Friday, November 18, 2005

House Rules: GOP Forces Vote On Iraq Troop Pullout

In a maneuver likely timed to swing political momentum away from Democrats and those who are now calling for an immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, House Republicans will hold a quick vote tonight on just that (see San Francisco Chronicle story here).

Democratic Rep. Jack Murtha, a longtime military "hawk" and supporter of the war effort, just this week called for the immediate pullout of troops from Iraq. In a classic bit of political theater, all members of the House will now be forced to publicly declare whether or not they agree.

The Republicans and the White House are attempting to call Murtha's bluff, if it can be called such. While the outcome of the vote won't be in question, the politics surrounding the decision to hold it in the first place will be.

Because the House of Representatives is controlled by Republicans – many still loyal to the White House and President Bush, even in the face of nosediving poll numbers across the board – it is almost certain that the vote itself is a formality and will essentially change nothing in terms of the United States' Iraq policy.

This ploy may also be seen as a reaction to a surprise Senate vote this week that passed with bipartisan support. While it was non-binding, it did send the first major signal to the White House that Congress is not willing to blindly tow the line on the longstanding policy that may be boiled down to phrases such as "Stay the Course" and "Not a Day Longer." This bumper-sticker approach may have served Karl Rove and the GOP very well in several successive elections, but in terms of substantive policy it looks to be a decisive loser in 2005. The Senate resolution was in effect a call for a plan to bring about some kind of resolution in Iraq. It was, in a sense, a plea for change to a policy that has altered very little since the invasion of two and a half years ago.

Will tonight's House vote be seen as a decisive step to turn the tide of public opinion back to the post-9/11 days of American flag waving and patriotic bravado, or will it be seen as an overreaction and misstep by a ruling party that seriously has lost its way over the last year?

The question may boil down to this: Are people looking for political machinations, or are they looking for real change?

As goes Iraq may go the election chances for many candidates in the 2006 elections, now less than a year away. Congress is feeling the proximity of next November, which certainly can account for the recent developments in both chambers.

Whether or not this urgency produces better results for the people in Iraq and our soldiers in harm's way remains to be seen.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Tectonic Vibrations: The Candidate Scramble for 2006, 2008 Begins

You know it's dark days for Republicans when you have Tim Russert, host of NBC's Meet the Press, questioning Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean about the three (out of a total of 19) categories in a recent poll in which Republicans were rated higher than Democrats.

George W. Bush's poll numbers are down to the lowest levels of his presidency. What began as a trickle early this year has picked up steam due to an unremitting series of miscalculations, negative headlines, and events turning against long-standing administration policies. Could Republicans have guessed, after their triumph in the 2004 elections, that they would be reading news such as this one year later?

Fewer than one in 10 adults say they would prefer a congressional candidate who is a Republican and who agrees with Bush on most major issues, according to a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday. Even among Republicans, seven of 10 are most likely to back a candidate who has had at least some disagreements with the president.

Bush's job-approval rating sank to a record 37%, down from a previous low of 39% a month ago. The poll finds growing criticism of the president, unease about the nation's direction and opposition to the war in Iraq.

It may be that 2005's off-off year elections (resulting in victories for the Democrats in Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races) will bare little reflection the future, but nonetheless Republicans are choosing this moment on the electoral calendar to defect from a White House that until recently held together a remarkable and longstanding majority coalition. While the future is ever unfolding and history rewritten nearly daily, it could well be that President Bush's height of power will be marked from the moment al Qaeda struck on September 11, 2001 to the stumbling and incompetent response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

Of course, the ongoing war in Iraq appears to be an underlying factor to slackening public support for the government in a number of areas, from displeasure over continuing casualties and a lack of a cohesive plan to stabilize the nation to concerns over the use and possible misuse of pre-war intelligence that led to the 2003 invasion.

Republicans in Congress, many of whom must run for reelection in 2006, have finally been prompted to craft their own plan for Iraq in reaction to increased calls for a planned withdrawal or drawdown of an American military presence from the Democrats:

In a sign of increasing unease among Congressional Republicans over the war in Iraq, the Senate is to consider on Tuesday a Republican proposal that calls for Iraqi forces to take the lead next year in securing the nation and for the Bush administration to lay out its strategy for ending the war. …

The proposal on the Iraq war, from Senator Bill Frist, the majority leader, and Senator John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, would require the administration to provide extensive new quarterly reports to Congress on subjects like progress in bringing in other countries to help stabilize Iraq. The other appeals related to Iraq are nonbinding and express the position of the Senate.

The plan stops short of a competing Democratic proposal that moves toward establishing dates for a phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq. But it is built upon the Democratic approach and makes it clear that senators of both parties are increasingly eager for Iraqis to take control of their country in coming months and open the door to removing American troops.

If the president's poll numbers don't improve very much during the next six months, look for congressional leaders to further distance themselves from the Bush administration. In any event, it looks inevitable that congressional races will pit Republicans who will emphasize local issues, as opposed to Democratic candidates who will try to nationalize the race and tie opponents to the White House. Senator and now Governor-elect John Corzine's successful campaign in New Jersey, which featured television ads that pointed to his opponent as "Bush's choice," may well be a harbinger of the future.

One of the significant repercussions for the still far off 2008 presidential elections could be that there will be no true "Bush heir." Vice President Cheney, beset himself with close ties to his indicted former Chief of Staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby and poll numbers in the low twenties to high teens, has long maintained that he will not run for president. Condoleezza Rice, wildly popular in some circles but closely tied to the Iraq war, has herself declared that she will return to Stanford University. Florida Governor Jeb Bush has also ruled out an '08 run. Bill Frist, the Senate Majority Leader, has his own ethical liabilities and is at this point anchored to the Bush administration's policies.

Short of a rightwing social conservative, such as Senator Sam Brownback, blowing away competition via ruthless force of the evangelical Christian base, the two leading nominees for president within the Republican party are Senator John McCain of Arizona and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Both share the honor of being popular nationally while not being embraced by some factions of the Republican party. McCain's independence from party orthodoxy, once considered a liability, may well turn out to be the central tenet of a potential presidential campaign. Likewise, Giuliani's moderate to liberal stance on social issues will also be closely examined.

Meanwhile, a recent Wall Street Journal poll has New York Senator Hillary Clinton out to a whopping 41% to 14% lead against her closest competition (former Senator and 2004 Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards) in a full field of choices. Al Gore, John Kerry, Wesley Clark, and Joe Biden trailed Edwards. Because of Clinton's continued support for the war in Iraq, some feel that she will be vulnerable on that issue, much as John Kerry was "boxed in" during the 2004 presidential campaign.

John Edward's recent admission that his vote to authorize President Bush to use force in Iraq was wrong will likely have significant ripples throughout the Democratic party:

"I was wrong," Edwards wrote.

"I take responsibility for that mistake. It has been hard to say these words because those who didn't make a mistake - the men and women of our armed forces and their families - have performed heroically and paid a dear price."

Edwards said the intelligence used to support the invasion was flawed.

"The urgent question isn't how we got here but what we do now," Edwards wrote. "We have to give our troops a way to end their mission honorably. That means leaving behind a success, not a failure."

John Edwards may well have put himself in place – philosophically and in terms of policy – to make a serious run at the '08 nomination with such an admission. Outgoing and popular Virginia Governor Mark Warner, another energetic moderate from the South, will be another player in the presidential horserace.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Hot Topic - Secret Pop Cult Shames!

