Archive for January, 2004

Keep an Eye on Edwards

Sunday, January 25th, 2004

Traditional political wisdom adheres to the Caligula Theory of Presidential Politics, named after the first century Roman Emperor noted for viciousness and ruthless cruelty. The central tenet of the theory is that if either major political party nominated Caligula for president, Caligula would still get a third of the vote as a consequence of party loyalty. The real competition in a presidential campaign is for the relatively independent and moderate middle third. A corollary of this theory is that in the nomination process, candidates move to the Left or Right, depending on party, to secure the nomination from the ideologically motivated partisans. Once nominated, candidates race to the center to grab the moderate votes necessary for victory.

This year some political analysts are wondering out loud whether this theory is no longer valid. What if the electorate has been thoroughly polarized so that we are a 50-50 country? The winner may not be the one who appeals to the center, but the one who energizes his partisans the most and generates the greatest turnout. Forget the center and just pump up your partisans until they explode all over the polls.

This latter theory was dealt a blow last week with the unexpectedly poor showing of Howard Dean in Iowa after he led in the polls for so long. There is little doubt, that Dean has still captured the angry anti-Bush vote. However, one consequence is that Dean has developed a reputation for meanness and rashness. Giving voice to an unsubstantiated theory that President George Bush had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks, is reckless and indecent. When Iowa Democrats began to seriously consider Dean they were chafed by his abrasiveness. They began to doubt whether they wanted Dean to be periodically visiting their living rooms for at least the next four years through the medium of television.

We should add a note of caution here. Perhaps the new conventional wisdom is wrong about Dean. If the rest of the country does not share the uncomfortable feeling of Iowans, perhaps Dean could now be immunized from future criticism of intemperance. Much like the Clinton campaign dismissed womanizing issues as old news after the 1992 New Hampshire primary, a Dean campaign could say that the issue of rashness has already been dealt with.

Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer was lamenting this week that the democratic process had succeeded in weeding out the most unelectable candidate. He was “hoping against hope that he [Dean] could just hang on — project sanity — long enough to win Iowa and New Hampshire and wrap up the nomination before the Democrats could come to their senses.” There may still be hope for Krauthammer.

From a tactical standpoint, Republicans would have the most difficulty running against Joe Lieberman. Lieberman voted for the resolution granting President George Bush the authority to attack Iraq and has had the intellectual consistency to not flee from the vote. This makes Senators John Kerry and John Edwards appear mercurial and politically expedient. Kerry and Edwards voted for the war when it appeared to be the politically wise strategy and distanced themselves from the vote when political calculations changed. Lieberman could make the argument that he, like Bush, takes national security seriously and believes the world is better off without another Islamofascist dictator. Lieberman argues that he would exercise greater expertise in execution of foreign policy. Lieberman is at least as affable as Bush and Americans know Lieberman and are comfortable with him. His primary downside is that he is close enough to Bush on the key issue of Iraq that the electorate might simply decide, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “it was not best to swap horses in mid-stream.” However, this speculation is entirely academic. The Democratic electorate is too angry this year to nominate such a decent and comfortable candidate.

Though John Kerry can run as a legitimate war hero, he cannot run away from his long legislative record. It is hard for any legislator to run for the presidency because legislative process is murky. It is easy to find votes that are now embarrassing and Kerry has had 19 years of votes to comb through. Moreover, Kerry is a laconic northeasterner that may be able to win the Liberal northeast that will vote for any Democratic candidate, but who will find it difficult to develop a rapport with Southerners.

At the current time, General Wesley Clark’s star seems to be rapidly setting. He appears a slave to ambition and a little too opportunistic in his party affiliation. Calling the president “unpatriotic” may draw cheers and howls among Democratic partisans, but will appear rash and unfair to moderates. It appears that the Clinton Administration fired Wesley Clark for character-related issues. If Clark is nominated, expect to hear former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Hugh Shelton explain what happened. It will likely not be flattering to Clark.

