Archive for November, 2002

Whipped Dog Daschle

Sunday, November 24th, 2002

Charity compels us to feel a genuine sympathy for Democratic Senate Leader Tom Daschle. He’s had a rough time of it recently. Last year his office was sent an anthrax-laden envelope that could have killed or seriously sickened members of his staff or the Senator himself. In early 2000, Daschle managed to gain control of the Senate for the Democrats by inducing Vermont Republican Senator Jim Jeffords to become an independent and vote with the Democrats for organizational purposes. Unfortunately for Daschle, Democratic Senate control lasted less than two years, as Republicans regained the majority in the Senate and extended their majority in House in the 2002 mid-term elections.

Daschle has long been criticized by Conservative pundits and commentators, but after the 2002 elections he was also roundly criticized by the Left for his failed leadership. Given a sluggish economy, Democrats had high hopes of maintaining and extending their hold on the Senate and re-taking the House. No wonder Daschle feels beleaguered. One receives the impression that Daschle feels like Senator Morris Udall who having lost in a primary to Jimmy Carter is reported to have said, “The people have spoken — the bastards.” [1]

What else can explain Dachle’s pouting and whining performance last week when he complained that criticism from Conservative talk show hosts was inducing threats on him and his family? Daschle specifically lashed out at Rush Limbaugh for calling him — now prepare your self — an “obstructionist.” Daschle complained that when he was labeled an obstructionist, “There was a corresponding, a very significant increase in the number of issues that my family and I had to deal with. And I worry about that.” Surely Daschle does not believe that the use of this pejorative induces violence, or he would not have used the same precise term himself to label his Republican adversaries.

It was not like Alec Baldwin who on national television said “We should go to Washington and stone Henry Hyde to death… And then we should go to his house and kill his family.” Baldwin was surely jesting, but these remarks were far more irresponsible than characterizing someone has an “obstructionist.”

Politics has always been filled with lively and colorful invective. Perhaps the British are the most adept at the quick insulting witticism. Of one opponent, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once remarked, “The right honorable gentleman is reminiscent of a poker. The only difference is that a poker gives off the occasional signs of warmth.” Of another he said, “A crafty and lecherous old hypocrite whose very statue seems to gloat on the wenches as they walk the States House Yard.” It is too bad no one made a similarly clever observation during the Clinton perjury scandals.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was the recipient of many insults. She was labeled as the “Attila the Hen” by MP Clement Freud; the “Immaculate Misconception” by MP Norman St John-Stevas; and a “half-mad old bag lady” by MP Tony Banks. Reagan also had is poetically proficient detractors. Gore Vidal once described President Ronald Reagan as “a triumph of the embalmers art.” The Democratic Party used to have a cartoon at its web site showing George Bush pushing a elderly lady in a wheel chair down stairs. It was not particularly clever, but certainly not unexpected. [2]

Politics requires self-possession and a skin as thick as an elephant’s. Daschle seems to have forgotten how to laugh at himself and lost the ability to reconcile himself to both political victory and defeat. Perhaps Rush Limbaugh will mercifully ease up on Daschle. As Disraeli once said of another political opponent, “Debating against him is no fun, say something insulting and he looks at you like a whipped dog.”

[1] This quote is also attributed to Dick Tuck who lost a legislative race in California.
[2] Insult Monger.

Protecting the First Amendment

Sunday, November 17th, 2002

“The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, … the more easily they will concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens.” — James Madison, Federalist No. 10.

Freedom of speech is such a dirty and messy business. It means that we must endure drivel of the stupid, the hate of the evil, and the blather of the ill-informed, as well as learn from the learned and bask the beauty of the poet. Sometimes the value of this tradeoff is not appreciated, but it remains the foundation of stable democracy. A broadly recognized discipline of tolerance for the speech of others is a necessary component for stable rule by the consent of the governed.

At the time of the American Revolution, the long-term stability of democracies was an open question. Relying on the experience of the Greeks, many believed that democracies could only be successful in relatively small communities where the values and interests could be homogeneous.

The genius of the American Founding was that it turned this notion exactly on its head. The greatest danger is tyranny. The Founders understood that large expansive democracies are more stable, because a diversity of interests insures that no single faction or interest could assume sole control. The Founders also understood that one could not rely on good motives. Freedom, especially freedom of speech and the press, and the structure of government outlined in the Constitution allow ambition to counter ambition.

It is, therefore, with particularly poignancy that the end of this election cycle marks the beginning of the application of the “Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002,” the most ambitious attempt yet to regulate political expression. Champion of free speech, Senator Mitch McConnell is suing the Federal Election Commission over the constitutionality of the act. At this point, the case rests with the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. The case, however, will likely find its way the US Supreme Court for final adjudication.

This act is particular egregious in that it limits independent groups from running political adds within 60 days of an election — a time when political speech is perhaps most valuable and most deserving of broad protection.