The Duke's at "the helm" for this week's Hot Topic...


From out the head-holes of a buncha self-appointed "cultural commentators" comes a weekly side-swipe at the issues of the day, the issues of the night, the issues of the late-afternoon when the telly's crap and it's too early to eat.

This is The Hot Topic.

This week - "Um, I Haven't Seen It / Heard It / Read It" - Our Secret Pop Cult Shames!

From: The Duke De Mondo

To: The Hot Topic Team

Re: Secret Pop Cult Shames

Couple days past, myself and Sir Fleming sat debating the in's and out's of pi to a couple hundred decimal points, sat discussin the elusive wonders of Scorpius Gigantus starring Jeff Fahey, sat discussing the whys and wherefores of Land Of The Dead (Is it shit, is it amazing, who the hell knows? Neither of us two, that's for sure, since ain't a single syllable of agreement to be found).

In the course of it all, plenty banter about Jimmy Stewart, crops up least nine or twenty-four times in any given conversation, half a hundred jokes referencing the spin a the wheelchair this way or that in Rear Window.

Rear Window, least 48% of all punchlines uttered by yours truly in the course of a day involve Hitchcock's flick about the nosey ol' bastard an the diabolical goings on.

Who knows why, or for what reason, or what ungodly voodoo mania led to it all, but all a sudden I get slapped upside the knackers with the kinda guilt most often results in grown-men fryin neath the desert sun chewin locusts an hollerin bout the prophet Isaiah.

All a sudden I feel the need to fess up.

What it is, I say, what's got me sweatin out my teeth, what it all relates to, see, is that, well…

I never actually seen Rear Window.

For shame! And you, The Duke, joking about it every day in existence, and you ain't even laid an eye on the monochrome splendor of it all ever even once!

And worse.

The other day, chat heads in the direction of Quentin Tarantino, how unless Robert Rodriguez is involved, then anything Q.T related that isn't actually directed by the uber-chinned whelp, best avoid the fucker altogether.

"Like what", asks Sir Fleming?

Like, I dunno, like Four Rooms, for example.

"Four Rooms? It was alright!"

Forced into a corner, forced to make my point about no, it's not alright, when really, when the truth of it all comes staggering into the bar-room buggered raw at five in the morning, what it coughs out the throat is, to be honest, I haven't actually seen Four Rooms.

Because this is what we do. We have all the knowledge in the world regarding a certain flick, a certain book, a certain piece a music, we could talk about the fucker all week, we could draw diagrams and pie-charts that illustrate in no uncertain terms just what effect it has had on The Society and The Consciousness and So On. And yet when we get right down to it, when the guts are torn out the poultry and inspected by moonlight, what they reveal is that we ain't got a right in the world to make these proclamations, we ain't ever even seen / read / heard the bastard!

No-one's gonna get upset about a fella never seen The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, it ain't the easiest slab a celluloid to get hold of. But what about the fella sat in the corner of the bar scared to pipe in with his thoughts on Coppola because he ain't ever seen Apocalypse Now?

We all have them. These hidden shames. Maybe we never actually seen Goodfellas, or Terminator 2, or we never read On The Road even though we quote it endlessly, or we never heard any of Neil Young's 1980's recordings, yet we still insist they suck.

So what I wanna know, what'll get me through life even though I still haven't seen Rear Window, is the facts of the case re the following;

What's your secret Pop Cult shame?

From: Aaron Fleming

To: The Hot Topic Team

Re: Secret Pop Cult Shames

Popular culture discrepancies then, a topic that can only wield a plethora of embarrassing confessions, no priest or religiose could even begin to take in the admissions of gaps, holes and chasms of knowledge hitherto unseen by the masses. Luckily the Hot Topic Team far surpasses any supposed virtue possessed by the propagating and hypocritical harbingers of organized religion (although that's for another hot topic debate perhaps), and it is here to grant amnesty to those with guilty concealments.

So let the flood begin.

Movies, then. As I write this a university screening of Toy Story 2 is occurring that I would have been at, had I chosen to depart my warm abode today. The truth is I've never seen that one, although from all I hear it seems to be even more praised than the prequel, which I have seen and is great. This leads onto a number of other CGI movies
which I haven't bothered to see; Monsters Inc, A Bugs Life, Antz, Ice Age etc. I'm not too bothered about these, really. Hey, The Incredibles was great, but the interest just ain't there.

Another topical one is the Harry Potter flicks. Never seen em, never read the books, never bought the action figures, never swam the waters of synergistic marketing. I'm sure it's an interesting mythos, but I just don't care.

I've never seen The Godfather Part 2 (or 3, although I think this is less heathenish). Saw the first one, it's fine, bit overrated, but I couldn't be bothered watching the sequel. I know I probably should, I'm sure it's fantastic, but who has the time these days?

Titanic! Never saw the whole film, I doubt that'll ever be rectified, I'm not prepared to give over 3 hours of my life to that, especially when I know what happens (love story, historical ship sinking yadda yadda). I certainly won't be purchasing that mammoth new 4-disc DVD box.

Haven't seen Gone With The Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Das Boot, Singin In The Rain, Metropolis, Stand By Me, Blood Simple, to name a few big ones I should have seen (some I'd like to see, some less so).

Oh, and Top Gun and Days Of Thunder. Fuck them.

But something to remember here; everyone has gaps, no one has the perfect record. And for every big film missed there's a Porcile, or a Guinea Pig 3: He Never Dies, or a Punishment Park that has been seen.

From: Mark Saleski

To: The Hot Topic Team

Re: Secret Pop Cult Shames

Oh I really have to divulge this information? OK. Here goes...

Every so often, folks will be yammering on about all things political. The conversation will slide around to particularly brutish social situations. Then somebody will say, "Yes, just like in Lord Of The Flies." And then I will nod my head in agreement. But of course, I've never read that book so I don't know what the hell they're talking about. The closest I've come is to listen to Aerosmith's "Lord Of The Thighs" from Live Bootleg. Right. So we all know that a vinyl record is not a book and Thighs are certainly not Flies (and we will not go down the road of disgusting jokes here) so there's the truth, I've never read Lord Of The Flies. There are probably other books I haven't scanned my eyes over, though none as 'important' as this (and I'm not about to count Ulysses here as that seems more like an Olympic intellectual event than just plain old reading).

Then there's films. Let me just get it right out in the open: E.T. There, I've said it. But hey, I've seen Citizen Kane about thirty times. Does that make up for it? Probably not, since there are others: Schindler's List, Lawrence of Arabia (I did try there, but I nodded off and the back of my head whacked into the wall behind the couch), Taxi Driver, The Manchurian Candidate (I own a copy, surely that means something), Titanic. OK, I put that last one there because the snotty side of myself thinks its proximity to The Manchurian Candidate is kinda funny.

Music? Forget it. Everybody knows I own every recording ever made.

From: DJ Radiohead

To: The Hot Topic Team

Re: Secret Pop Cult Shames

OK... there is no way really I can come up with a truly exhaustive list. I will have to settle for naming just a few of my sins in this regard.

Most of them would come in the reading department. I am not as well read as I should like to be. I have only read Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. I never read a lot of the 'great' literature (even if it was assigned in high school or college... I just faked it).