While it remains to be seen whether he can appeal sufficiently well to New Hampshire voters to keep his candidacy viable, Senator John Edwards represents the most serious threat to Bush. His relative inexperience could be a negative, but voters have been willing to elect others with modest experience. An embarrassingly successful personal injury trial lawyer, Edwards has a smooth easy Southern charm that was apparently very effective at swaying juries. Those who have heard him deliver stump speeches testify to his effectiveness. James Carville has been quoted as saying that Edwards gives the best stump speech he has ever heard. At times Edwards can seem a little smarmy, but as long as he remains disciplined he is amazing effective at retail politics.

The fact that Edwards’s campaign enjoys the generous support of trial lawyers eager to prevent tort reform could prove to be an embarrassing negative. Of all the candidates he has been the least forth-coming in his campaign finances and has more contributors who have made the maximum $2000 contribution. Nonetheless, if he can appeal sufficiently to Southerners he might loosen Republican dominance in the South and pose as serious threat to Bush’s re-election prospects. If he manages to become the front-runner after the Southern primaries, it will be interesting to see how well he stands up to the media scrutiny that is sure to follow. While it is never wise to under-estimate any candidate, at this point, Republicans have more to fear from Edwards than Kerry.

Charelie’s Hustle

Sunday, January 11th, 2004

Ty Cobb accumulated 4,189 hits during his professional baseball career, surpassed only by Pete Rose with 4,256 hits. Cobb earned more than 200 hits in each of 9 seasons, more than anyone else save Rose who accomplished the same feat in 10 seasons. Cobb led the league in hitting for a record eight seasons, while Rose nearly duplicated this feat by leading his league for seven seasons. Ty Cobb was a self-centered mean-spirited vicious competitor and an avowed racist. We all suspected and now Pete Rose admits that he wagered on baseball while a manager. Ty Cobb is in the Baseball Hall of Fame. For betting on baseball, late Baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti declared Rose declared “ineligible” to participate in baseball, including the Hall of Fame.

Over the last 18 years, Rose steadfastly denied having bet on baseball despite a formal report by John Dowd, former special counsel to the Commissioner of Baseball. Rose even had some convincing defenders, like Bill James, baseball analyst, now with the Boston Red Sox and historian of the game, who found Dowd’s evidence unpersuasive. Rose’s latest admissions make his supporters and friends now look like chumps and naive fools.

Baseball rules provide a window of 20 years for sports writers to vote retired players and others into the Hall of Fame. In two years, this window slams shut for Rose. Perhaps realizing that his continual denial has not managed to pry open the doors of Cooperstown, Rose has apparently decided to come clean about his betting [1]. The question now is whether it is just and fair to have players of clearly disreputable character, like Cobbs, in the Hall of Fame, while Rose, who bet on baseball, is excluded. Is betting on baseball really worse than racism, womanizing, or drug consumption? Is not admission to the Hall of Fame an acknowledgement of contributions to baseball and not a place to canonize saints? By admitting players like Cobb, baseball has clearly suggested that only contributions directly to baseball and not character are relevant.

Every clubhouse in baseball posts this rule:

“Any player, umpire, or club or league official or employee,who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has a duty to perform shall be declared permanently ineligible.”

This rule and its consequent punishment for violation are categorical and clear. Rose’s on field accomplishments are, by a large margin, worthy of the Hall of Fame. But if one subtracts from these the harm done to the game by undermining its integrity, where should Rose’s contributions be historically placed? His chronic betting and continual denial certainly place a heavy thumb on the other side of the balance.