Recent efforts at campaign finance reform are an abdication of the belief that speech is self-regulating. It posits a belief that there is such a thing too much speech, that Americans are unable to make decisions unless the government properly rations political speech. Campaign finance reformers are not, as they pretend be, populists. They do not exhibit the necessary faith in regular Americans.

The bromide used to defend campaign finance reform — reform that constrains the dollars that are spent or donated to campaigns — is that “money is not speech.” The phrase is easy to remember. It has only four words, which makes it simple to thoughtlessly and endlessly repeat. However, as with many rights, the right to use economic resources to speak and allow the speech to be heard by many is encompassed in the freedom of speech.

“Money is not freedom of the press,” but surely it would be unconstitutional to limit the amount of money a newspaper could use in the production of the paper, even if the editorial content is ignored. “Money is not freedom of religion,” but surely it would be unconstitutional to limit the amount of money that individuals could donate to support their churches, even if the nature of the religious observances were ignored. “Money is not the right to counsel,” but surely it would be unconstitutional for the government to limit the amount of money a person could pay his defense counsel.

The Cato Institute and the Institute for Justice are Libertarian advocacy groups that have filed a brief of amici curiae in the District Court case. Their brief offers a more expansive argument that even disclosure requirements on the part of individuals for donations constitute a violation of freedom of association. Disclosure can have a chilling effect on speech. Perhaps you do not want you neighbors or your boss knowing to whom you contributed. However, if you venture to the Federal Election Commission on the web today you can do a name search to find to whom your neighbor, your friend, or your employee made political contributions.

The argument against compelled disclosure relies heavily on the case of NAACP v. Alabama. In that 1958 case, the state of Alabama tried to compel that National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to reveal its membership. It is obvious that having the state of Alabama know you were member of the NAACP in 1958 would have been intimidating. The US Supreme Court ruled that anonymity of association is a protected right:

“Petitioner, [the NAACP], has a right to assert on behalf of its members a claim that they are entitled under the Federal Constitution to be protected from being compelled by the State to disclose their affiliation with the Association.”

It is too much to hope for that the present US Supreme Court would be bold enough to recognize that this precedent allows donors to contribute anonymously (anonymous to the recipient as well) to political campaigns and to advocacy groups. It would probably be salutary if they just recognized that expenditures of independent advocacy groups are protected under the First Amendment, even within 60 days of an election.

A Choice Not an Echo

Sunday, November 10th, 2002

The election returns last Tuesday for the Republicans were statistically remarkable and they follow a statistically remarkable election in 2000. Given the state of the economy in 2000, models of election outcomes constructed by political scientists predicted that Vice-President Al Gore would win the election with 56 percent of the vote. Perhaps Gore was a particularly inept and unattractive presidential candidate. Perhaps Gore was just too burdened with the Clinton scandals. Nonetheless, the 2000 presidential election should not have even been close and Bush eked out a victory.

Traditionally, the president’s party looses in the Congressional elections two years after the presidential election. Sometimes they loose big, sometimes they loose small, but the president’s party rarely wins Congressional seats. Last week, the Republicans bucked this historical trend and gained a few seats in the House. Before this last election, no president flipped the Senate to his party. Last week, President George W. Bush and the Republicans did this. All this is even more remarkable given the fact the electorate is pretty well evenly split ideologically.

Perhaps Bush was just the fortunate recipient of the natural tendency of Americans to rally around the president in times of war. However, after a series of opportune elections that defy statistical tendencies, it is time to concede that the supposedly dim witted president has managed to outwit the politically sophisticated Democrats.

After the Republicans swept into control of the House of Representatives in the 1994 elections under Newt Gingrich, Republicans read too much into the results. There was not a major ideological shift. The electorate was just fed up with the Clinton Administration’s first two years. Republicans started talking about a new American Revolution, large reductions in the size of government, and started portraying themselves as radicals. Americans are too sated to be radicals and re-elected Clinton in 1996.

No matter how unprecedented and successful for Republicans, last Tuesday did not represent a sea change in ideology. It was the country saying that in times of war, it does not want divided ineffectual government. The country simply gave Bush a tentative free hand to see what he could accomplish.

To his credit, Bush sent out a memorandum to Republicans not to gloat. Bush has accumulated substantial political capital. He must be willing to use it, but use it wisely. Importantly he can get his judicial nominees to the floor of the Senate, but he would be wise to avoid ideological lightening rods, and push through a series of solidly Conservative nominees. He can push through tax cuts, but would be wise to do so in the context of fiscal spending discipline.

In some ways, the Democrats lost seats in the House and lost the Senate altogether, less because of ideology and more because they didn’t seem serious. Democrats managed to make a last minute substitution of Frank Lautenberg for the politically flagging Senator Robert Torricelli in apparent violation of the letter of election law in New Jersey. Democrats won the Senate seat handily, but for much of the country Democrats seem more interested in retaining power than playing by the rules. This view of Democrats was reinforced in Minnesota, when a memorial service for Senator Wellstone, who had died tragically in a plane crash, turned into a highly partisan political rally. Finally, Democratic Chairman Terry McAuliffe’s Ahab-like puerile efforts to unseat Jeb Bush in Florida diverted necessary resources from races that Democrats had a better chance of winning. The potential embarrassment of President George Bush was more important than helping other Democratic candidates in other states.