Movies... I am missing a lot of the so-called classics here. I have never seen Taxi Driver or Citizen Kane or High Noon. I must also admit... I claim to be a Tarantino fan (and I am) but I have never seen either of the Kill Bill films or Jackie Brown.

Musically... hmmm... I don't feel like I have really missed anything or at least don't feel bad about that which I have missed. Well... let me change that. I have only heard one or two songs by the Ramones or The Clash. I am not real well schooled at all in the 70s punk movement. I am not sure how much I would like that music or not but some of that
material is considered classic so I feel out of the loop there.

From: Mat Brewster

To: The Hot Topic Group

Re: Secret Pop Cult Shames

The Duke has never seen Rear Window! Well, pluck my eyes out with a pogo stick! Look over the horizon boys, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse should be trotting by any moment.

A fella I know that's the entertainment editor of one of the newspapers in Dallas sends out an annual list of recommended movies from the first talkies to present day. It's a big, grand list and also creates plenty of discussion. It is also daunting to look at and see just how many flicks I haven't seen, nor even heard of. I added it up one time and it would take over 200 back to back to back hours of movie watching to see them all.

Truth of the matter is that unless you are independently wealthy, or it is your job to sit and watch the flickery, there ain't no way you can watch all the films out there. In college I went to the movies nearly every weekend, and usually, I got to see every film that I wanted to see. But even then I didn't see every piece of cinema released. Now I'm
lucky if I get to the theater once a month.

So we all make choices as to what we're actually going to be able to see. A couple of days ago I had to decide between the more critically acclaimed Jarhead, and the completely panned, yet somehow appealing Doom. We take in what we can, lie through our teeth about what we've missed, and chastise those who haven't consumed all the things on our list.

Do I have a secret shame list? Sure. I've only made it through half of Gone With the Wind. Though I own copies, I've never seen reel one of either Rashomon or Ran, or even Laurence of Arabia. I can't recall a single John Wayne picture that I've seen from top to bottom, including Rio Bravo.

Ah, man there is just too many to list. The sense of shame barrels a man over. I can't even get into all the literature I've never read (including not a novel one of William Faulkner) or the music I've never heard (anything by the Sex Pistols, and *cough* the Clash).

From: Eric Berlin

To: The Hot Topic Group

Re: Secret Pop Cult Shames

I'm reminded of the scene in High Fidelity, where the record store troika is forced to admit they're music snobs. Once they admit it, though, they're proud of it.

And let's face it: we all want to be cultural snobs. We all want to know everything there is to know about our "area," whatever that can be defined as: books, alt rock bands, Charles Bronson films, television programs featuring children and robots, and so on.

And as I wrote the above words I wanted to stop at each mini-moment and write, I own Captain Beefheart's Safe as Milk! Does that make me a cultural snob? Not at all, it just makes me crazy on many a level, Zig Zag Wanderer that I am.

Since I'm a generalist and tend to soak up tidbits of various pop cultural arcana without ever delving into the dank cauldrons of true alchemic geekery (think There Are Some Who Call Me... Tim circa Monty Python and the Holy Grail for argument's sake), I'm constantly on the outside looking in upon cultural snobbery in fear and abject awe and, more and more of late, relief!

It's a relief when you let go of the pretensions, isn't it? If it's not in the blood, move on, my brotha, right? So I'll never read Balzac and I couldn't get through the first bloody page of any James Joyce novel I tried my mental motors at. Jethro Tull and Rush and The Mr. T Experience and The Alan Parsons Project will never be names I can summon at will in the midst of a snap-cracklin' music conversation. That's so early Jerthro Tull, bro! I'll never get to utter those glorious words. What's a fella to do?

I tried to soak myself in television for several months this year, which may have been my personal cultural Waterloo (and I can summon Waterloo but Ropespierre or James II? Not so much), but it's all too much, really.

It turns out that I don't care if Joan is from Arcadia or Pasadena or Burbank or wherever. I don't care about William Shatner's late career run on Boston Legal.

I just want to watch The Real World and Arrested Development and Rome.

And so at long last, I hope, I can rest easy in my own cultural digs.

So there you have it, The Hot Topic Team have coughed their confessions left and right cross cyberspace.

Now, it's over to you. Don't be scared, we won't tell nobody. What's your Secret Pop Cult Shame?

Thanks folks.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

In the Middle: Vice President Cheney

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
Subject: Vice President Cheney

There are so many topics to talk about in politics at the moment – the war in Iraq, a myriad of political scandals, Supreme Court nominee Alito, just to name three – but one question keeps coming up for me again and again:

What's up with Vice President Cheney?

For all extents and purposes, Cheney is the head of a once powerful force in Republican circles known as the neoconservatives (or neocons), or those who wish to use American military power to transform the world into a place that is both safer and more secure for the United States. The war in Iraq, of course, was the first big test of this worldview and strategy. 9/11 provided the impetus for the neocons to really take the helm at the White House, driven by Cheney's close proximity to President Bush's ear and a Karl Rove-led PR machine that drove home the message that went something like the following:

Terrorists = bad.
Saddam Hussein = bad.
We must fight terrorists there so we don't have to fight them here.


Saddam's gotta go.

Cut to 2005 and we're still in Iraq and American soldiers are giving up their lives to increasingly sophisticated insurgent attacks. Recent developments have also brought us back to the run-up to the war, particularly the PR machine that was run out of the Vice President's office. Dick Cheney's Chief of Staff, Scooter Libby, is under indictment for perjury and obstruction of justice in the matter of revealing CIA operative Valery Plame's identity in an effort to destroy the reputation of former Ambassador Joe Wilson, who, lo and behold, tried to put the brakes on the Let's Go War! dance by refuting claims that Saddam Hussein tried to purchase from Niger materials that could be used in the construction of nuclear weapons. (Full disclosure: the British claim that Hussein actually did try to purchase these materials, so who knows what the truth is?)

So, Cheney is at the center of a war policy that, by the best of estimates, is not going very well, and is perilously close to a political scandal that is toxic to an already floundering administration. So what does he do? Go to Disney Land?

Nope, he's a sole voice in the wilderness in support of torturing detainees.

Just last week, Cheney showed up at a Republican senatorial luncheon to lobby lawmakers for a CIA exemption to an amendment by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would ban torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners. The exemption would cover the CIA's covert "black sites" in several Eastern European democracies and other countries where key al Qaeda captives are being kept.

So I ask you, Phillip, old buddy:

What's up with Vice President Cheney?

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

You don't make it easy to find middle ground when you start with bogeyman stories! It is a given, and goes without saying, that neocons rule the Bush administration, if you don't like the war in Iraq. I'm sure that Republican spin-meisters are wishing they had thought of a cute label to use to identify those in President Clinton's administration who were pushing for a particular agenda. Labeling people makes them much easier to demonize!

In fact, I think I've laid out a reasonable case for the invasion of Iraq even in the absence of WMDs, and there are plenty of people who don't fit the "neocon" mold that agreed with invading Iraq based on what we knew at the time, including Senator Clinton from New York and the majority of both houses of Congress. Rather than affixing labels, let us instead agree that Vice President Cheney was one of several people who believed it was important to press matters militarily in the Middle East, and not based entirely on over-simplistic jingoism.

On that basis, I believe the idea is that as the war effort is currently unpopular, and with "Scooter" Libby under indictment, anybody holding the view that the United States of America should attempt to exert positive influence in the Middle East should be laying low, or hiding in shame. Is that about right? I'm sure it comes as no surprise to you that since I generally expected things in Iraq to be worse than they've been so far, I don't generally see much reason for laying low or giving up at this point.

