomas Walkom. I do suspect the age and class position of the judges in the majority influenced their rulings. They are older and hence vulnerable to illness, and no doubt would like the right to use their money to buy leverage in the system. Why shouldn't wealthy judges have it both ways: accessing tax-supported health care when it suits them and paying their way to the front of the line when it doesn't.

Some who were encouraged by the ruling, such as Mike Harris, suggest there would be more lawsuits don’t realize that the Court is not likely to rule this way again. Two judges now on the court, Rosalie Abella and Louise Charron, did not participate as they did not hear the original case. I am not sure about Charron, but I am confident that Abella will not support the majority position if she gets. Two of the judges in the majority, John Major and Beverly McLachlin are Mulroney era appointees with Major slated to retire next year, so the majority is almost certain to be overturned with his replacement.

In the end it is public support for the current system, and that remains strong, which will determine its fate.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Fraser Institute and the CBC

The Fraser Institute published a study this week purporting to prove that "CBC’s television news coverage of the United States is consistently marked by emotional criticism, rather than a rational consideration of US policy based on Canadian national interests...

This anti-American bias at the CBC is the consequence of a "garrison mentality" that has systematically informed the broadcaster’s coverage of the US. Garrison mentality was a term coined by Canadian literary critic, Northrop Frye. He used it to describe a uniquely Canadian tendency reflected in our early literature, a tendency, as he put it, to "huddle together, stiffening our meager cultural defenses and projecting all our hostilities outward."...

To gauge the extent of anti-American sentiment on CBC, one year’s coverage of the Corporation’s flagship news program, The National, for 2002 was examined. The authors chose 2002 because it followed the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, but was prior to the US invasion of Iraq.

In total there were 2,383 statements inside the 225 stories that referred to America or the United States on CBC in 2002. As with most news coverage, the largest number of statements was neutral; they constituted 49.1 percent of the attention. Thirty-four percent of the attention to America or the United States was negative, over double the 15.4 percent positive descriptors. Only 1.6 percent of the statements were considered ambiguous."

There was, however, an effective rebuttal on Antonia Zerbisias’ excellent new media blog on the Toronto Star web site. She points out that in the period under study were some stories bound to elicit negative statements about the U.S., such as the accidental killing of four Canadian soldiers by a U.S. fighter pilot in Afghanistan. Might just have had some influence on the numbers. The study merely cites coverage of this issue as another example of anti-U.S. bias (p. 12 of the study).

If he were being honest Cooper should have argued that the views of his study deserved attention despite the fact that he is politically a conservative who in the past for example, collaborated with Stephen Harper and Tom Flanagan on the so-called Alberta firewall letter (see this account of Cooper’s role on the web site of the conservative Alberta Residents League).

Of course offering such a the disclaimer might be an acknowledgement that his analysis is somewhat less than objective and dispassionate, and perhaps should not be taken too seriously.

Don't know how I missed the Globe's John Doyle's comments on this subject but they are worth quoting:

Yoo-hoo! Any study that finds "the largest number of statements was neutral," actually finds that the broadcaster is doing its job.

In fact the level of neutrality is extraordinary given one of the key stories of 2002 -- the killing of four Canadian soldiers and the injury of eight others in April, 2002, when a U.S. fighter pilot dropped a 500-pound bomb on the Canadians in Afghanistan after the pilot's commanders had initially denied him permission to drop it. The incident stunned Canadians and the first reactions from the U.S. military galvanized many into genuine anger at the United States, which lasted for months.

Choosing one news program during a year of intense feelings and then spinning the figures is just bogus. There is more integrity in a WWE bout.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

New Decima Poll & Harper's Nightmares

One assumes that Stephen Harper will toss and turn tonight with visions of Liberal majority in the next election recurring frequently in his nightmares. The new Decima poll is devastating news for the Conservatives. How devastating? According to my calculations, in Ontario, where the Liberals are reported to be at 48%, the NDP at 24% and the Conservatives at 22%, the resulting distribution of seats would be Liberals - 90; NDP -14; Harper Conservatives - 2.