Americans are a forgiving people and baseball fans are eager to believe the best about Rose If Pete Rose had admitted his transgressions when caught and spent the last 18 year asking for forgiveness and perhaps counseling other players, there would be a stronger case for the Commissioner of Baseball to wave the ineligibility rule on Rose’s behalf. Perhaps, Rose could have been made eligible for the Hall of Fame, while not eligible to join a baseball franchise in any capacity. The last 18 years could have served to mend part of the damage his betting caused. Rather his 18 years of denial have compounded his damage to the game to say nothing of the embarrassment he now causes his stout defenders. His admissions, just as his eligibility for the Hall of Fame is about to expire, smack of just more self-centered behavior rather than true remorse. His recent appearances on television have promoting his book, clearly convey the image of faux sincerity. As others have noted, who exactly is “Charlie Hustle” trying to hustle?

It could reasonably be argued that other transgressions like racism, drug use, or the “jerk factor” should also weigh against admission to the Hall of Fame. These activities detract from the game just as surely as wagering. However, such peripheral though important negatives are best weighed by the baseball writers as they vote for Hall of Fame admission. The sport writers need to consider whether, taken as a whole, a particular player’s baseball career and overall demeanor brought honor and credit to game. There is a strong case that under such a regime, Cobb should not be in the Hall of Fame, but he was voted in a different time and place in our culture. Moreover, much of Cobb’s disgracefulness became common knowledge after his admission to the Hall of Fame.

If Rose’s transgressions had not extended so far after he left the game if he had not compounded his original sin with years of lying, it would be reasonable to allow the balance of his baseball feats and how his other acts to be decided by the sports writers. However, too much time has passed and Rose has not acted to redeem himself. Unfortunately, Rose will and probably should remain the best baseball player to not be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

[1] Rose denies having bet as a player.

Why America Slept

Sunday, January 4th, 2004

President John F. Kennedy’s senior thesis at Harvard University eventually grew into the short book Why England Slept. It explained how the enormous human losses of World War I cemented the minds of many in England, especially in the intellectual classes, into a hard pacifism of denial. English leadership slept while the German military under the Nazis grew well past that necessary for defense. Even when slightly awakened by the German threat against Czechoslovakia, it was possible to accept verbal assurances from the Nazis, declare “peace in our time,” and fall once again into a blithe slumber until crisis made sleep impossible.

Using that situation as a metaphor for our current one, Gerald Posner’s Why America Slept explores how it was possible for America to largely ignore the grave and gathering threat of Muslim extremism. Like the English exhausted after World War I, the West and particularly the United States, after the end of the 50-year Cold War felt entitled to pull away from international matters.

Posner’s tale takes us through the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. When Ronald Reagan withdrew troops from Lebanon after over 200 American marines were killed by a suicide bomber, anti-Western forces in the Middle East began to believe that America was a paper tiger, a degenerate colossus unwilling to act even in its own self interest. This notion was amplified during the Clinton Administration that was unwilling to take meaningful forceful action when a former American president was targeted for assassination, when American soldiers where ambushed during a humanitarian mission in Somalia, and when 17 sailors on the US Navy’s Cole were killed by a explosives-laden small craft.

Some of the reluctance to deal with Islamic extremism was a consequence of genuine efforts by the Clinton Administration to break the impasse between Palestinians and Israelis. As former Clinton political advisor Dick Morris explained, “In Bill Clinton’s epoch, terror was primarily a criminal justice problem which must not be allowed to get in the way of the `real’ foreign policy issues.” According to Posner, “Clinton rejected efforts to name Hamas as a terror organization for fear it might upset” Middle East negotiations. Vice President Al Gore led a commission on aviation safety and security that recommended dozens of changes, while Clinton “made no effort to implement any of the suggestions, considering them too disruptive to travel.”

This focus on a criminal justice approach explains why at least two (and perhaps more) opportunities to apprehend Osma bin Laden were squandered. According to Posner, even Clinton acknowledges that the failure to seize bin Laden was the biggest mistake of his Administration.

Perhaps most discouraging was failure after failure by the FBI, CIA, and INS in protecting the homeland. Part of this was associated with constraints by Congress imposed in the early 1970’s and further constraints that emerged as a consequence of the Iran-Contra scandal. The INS had plans to keep track of people entering the United States on student visas that might have netted some of the September 11th hijackers. These plans were circumvented when American universities, that earn $11 billion dollars a year from 550,000 foreign students, refused to cooperate with the program.