That said, Libby's indictment does reflect directly on Cheney personally, not just in a policy sense. While the indictments don't technically mean that anyone in the White House deliberately did anything wrong prior to the beginning of the investigation, and might even suggest that the prosecutor tried and failed to convince a grand jury to bring further charges, we all certainly have suspicions. As much as I generally try to give people the benefit of the doubt, my suspicions lead me to be very disappointed in President Bush, as I mentioned that I would be.

This is politics, though, and there are two ways to deal with setbacks. Either hide in shame, as Newt Gingrich did, or charge right in, as Bill Clinton did. Dick Cheney appears to be taking the latter route. Put another way: Cheney is old enough to be looking at retirement in a few years, with perhaps the occasional speaking engagement. In one sense, he's got nothing to lose!

Still, it might be a slight misrepresentation to say that Cheney is supporting torture. Rather, he doesn't want to support an amendment that he considers too broad. His opposition could, if one were so inclined, be seen as a further demonstration of the basic honesty and integrity of this administration. After all, they could support the legislation and carry on with the torture anyway!

But with Libby reporting to federal authorities, I don't think I'm actually willing to claim that's the case here.

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

Where's the boogeyman story in the case that I presented, Philip? It's a widely held view that the neocons, led in many senses by Dick Cheney because of his position as Vice President and influence on President Bush, led the charge for taking out Saddam – before September 11, 2001. Cheney is widely seen as the most influential Vice President in U.S. history. There were others who likely supported the war in Iraq for any number of reasons, but it was the neocons who gave the push (and some might say rush) to the pro-war movement, and finally President Bush who picked up its banner. So it wasn't just Cheney: it was Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld and Feith and card-carrying members of the neocon intelligentsia like Bill Kristol from The Weekly Standard.

Is there something untrue in the way I've presented things? If so, I can't see it. I'm not trying to imply that there was a "sinister cabal" (a term that sounds strangely familiar to me for some reason) of low men in secret smoky rooms plotting this thing, but merely that Cheney successfully led a movement of politicians, intellectuals, and journalists to their desired goal: the ouster of Saddam Hussein.

Whether or not this goal was accomplished on shaky evidence and under less than up-and-up circumstances is a much murkier question in my view. The Fitzgerald investigation is ongoing, however, and the Senate – under prompting from newly feisty Minority Leader Harry Reid – is looking into pre-war intelligence. Both will hopefully provide some answers to the many open questions about how and why we ended up where we are today.

You may well be right about Cheney feeling he has "nothing less to lose" (do I see common ground on the horizon, shining like a bright beacon of freedom?). With his office under siege and his chief aide (Libby was known as "Cheney's Cheney") gone, Cheney is now finally feeling the cold shoulder of the president, according to some observers.

Therefore, he may feel "freed up" to let fly his exact positions on policy and the world. Let's remember that it was Cheney who has always taken the hardest line on Iraq, on the war on terror, and on most matters of national security. Therefore, he likely feels that some harsh level of interrogation (he might quibble on the use of the word "torture") is vital to successfully prosecute the war on terror.

The fact remains, however, that many in his own party are dead against him on this one. Would you really want to be the one to tell Senator John McCain – someone who knows about interrogation and torture like no other living American – that he's wrong on this policy?

Where I come from, that's called chutzpah.

And what's interesting from a political standpoint is that Cheney and the neocons may find themselves more and more outside of the mainstream – to use phraseology from the Supreme Court nomination hearings – even within the Republican party.

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

The bogeyman is a widely-held belief, too!

It's the label of "neocons" — accepted glibly by roughly half of my friends and a source of puzzlement to the other half — that sounds like a scary bedtime story. It's hard to label a group without turning them into a de facto sinister cabal, and I like to think we're the only sinister cabal operating around these parts!

I really do have friends from both sides of most political issues, which puts me (I think) in a distinct minority in this country, and makes me somewhat sensitive to the issue of vocabulary that isn't shared.

Despite a quibble over labels, I do think we see the same thing driving Dick Cheney. If he cared what people thought about him before — and I'm not sure he ever did — he certainly cares little now. We may be in the rare position of having a Vice President of the United States of America speaking as freely as a weekend pundit.

My, that would be interesting!

A related issue that I haven't addressed yet is torture. I actually disagree with Vice President Cheney, though I know many people here in Texas that would back him up on his terms.

I see two negatives to allowing "aggressive interrogation techniques," which is the euphemism with which I'll start.

The first is that when it is known that we are using such techniques, we invite retaliatory measures against our own personnel. Since the publicity over Abu Ghraib, it is well-known that we've crossed the line, and I think we need to be beyond circumspect in making it clear that we regret that and that it won't happen again, in hopes that our own people are treated well. Of course, there are counter-arguments: We are dealing with an enemy that beheads journalists for being Jewish and tends to see conspiracy in every shadow, so it isn't likely that our pleas for restraint would be believed or reciprocated. They simply don't capture many of us. Also, Cheney could be deliberately sending a message to our enemies, stating that we won't back down or give an inch just because of bad publicity.

I do think that the Bush administration has tended to make statements knowing that they would be heard by our enemies, while critics of the administration too easily forget that.

Still, the second reason I don't think we should be using torture is that it simply doesn't work. Everything I've read on the subject indicates that we are far more likely to be given false information by someone wanting to make the pain stop than real information we can use to save lives.

Reporting indicates that those we capture have had some training in how to deal with us. They complain based on certain patterns, know what our most likely approach with them will be, and so on. Up against an enemy that knows how to play to the worldwide press, I think we would be best off installing video surveillance to prove to observers that our prisoners are not being tortured, and making our pledge of no-torture known to the world.

Will they believe us? Maybe not. But we don't make every decision solely for our enemies.

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

You make it sound like the term neocon is an epithet, when in fact it's a label that was worn proudly by many. It's only very recently that they've fallen into hard times, as we grind through month after month of casualties and bombings in Iraq.

Here's a pretty neat wrap-up of our neocon discussion, which in many ways proves us both right (In the Middle pats on back all around, I say!), from Wikipedia:
Neoconservative journalists, pundits, policy analysts, and politicians, often dubbed "neocons" by supporters and critics alike, have been credited with (or blamed for) their influence on U.S. foreign policy, especially under the administrations of Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) and George W. Bush (2001-present), and are particularly noted for their association with and support for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The term "neocon," while increasingly popular in recent years, is somewhat controversial and is rejected by many to whom the label is applied. Others say it lacks any coherent definition, especially since many so-called neoconservatives vehemently disagree with one another on major issues.

On the aggressively beating the hell out of people for information thing, I think you've hit on why John McCain has so much stature on this issue: he knows that the United States loses its credibility on a host of issues when it acts no better than backwater dictatorships in treating its captives.

You've presented this issue, in part, in terms of how our "enemy" treats people. If we're talking about al Quaeda, I think it's pretty well established that they care very little for human life: their own, ours in America, or anyone in between who gets in the way of their goals. In the larger sense, the United States should (and many ways absolutely must) set the gold standard for the rest of the planet. For example, how can we go to China and demand human rights reforms when it's well known that our own practices are suspect?