The Republican and Democratic Party web sites on November 9, 2002 provide a metaphor for the seriousness of the parties. The lead story at the Republican site was “Bush Hails Unanimous Passage of Security Council Resolution on Iraq.” The Democratic site’s lead story is that “SEC Chair Harvey Pitt Resigns in Wake of Scandals.” While the Republicans are concerned about war and peace, Democrats are worried about the chairmanship of the Securities and Exchange Commission. That issue surely has its place, but it seems rather anemic as a rallying cry.

When the Republicans faired poorly in the 1998 elections, I wrote:

“If anything, Republicans should learn that rather than just trying to slide to an election victory, they must articulate their vision. Sometimes, such forthrightness will lose, sometimes it will win, but half-hearted, timid Republicans will inevitably lose.”

The same advice applies to Democrats. They must have a vision beyond mere political victory. Democrats can now decide if they wish to tact to the Left, to be a “choice not an echo.” They will likely do so with Representative Nancy Pelosi as the House Minority Leader. If Pelosi leads the Democratic Party to the Left, particularly with regard to national security issues, they may be true to their principles, but the Democrats will spend some time in the political wilderness. That is not necessarilly a bad thing for Democrats in the long run.

Or Democrats could choose to follow the moderate Democratic route, the route outlined by the Democratic Leadership Council. After all, when Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton ran as moderates they won the presidency. Liberal candidates, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis lost. Moderate Democrats are closer to sharing the mood and tempermant of the country.

Either choice is possible and defensible. The Democrats must decide who they are and what they stand for. Whatever they decide, Democrats need to be serious.

Facing Mecca in the Modern World

Sunday, November 3rd, 2002

In the fifteen century, Galileo Galilei was placed under house arrest by Catholic religious authorities for considering the Copernican proposition that the Earth revolved around the sun rather than the other way around. Galileo was the unfortunate victim of being right at the wrong time.

At that time, the Catholic Church was particularly insecure about its authority in interpreting Scripture. The Protestant Reformation was challenging the Church’s exclusive franchise. The Church was in no mood to broker additional dissent. The punishment of Galileo was really not about cosmology or physics, it was about asserting control on the arbitration of Scripture. Insecurity was at the root of intolerance.

Even today, arguments against evolution by some are, at their root, less disagreements about science and more disputes about worldview and authority. In a tempestuous world of moral relativism, religious belief and ritual can serve as an important ethical anchor. Evolution and a very old universe appear on the surface to be at odds with the Book of Genesis. To some, questioning Biblical authority on what is essentially a scientific and empirical question undermines Biblical authority on moral and ethical strictures.

The same disposition seems to be undermining Islam’s collision with modernity. The Great Mosque in Mecca contains the Kaaba, the cube shaped and most sacred Muslim shrine to which adherents must turn to pray. This direction is called the qibla. The classical definition of the qibla is the “direction such that when a human observer faces it, it is as if he is looking at the diameter of the Earth passing through the Kaaba.” Traditionally, the entrances of mosques also face toward Mecca.

In Mecca, as long as the shrine is in sight, facing the Kaaba for prayer is straightforward. As Islam spread from the Arabian Peninsula, the qibla became more difficult to determine. Indeed, this geographic question challenged Islamic mathematicians and cartographers of the Middle Ages and helped give rise to algebra and spherical trigonometry.

On the surface of the Earth, Muslims have known for the past twelve centuries, the direction to Mecca lies along a great circle route. The computation of this direction in the modern world is now relatively easy. Somewhat counter to an intuition formed by looking at maps with parallel longitude lines, from North America, the qibla points to the northeast.

When the Islamic Center was built on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, DC in 1953, the Egyptian Ambassador was concerned because the center faced 56 degrees, substantially north of east. A quick check with a cartographer at the National Geographic Society confirmed the correctness of this direction.

However, the notion of using what some mistakenly believe is exclusive Western science is offensive to some modern Muslims. These Muslims refuse to believe the qibla from North America points toward the northeast. In 1993, Riad Nachef and Samir Kadi wrote a book arguing that the qibla from North American lies to the southeast. Nachef and Kadi believe that the notion that the qibla points toward the northeast “divides the word of the Muslims and perverts the Religion.”

There is no need here to argue geography. There is no question as to the qibla from North America. However, it is clear that some portion of Islam feels so threatened by modernity and so insecure in its position that it refuses to accept even geographic computations if they seem somehow tainted by Western influences. Insecurity is again at the root of intolerance.

The real irony is that conventional notions of direction that lead Nachef and Kadi to believe that the qibla from North America lies to the southeast is based on a particular map projection by the Flemish cartographer Gerhardus Mercator. Medieval Islamic mathematicians knew better.


Abdali, S. Kamal, The Correct Qilba, 1997.