These numbers are clearly Grewal-driven. For a full discussion that provides some context about just how bad this is for Harper, I recommend reading this post by a Canadian small 'c' conservative, which I discovered courtesy of the aptly named Buckets of Grewal blog and its post: What Did Harper Know and When Did He Know It?.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Harper and Grewal

I suspected early on that the Grewal tapes affair could only hurt the Conservatives. The inside-the-Queensway crowd (for example. John Ibbitson's column here (subscription required) says: Both the governing party and the Official Opposition have been tainted by this latest scandal. But the situation for the Liberals is worse.

Not so. That’s simply because they were already badly tarnished by the Sponsorship scandal (see here), whereas the Conservatives did have at least some positive ratings in earlier polls on honesty & ethics issues (for example, see page 14 in this Ekos Poll), although in this Environics Poll (see for example, questions 7 and 8(b) they trail the NDP. They are the big losers out of Grewal because they have now come to share the Liberal taint.

On a related but slightly different note, David Olive analyzed Harper’s problems quite well in the Star on June 5. It includes my favourite Stephen Harper quote plus a couple of additional gems:

Canada appears content to become a second-tier socialistic country," Harper wrote in December 2000. In a little-noticed addendum to his widely criticized 2002 observation that Atlantic Canada tolerates "a culture of defeat," Harper also observed that "in parts of the Prairies" there is evidence of "the kind of can't-do attitude (that) is a problem in this country."

Monday, June 06, 2005

Polls and BC Election

Now that the final numbers are in I can begin some B.C. election post-mortems. On the polls I have compared the final vote shares province-wide to the predicted numbers from Mustel, Ipsos Reid and the Strategic Counsel.

The final vote percentages were Liberal - 45.8; NDP - 41.52, Green - 9.18 and Others 3.5.

And the closest pollster was the Mustel Group with a total net error of 5.64 percentage points, followed closely by Ipsos-Reid at 6.04, both being good performances. The Strategic Counsel poll for the Globe trailed substantially with total error of 14.04. Their estimate of the NDP vote at 36% was outside their claimed margin of error ± 3.1%. The poll had also suggested a 13 point win for the Liberals.

My forecast model predicts a Liberal win of 49-30 compared to the actual 46-33 using the actual vote shares. The model adjusts outcomes based on changes from the 2001 result, which was likely out of the ordinary pattern of B.C. politics. The results are interesting and I will post on them at a later date. It is useful I find to compare them to the 1996 election, which more closely resembles 2005 in terms of its overall outcome than 2001.

Deep Throat

The coverage of the unveiling of Deep Throat would lead you to believe that it was his disclosures to Bob Woodward and the stories based on the leaks in the Washington Post that were the only key ingredients in the ouster of Richard Nixon as a consequence of the Watergate scandal.

I think this is a little misleading and overestimates the importance of the media in unravelling the cover-up. This analysis overlooks the fact that during the trial of those caught during the break-in the presiding judge, John J. Sirica expressed annoyance and skepticism at the stories the defendants told and put off sentencing of James McCord and G. Gordon Liddy in part to pressure them into revealing more of the story. On March 19, 1973 McCord, seeking to avoid jail time, sent Sirica a letter, which, among other things, named John Dean and John Mitchell as participants in a cover-up of the original crime and its ties to the Committee to Re-elect the President and the White House. As this chronology confirms, this was the moment that effectively brought the cover-up to an end, blowing the scandal wide open.

The Woodward/Bernstein articles did matter - my guess is that they influenced the thinking of Sirica - but it is important not to lose sight of the actual sequence of events.

The testimony of Alexander Butterfield at the Watergate Senate Committee hearings on July 16, 1973 that there was a White House taping system is what led to the disclosure of the contents of the tapes and hence Nixon’s resignation. Without the tapes, it seems unlikely there would have been sufficient votes to ensure Nixon’s impeachment and their disclosure resulted from the Senate investigation. I did see one of the Committee’s lawyers (on ABC News Nightline) arguing that without Deep Throat there would have been no Senate investigation. I doubt that. There was enough leakage on this story apart from Deep Throat and the Washington Post - a couple of times the New York Times scooped the Post - to lead me to believe that the Senate Democrats would have pursued this issue after the initial trials were over even if the issue had assumed a lower profile until that point.

I commented recently on the fact that Watergate was likely the worst of all government scandals in the past half century, far worse than the Sponsorship affair here.

What is amazing has been some of the collective amnesia today about how bad it was. This post by Obsidian Wings helps correct the record - note the contemplation of murder and fire-bombing.