Former Irish President Mary Robinson, a world leader on human rights, recently made an eloquent and urgent point on Real Time With Bill Maher in stating that the U.S. used to be a beacon to the world on human rights issues, but that simply isn't the case any longer.

If true – and I very much believe this has become the case over the last five years – that's a sad legacy for the Bush administration, and indicates an enormous loss of the United States' moral power and leadership. Cheney's position on "aggressive interrogation" or torture or whatever you want to call it is only the icing on that particularly sour cake.

So, I suppose that's a summary of what I think is up with our Vice President. But I'll leave you with the last word!

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

You and I clearly disagree on many fundamental issues here, but I think that we have found some common ground.

When I refer to "our enemies," I simply mean those who oppose us on the battlefield. Right now that includes Al Queda, some Sunni Iraqis, and many other foreign nationals who have come across the borders into Iraq and Afghanistan. It could someday include anyone. One big question seems to be how we should deal with those who, as you say, care very little for human life. On this, I fear, some have been very short-sighted, willing to trade immediate results for future problems around the world. Despite the fact that it will certainly cost us something in the near-term, I believe we should ban torture or anything like torture and make it very clear that we have done so. For the safety of our troops, for the consciences of those who are ordered to interrogate captured combatants, and for the future.

Vice President Cheney is a symbol to many people, and not a positive one. "Neocon" is far from the worst thing he has been called recently! Still, while nothing is yet known about his involvement with CIA leak case, he has clearly abandoned any pretense of taking a moral high road in politics.

I listened to a radio interview with Mike Wallace today, and when asked about Dan Rather, he recounted a conversation they recently had. At that time, Wallace asked Rather whether Rather ever thought of stating something like, "If they go, I go," when people were being fired over the CBS News memo forgeries. And that, I realized, is what I would expect from Dick Cheney as well. The idea that he isn't going to sit back and watch his former chief of staff take the fall, but is either going to defend him if innocent, or resign along with him if not.

Still, this is wartime. You and I are both young, so this is the first major war we've seen. On top of that, it's the most detailed war coverage ever provided. I think that it is quite easy to lose perspective and to think our country may never recover, though of course we've bounced back from worse. Is Dick Cheney a bigger shame to this nation than all previous presidents and vice presidents? I hardly think so. One thing we've learned as a result of going to war is that in many parts of the world and for a very long time, the general opinion of the United States has been more negative than most people realized.

I believe that the Bush legacy, and the legacy of Dick Cheney, will stand or fall on one thing: whether or not we win this war. I also believe that we will win this war, if we do not falter. Only time will tell.

Phillip Winn is a registered Republican, but considers himself independent. He lives in Dallas, Texas, and didn't vote for President Bush in 2000, but did in 2004. He is the co-owner, designer, and technical administrator for

Eric Berlin is a registered Democrat who currently lives in Pasadena, California. Pretty predictable voting record: Gore '00, Kerry '04. He is the Executive Producer of

In The Middle is an attempt to focus more on what unites us than what divides us. Can two reasonable people from opposite ends of the political spectrum put aside partisanship and meet in the middle? We think so. A topic is picked, e-mails are exchanged, and the results are published here.

In The Middle is a Blogcritics experiment. We're trying to talk about things civilly, and we strongly request that all commenters do the same. We seek polite comments and questions, not ideological rhetoric or personal attacks.

Be passionate, think before you write, respect others, and have fun!

Check out previous editions of In The Middle:
* Bill Bennett
* Harriet Miers
* Iraq as a "Media War,"
* CIA Leak Case
* Supreme Court Nominee Samuel Alito, Jr

We are always looking for good writers from right or left who are willing to discuss important topical issues respectfully. Please contact us or leave a comment if you are interested.

Friday, November 04, 2005

The Hot Topic: What's Your Vibe, What's Your Scene?

From the fevered minds of a loose grouping of self-appointed cultural commentators comes a weekly side-swipe at the issues of the day, providing a pithy and often heated debate on pop culture as they see it.

This is The Hot Topic.

Burning it up this week: What's Your Vibe, What's Your Scene?

From: Eric Berlin
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: What's Your Vibe, What's Your Scene?

Conversations within the confines of the crack Hot Topic Team's virtual bunker of a headquarters (underneath the sun farm, just past the cave of the silver-tailed dragon known in some "in circles" as Frederick the Valiant) led to that of place and time, the unique feeling one experiences that may be referred to as a vibe. No, I'm not talking mediums and voices-from-the-far-beyond and creepy dudes with Long Island accents on daytime television telling you that your dead granddaddy had a fetish for grandfather clocks, but more of that specific twinge of fate you feel when you're at your favorite dive, club, bar, venue, coffee house, book shop, or orangutan party suite. You know, like that.

As a native New Yorker, I'm partial and spoiled by the electric energy that eternally charges the city that never sleeps. There was Desmond's, for instance, a no name bar on 5th Avenue in the 20s that likely saw its best days in the 1920s. Dollar specials on draft beers and tequila shots brought us in those days, and no name rock bands – the Redbone Hounds, for instance – that were hungry in all meanings of the word glued us to our stools as an eclectic and truly New York-weird crowd (ranging from motorcycle punks to old white guys wearing sweater vests and trucker hats adorned with insurance company logos) came and went.

That's what I call a vibe: grooving to a scene that no one on else on the planet could truly and exceptionally dig unless they experienced it up close and personal. That's the epitome of hip and experience, isn't it? What Kerouac sought in his quest for kicks and the road across his "groaning continent"?

There were other New York scenes, of course, a multiplicity of thousands, with every night sprinkling the sparkling hope of grand stories both magical and tragic. There was Jewel, the jazz bar in the East Village, Kelly's Corner on the Upper East Side, where the rich kids slummed it, and musical adventures aplenty at places like The Wetlands and The Continental and The Lion's Den.

Of course, now I'm a little bit older and wiser and head out of an evening far more rarely. I also live just outside Los Angeles, and I often wonder if that has to do with it as much as anything else. I've been meaning to ask Frederick about it, matter of fact.

What's your favorite vibe? What's your favorite scene?

From: Mark Saleski
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: What's Your Vibe, What's Your Scene?

Ah, the favorite "quiet little scene" of an introvert. A guy who doesn't get out much. A person with mild forms of social shyness that can sometimes swell to nearly agoraphobic proportions. Also, being an inner-directed sort, my love of reading cannot be underestimated. It's an amazing thing. Just the simple act of scanning my eyes over shapes on a page and I can be transported anywhere in the world, from the viewpoint of any person in the world.

So for me, it's bookstores. It just feels good to be in the presence of like-minded book people. I grab a copy of some unknown Bukowski release and sit down with the wife and a cuppa coffee and everything is right with the world. If only I could be paid for such sublime loafing. Oh yeah!

But it's not just one bookstore. No, in my (very limited) travels, I've kept a list of worthwhile establishments. There's Longfellows in Portland, Maine. Village Books way up in Littleton, New Hampshire (bonus points for being one minute away from the fabulous Littleton Diner). For earthy-crunchy-type fare there's Rue Cottage Books in Southwest Harbor, Maine. An enormous used book selection can be pawed through at Old Number 6 Book Depot in Henniker, New Hampshire. Finally, there's my sorta local store, Toadstool Books in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

So it's a quite little "scene," but it's all mine.

P.S. I'm currently reading Manhattan When I Was Young, by Mary Cantwell, (I'm almost always in the middle of some memoir or other) and Ascension: John Coltrane and his Quest, by Eric Nisenson (because Coltrane the man was as interesting as his music).