The FBI was particularly inept as middle-level management fear of failure or criticism allowed the FBI to ignore key signs that might have given us a shot at preventing the attacks of September 11. A flight school instructor in Minneapolis became suspicious when student Zacarious Moussaoui was only interested in how to steer planes and how much damage a 747 could cause if it crashed into anything. The instructor notified the local FBI and Moussaoui was detained for visa violations. The local FBI contacted the CIA and found that the French were interested in Moussaoui as a potential airplane hijacker. When local FBI agent Coleen Rowley contacted the FBI in Washington for a warrant to search Moussaoui’s computer, FBI headquarters, misinterpreting their own rules, dismissed the request. Instead Rowley was reprimanded for contacting the CIA without going through channels. According to Posner, if Moussaoui’s computer had been searched, key clues that might have helped prevent 9/11 would have been obtained. Given the timing, in all likelihood, the attacks of September 11th would have still have happened, but we “could have gotten lucky” and possibly managed to stop them

When the Bush Administration arrived in 2001, they too were inclined to focus on domestic issues much as the Clinton Administration had. Indeed, Bush boasted a less interventionist and humbler foreign policy, disinclined to engage in the same nation building efforts that Clinton championed in Bosnia. This passive foreign policy is at odds with the caricature of a Bush committed to going after Iraq to complete his father’s unfinished business. At the time of the 9/11 attacks, the new FBI Director, Robert Mueller, had just assumed office, the CIA was run by George Tenet, a Clinton appointee, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was just tasked with determining what was happening domestically with Al Qaeda. With regard to terrorism, the Bush Administration did not hit the ground running when they assumed office.

It is bad enough when somnolent policies or bureaucratic inertia allow nefarious terrorists to plan and execute a large-scale terrorist attack on US soil. Those are sins of omission. It is quite another thing when ostensible friends like the Saudis work against American interests. The Faustian bargain the Saudis made with Al Qaeda was to provide financial support in exchange for Al Qaeda refraining from attacks on Saudi soil. Recent attacks in Saudi Arabia suggest that this bargain has collapsed.

On March 28, 2002, seven months after the attacks of September 11, US Special and Pakistani forces captured Abu Zubaydah, one of Al Qaeda’s top leaders. After capture, Zubdaydah was uncooperative.

One method used to break the will of a captured prisoner is to fool the prisoner into believing that he is being placed into the custody of another country; a country decidedly pre-Miranda in its interrogation techniques.

Using US soldiers fluent in Saudi-accented Arabic, Zubaydah was convinced that he was transported into Saudi custody. Rather than becoming apprehensive when Zubaydah believed he was alone with Saudis out of ear shot of Americans, he attempted to play his “Get Out of Jail Free” card. Zubaydah asked his supposed Saudi jailors to contact Prince Ahmed bin Salman bin Abdul-Aziz, a nephew of King Fahd. Suddenly, Zubaydah was a fount of information as he tried to persuade his captors that he indeed did have high level benefactors. Zubaydah explained how Prince Ahmed and Mushaf Ali Mir, chief of Pakastani intelligence, both knew an attack was scheduled for September 11, although they did not know the details of the plot.

Of course, when confronted, the Saudi and Pakistani governments denied helping Al Qaeda. However, four months later, Prince Ahmed died of a heart attack at the age of 43. Another Saudi cited by Zubaydah died in a car accident and yet another “died of thirst” in the dessert. Pakistani Mushaf Ali Mir and a plane load of associates died in a plane crash a little while later. Posner suggests that these deaths were not coincidental.

Although Posner’s book is disheartening, it also offers hope. The terrorists who carried out the September 11 attacks, were not particularly clever. Any number of relatively small changes in homeland security would have made it much easier to track and capture these terrorists. Now that we have been re-awakened, we must not be lulled to sleep once again.