From: Aaron Fleming
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: What's Your Vibe, What's Your Scene?

My scene? The question is do I have a scene? Is a scene in existence for me? Perhaps you could define it as that of the infamous sit, that beacon of intellectual colloquium between The Duke and myself. The topics raised traverse the very fabric of time, from the exactitude of surname pronunciation, to the amazingly constant state of Michael Moore's beard, from the analysis of hack writer Martin Amis, to the precise nature of Dave Mustaine's sneer. I think this amounts to my scene, for I am but a youthful sort who hasn't really lived yet, hasn't had the opportunity to find that cellar bar in Tangiers, but who has plenty of future aspirations of that sort.

As a supplement to that I'd like to declare a few scenes from the past that I'd loved to have been an active ingredient in (damn fate!):

1) The mighty beat movement. I can fantasize forever about hanging out with Kerouac in some dank New Orleans watering hole, talking politics with Ginsberg, drinking deep from the mugwump sat atop a slightly miffed Burroughs.

2) The French intellectual scene of the '60s. Cafes, Sartre, Godard, Foucault, Truffaut, was there a cooler scene in history?

3) The thrash metal scene of early-'80s San Francisco. Gigs featuring new upstarts every night, minnows like Death Angel rising the ranks, Exodus and Testament headlining, Metallica, Dark Angel, Possessed, all to bare witness to.

4) The surrealism movement. Although not an artist, and lacking in any notion of artistic flair, I'd have loved to have been ensconced within this -ism, this brilliant hive of intellectualism and fresh thinking about art and the world.

From: Duke De Mondo
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: What's Your Vibe, What's Your Scene?

The truth of it all is that I dunno that I’ve felt part of any particular scene ever. I identify with certain folks from certain branches of certain movements, for sure, like a fella walks past with a Dead Kennedys shirt, or a fella with a fringe obviously influenced by Conor Oberst around the time of Fevers And Mirrors, or a lass with a Libertines badge, but I ain’t ever really existed within the ranks of these tribes, in so far as a buncha folks gathered in one place might be concerned.

I been in and out of a few, granted, the one that probably made the biggest impression being the kinda semi-muted half-burp of Local Bands that cropped up in my hometown a few years ago. A local bar, The Bush Tavern, overnight turned into some kind of breeding ground for folks with aspirations involving the G C F, where any number a local louts high on Cobain ripped the bejeesus outta Lithium three times an hour, and also, occasionally, a few folks from further-afield drafted in, the UK Subs, being one such bunch, and The Dangerfields from Belfast.

And of course me and the fellow drunken rapscallions who made up Julian’s Boyfriend.

Only recently, though, have I felt any sort of pull towards a particular scene of any sort, and a lot of it has to do with The Libertines, that community vibe they went ahead and instilled in everyone who came near them, physically or sonically, that seems to have had a really wide reaching impact, seems to have brought a lotta folks together in some sorta manner, buncha musicians and writers and gutter-poets and plenty crack-fiends, for sure. A kinda melding of literary concerns (folks fried on de Sade and Blake), with that feisty ol’ Punk Rock spirit, yes.

And what with The Libertines being the best band since The Pogues, it all stands to reason.

(And course now you can’t move for bands who sound like The Libertines, these masses crawlin out the taverns a Camden, and fittingly, they all carry around their own guerrilla mobs, these mini-scenes existing for folks who’ve never saw the light of the Top 40, a truly glorious sight to behold.)

And I only just realised how much is going on in Belfast, how back-breaking the vibe there really is, if you look in the right places, and for sure, like all worthwhile things in life, the realisation arrived in the glimmer of a lass’s eyes.

And surely the whole blog phenomenon is some kinda scene, or at least will be recognised as such when we’re all too old to remember we never met.

From: Bennett Dawson
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: What's Your Vibe, What's Your Scene?

For me, the scenes nowadays are so far removed from the typical that they bear no comparison, but back in the day...

Mabuhay Gardens, Broadway, San Francisco, 19 and 81.

Black walls that disappear under the black lights. T-shirts, teeth, and the rare bra strap glowing almighty in the darkness. Music so loud that the fillings in the teeth loosened, the ears ringing for days a given, the aspiring rock bands bemoaning the ruptured stage monitors, the microphones that shock the lips, and the band member that failed to show. A pack of misfits fitting into one of the most thrashed clubs to grace the down and outs of the Bay scene. Half pints of whatever from the liquor store across the street powering the energy, and smoothing out the rough spots.

Wait a minute, am I high? I'm pretty damn sure I took a hit or two before coming in here, but surrounded by the strange, everything seems calmly normal. I love everyone, it seems, so something must be working on the basic hostility of a 22-year old garbed in torn jeans and black leather. Wait a minute, am I high? I ask again, and receive no answer. Is that a shimmer in the air?

A walk is in order, between bands, to catch a breath of the fog-laden
breeze whipping through the skyscrapers of SF. Ah, now I know what it is, as the street lights waver, and the passing cabbies leave streamers of light in the stench of the Broadway air. Damn straight, buzzing as can be, whacked with the medicine of visions and madness. I grin, happy to be invincible, young, and blasted. Enough of this air I say, back into the depths of black. Back to the teeth of strangers standing out in the darkness of another face I'll never know. Back to the music that drives my ears into another world. Back to the bizarre that makes me feel sober, but loving.

It was a memorable scene.

From: Mat Brewster
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: What's Your Vibe, What's Your Scene?

The scene. Oh yes, there was a scene. What it was, man, I don't even know, but what a time we had.

I don't have the hip cred of Berlin diggin' on the East coast and the West. New York and LA! Dig that hep cats! I sure wasn't in no band, makin' my own scene like Bennett either. But a scene was had by me. Maybe just a little scene, over in the corner or something. Not bothering anybody.

Back in Montgomery, Alabama, during my college years there was this little bar right across the street from the school. Cat Daddies they called themselves, like it was some hip blues joint. Most people called it a dive, heck it was a dive, but we still used to go on the weekends and listen to all kinds of local bands.

There was this one band, Dave P and Friends, that we used to catch every time they played. It was there, listening to Dave P that I first heard Dylan's "I Shall Be Released." They laid that song down just beautiful. The thick smoke cleared, the bells rang and I saw god, and his name was Bob. I don't know how I knew that song was from Dylan, I just did. After the show I dug out a friend's Dylan tapes and found the song again. It's been a staple on mix tapes ever since.

There was another band, whose name I forget now, made up of some blues loving R+B-playing dudes. They used to rock the whole town from that tiny little stage. When they played Mustang Sally, I believe the ghost of Wilson Pickett himself was right there with them. And let me tell you, there is nothing like sitting in a crowd of people simultaneously shouting:

Ride Sally Ride

Thems were times right there.

There was another joint in Joplin, Missouri that we used to perform karaoke at on Thursday nights. They put the DI in dive. It was connected to some pay-by-the-hour roach motel. It was never happening, but they had cheap drinks and free karaoke. Me and a dozen or so buddies would crash the joint and sing cheesy songs until we fell over.

The odd assortment of hookers and drunks sitting around usually had a laugh at our expense, but we never cared. I once even managed to pull off a full rendition of American Pie, which is no small feat in itself, if you ask me.

All of this makes a fella feel so old. Now, I sit at home and watch videos with the wife when she's not studying for some exam or grading papers. Then I just read a book and go to bed early. But those memories, man, they put a sly grin on a fella's face, just the same.

Team Hot Topic has had its say – now it's your turn to hop in!

As you can see, there're a thousand crooked avenues and twisty turns to take on this little journey into the scenic past and vibe-ic present.

Next stop? Nobody knows!

Thursday, November 03, 2005

In The Middle: Supreme Court Nominee Samuel Alito, Jr

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
Subject: Supreme Court Nominee Samuel Alito, Jr

While it is still unclear how Harriet Miers would have turned out as a Supreme Court Justice, her withdrawal last week gave President Bush an opportunity to nominate someone new. Surprising some, Bush nominated a man for the role: Samuel Alito, Jr.

Alito is a judge on the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, and is a graduate of Princeton University and Yale Law School. He definitely has the experience Miers lacked. By drawing from inside the judiciary, President Bush picked a man who has left a long paper trail, and there is enough there to resolve the doubts and questions that plagued Miers. Alito is an unabashed conservative.

I wonder how much Bush might be counting on the fact that Alito has twice been confirmed by the Senate in the past, both time by unanimous decision. Might it look bad to vote against him as Supreme Court Justice after voting him as Appeals Court Judge? It seems like that would be a bigger issue if Democrats in the Senate try to block a vote on Alito using the filibuster. After all, a reasonable principled stand could be made, I think, by someone saying that the Supreme Court has a higher bar and therefore deserves a no-vote rather than a yes-vote. But the reasonable principled stand might ring a bit hollow if the same person is relying on political tricks to keep a vote from happening.

Eric, you suggested that Miers had more to fear from conservative Republicans than she did Democrats, and you were right. With a candidate sure to win approval from conservative Republicans, what do you think the Democrats are going to do?

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

I do think that there is a higher bar in gaining entry to the Supreme Court as opposed to an Appeals Court. From what I understand, lower courts don't have to deal with stare decisis, or the critical issue of whether or not to accept judicial precedents as established law. This comes into play first and foremost with Roe v. Wade, of course, and I thought that new Chief Justice John Roberts did an exceptionally good job of handling both Republicans and Democrats on this matter.

As for Judge Alito, you've set up the equation very well, Phillip. Conservatives surprised the White House by balking at (not Judge) Harriet Miers while Democrats were able to stay on the sidelines. Now, President Bush has nominated an experienced and by all accounts qualified judge with arguably (and we'll see this argument play out, of course) ideological and possibly extremist tendencies.

So, most conservatives are going to support Alito unabashedly, and will jump out of their bones in adulation if he indicates that he will approach law in the mode of conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.

This particular nomination at this particular time will be even more closely looked at than the Roberts nomination because of the balance of the court. Outgoing Justice Sandra Day O'Connor — who I thought was described very well recently as an "open-minded conservative" — embodied the swing vote on many issues critical to the court. A hard right swing — or any significant shift — has the potential to fundamentally change the rights of all Americans. Not a small thing, indeed!

But to get to your question, which I think will be the crucial question: what are the Democrats going to do?

I think the decision of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Democrat from Nevada) to force a closed door meeting on pre-war intelligence and the lead-up to the war in Iraq is a good indication: this could be the big fight on judicial nominations that has been talked about ever since President Bush got re-elected a year ago.

The Fitzgerald investigation (which produced the indictment of Vice President Cheney's Chief of Staff "Scooter" Libby) and several other factors — the response to Katrina, a failure to move legislation on Social Security reform, and overall drooping poll numbers have and will continue to influence the nominating process. Libby's indictment will likely further embolden a newly unified Democratic front.

This is a long way from saying that Harry Reid will try and force a filibuster and thus bring up the specter of the dreaded "nuclear option," but I do think that there will be some very aggressive positioning, questioning, and behind-the-scenes campaigning in the coming weeks.

Alito has every advantage in getting through, in other words, but there may well be a major confirmation battle in the offing.

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

Actually, the Appeals Court does deal with most of the same issues as the Supreme Court, including the question of settled law. It was over just such a question during Alito's tenure as an Appeals judge that he and O'Connor had a rare disagreement, as he tried to decide a case in keeping with her stated philosophy in a related case, and found that she had a different opinion when it came to wives notifying husbands than she did about teenage girls notifying parents.

As I said before, all of the other dancing around when it comes to Supreme Court nominations is window dressing. The real issue at hand is abortion. On that score, I believe the hard-core conservatives are missing several important clues from Alito's rulings as an Appeals Court judge that might give them less confidence than they currently seem to feel. Alito has issued and supported rulings denying restrictions on abortion and upholding access to abortion within the Third Circuit, precisely because of precedent.

In fact, I would say he's as likely to vote to uphold Roe v. Wade as to overturn it, which is roughly where Justice O'Connor found herself early in her service to the Court. Frankly, I'm not actually sure either Roberts or Alito is as reliable an anti-Roe vote as some believe!

Still, Alito will almost certainly win the nomination, despite potential misgivings from conservatives. Early signals have made it clear that Alito is a candidate worth ending the filibuster for, if that parliamentary rule is invoked to avoid a vote. His opponents may (and should) question him thoroughly and sternly, but it is hard to imagine anyone coming up with any reason to deny Alito the position other than ideological differences. Based on coverage of his rulings over the last fifteen years, he is certainly not an ideological extremist.

Reid is playing hardball politics, that's for sure. Between the publicity stunt of a closed-door Senate hearing and strong words at just the right time about the withdrawal of Harriet Miers, Senator Reid is positioning himself as President Bush's chief political adversary. Dare I say he might be angling for a Presidential nomination in 2008? However, Reid himself voted for the invasion of Iraq, and that will surely color his efforts to criticize the Bush administration on the subject. In the end, hardball politics are still just politics, and won't affect anything other than poll numbers. Poll numbers which, at this point, matter more to Reid than to Bush, I think.

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

In terms of the Supreme Court as an institution, I think we can agree that as the final arbiters on the constitutionality, meaning, and interpretation of United States law, it requires nominees to pass the highest of bars. Whether or not that bar is a higher bar than for, say, an Appeals Court nominee likely depends on the individual and other factors. I would argue that replacing O'Connor on this particular court raises the stakes that much higher.

I think that abortion is one of the most important issues at stake, but there are many others. I might say on the Big Picture scale (and you know I love to go Big Picture if and when possible) the right to privacy might be one of the most important rights being hashed over by the court.

What's potentially disturbing about Alito, however, is his penchant for conservative judicial activism. (What's ironic here, of course, is that conservatives love to rail against "activist judges," when the fact is that a judge like Clarence Thomas, Love Bird of the Right, overturns federal law something like 65% of the time.)

Again, going Big Picture, is the fact that Alito seems to uniformly rule against the rights of individuals in the cases that come before him. Slate, for example, points out that in many instances, Alito is more conservative than the maestro himself, Antonin Scalia:

While Alito goes to conservative places Scalia won't, the more telling point is that Scalia goes to liberal places Alito won't. ... In the Washington Post, Cass Sunstein examined Alito's dissents and found them "almost uniformly conservative." ... Lexis/Nexis revealed exactly one case in which Alito protected individual rights more vigorously than colleagues. That wasn't really an individual-rights case at all; it was the states' rights case in which Alito would have vacated the conviction for owning a machine gun.

So there are really are issues at stake here that are as important as abortion rights. Alito may or may not be an ideological extremist, but he certainly seems to be nothing less than a hard right intellectual conservative. And I think that it's absolutely proper that the Senate thinks long and hard before changing the nature of the Supreme Court for a generation. There may well be several moderate Republicans who waver on this, I'll wager right here.

On to my man Fightin' Harry Reid. I really think he's to be applauded for taking a stand and allowing the Democrat party to stand up and be the feisty opposition party that it should be and that the country needs. As a New York Times editorial said today, "Senator Harry Reid, the minority leader, may have been grandstanding yesterday when he forced the Senate to hold a closed session on the Iraqi intelligence, but at least he gave the issue a much-needed push."

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

I agree that the standard for entrance to the Supreme Court should be high, even the highest possible. But so high that a judge who has been unanimously approved twice by that body should suddenly face a majority vote against him? Not without a major change in his record, I would think!

In fact, even his critics agree that he easily exceeds the high standards of the Court when it comes to experience, ability, and respect for the law. Which leaves, of course, ideology.

It should come as no surprise that a Republican President, albeit not one known for conservatism, who has just run afoul of his own party base by nominating someone pre-approved by his political rival Senator Reid, would nominate a conservative judge. This is what the Democratic party warned about during the last two Presidential election cycles, and here it is in reality. In fact, it was mentioned during the last two off-year election cycles as well, and yet there is still a Republican majority in the Senate.

I would ask, rhetorically, whether people expected President Bush to nominate a liberal judge, but in fact that is almost what he did with Harriet Miers. At least he nominated someone whose conservatives credentials were heavily suspect, and as I mentioned, someone who the Democratic party favored. That nomination now withdrawn, though, Alito seems a capable choice.

With Senate elections upcoming for some members, I wish I could say I would be surprised if Democrats tried to paint Alito as an extremist, but in fact I won't be surprised at anything. Make no mistake, though, the objections to Alito are purely ideological. And of course, a Republican minority would object (and has objected) to highly-qualified liberal-leaning judicial nominees on exactly the same grounds.

Picking and choosing, one can come up with a pattern to suggest Alito is an über-conservative, or a moderate. As I have mentioned, he has supported some laws allowing abortion as an Appeals Court judge, and in my view is likely to do the same as a Supreme Court Justice.

You've got the last word this week!

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

Again, I think that the bar is higher for the Supreme Court, and that these particular circumstances crank it up another notch or two. I also think that by throwing Miers to the (conservative) wolves and then yanking her back, President Bush and the Republicans have lost credibility on their inconsistent yet shrill demands for an "up or down" vote for judicial nominees. Just for the nominees they approve of, right (wink wink, nudge nudge…)?

I agree with you, Phillip, that Alito seems the polar opposite of Miers in terms of experience and intellectual capacity in terms of constitutional law. To address your point about President Bush's inconsistent rationale for appointing judges to the high court, I'll point out a brilliant column by David Broder of the Washington Post, who writes:

A system that veers from an accomplished and studiously non-ideological John Roberts to a marginally credentialed and often confused-sounding Harriet Miers to an intellectual and experienced Samuel Alito with pronounced ideological views is no system at all.

I think it will take some time for the full story to shake out. And I hope the Senators have an open mind during the hearings to learn about Alito's judicial philosophy and how he might handle matters that came before the court. He might even feel pressure to be more forthcoming than John Roberts, who knew that he wasn't in serious danger of losing confirmation, and is in any case a master of presenting answers in the maximal positive light.

Phillip, I'm not sure if you object to the notion of rejecting a judicial nominee of ideological grounds. My understanding is that it is acceptable to do so if one finds the candidate outside of the mainstream of American values. This is the big question that needs to be answered, and may well determine whether we have Roberts-style picnic or a Bork-esque battle royale.

It will be interesting to see how the political winds blow over the coming weeks. Critical, I think, will be the mood of the Gang of 14 and moderates on both sides. Lukewarm support from moderate Republicans (the two female Senators from Maine in particular) might embolden Democrats to go for the jugular.

In his column, Broder goes on to warn that because of both Bush's weakness and the road that led to Alito's nomination, a political firestorm has "at least as great" a risk for the Republicans as it does the Democrats.

Phillip Winn is a registered Republican, but considers himself independent. He lives in Dallas, Texas, and didn't vote for President Bush in 2000, but did in 2004. He is the co-owner, designer, and technical administrator for

Eric Berlin is a registered Democrat who currently lives in Pasadena, California. Pretty predictable voting record: Gore '00, Kerry '04. He is the Executive Producer of

In The Middle is an attempt to focus more on what unites us than what divides us. Can two reasonable people from opposite ends of the political spectrum put aside partisanship and meet in the middle? We think so. A topic is picked, e-mails are exchanged, and the results are published here.

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Previous articles from the In The Middle crew have addressed Bill Bennett, Harriet Miers, Iraq as a "Media War," and the CIA Leak Case.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Should President Bush Apologize For the CIA Leak Scandal?

Now that I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's Chief of Staff, has been indicted and Harriet Miers withdrawn as a nominee for the United States Supreme Court, that circus that never ends called politics moves into a new phase. It should be no surprise to political observers that these two events occurred within such a short time span.

After the worst political week of his administration, President Bush would like nothing better than a classic "turning of the page": new news, new events, new storylines for the press and public to gobble up and in doing view the White House more favorably. The first effort in that regard will likely be a very quick turnaround on a new Supreme Court nominee.

But will that be enough? The Bush administration enjoyed arguably historic levels of control over the press for more than four years. But with poll numbers hovering in the high thirties now and the White House facing ongoing trouble on multiple fronts – including the recent 2000th American soldier killed in Iraq – it remains to be seen if President Bush can regain that above-the-fray quality that has been referred to as the Bush Myth.

To borrow a term used by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with regard to Iraq, it's likely going to be a long hard slog. The hallmarks of the Bush administration's core strengths – decisive leadership, national security, and close ties to conservatives on social and other issues – have all taken significant hits this year. And a new Washington Post-ABC poll reveals that 55% of the American public believes that the indictment of Scooter Libby is indicative of broader ethical wrongdoing.

Some have suggested that President Bush "clean house" and bring in a new team of energized and highly competent aides and managers a la Howard Baker during President Ronald Reagan's second term of office. Others advocate the nomination of a rightwing ideologue to the Supreme Court, which would in theory stir up the rightwing base and change the subject to a major showdown in the Senate with Democratic opponents.

But perhaps the "cheapest" way that the Bush administration can begin to turn the page is to apologize to the American public. President Bush operates within the tightest of inner circles, and Scooter Libby happened to have been a card-carrying member of the club. While there is the presumption of innocence for those accused of crimes, it's very likely that at the very least Libby is guilty of lying to a federal grand jury. This, of course, will lead most to believe, as evidenced by the poll numbers, that there were other illegal or unethical activities going on that may or may not come out over the coming months and years.

No one knows what is going to happen. There may or may not be a major reexamination of why the United States invaded Iraq in the first place. There may or may not be more revelations and indictments in the CIA leak case.

What we do know is that the American public is surprisingly forgiving of public officials who ask for forgiveness and show a degree of humility. While this is not one of President Bush's strengths, he may need to step outside of the box, his inner circle, and his comfort zone if he wishes to accomplish much over the remaining three years of his presidency.