May 01, 2005

When They're Right, They're Right

A few notes from the weekend newspapers, about observations made by people I either don't usually agree with or don't think very much of for other reasons, that nonetheless strike me as quite true:

* The people who write editorials for The New York Times and I agree regularly on just one subject, international trade. An editorial about homeland security spending (registration required) today, though, makes very sound observations about Congress slighting areas of the country at greatest risk of terrorism (like New York City) at the expense of the Congressional pork barrel. Of proposed changes to the current formula that allotted Wyoming seven times as much homeland security aid per capita as New York, the NYT says

"...Congress is now considering two bills that have come out of committee, one in the House and the other in the Senate. Both are disappointments. Each of the bills includes guaranteed minimum financing allotments for every state, regardless of the risks or threats they face....Senator Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat, recently argued that "an attack in Little Rock has the ability to deliver the same impact to our psyche, financial security and overall ability to function as a country as would an attack in Los Angeles or New York."

An arguable point, that. My question is why the Bush administration, which campaigned on homeland security, is leaving this to Congress to sort out for itself. I don't expect Presidential involvement while the latest campaign is still going on, but surely seeing that security spending isn't wasted on uniforms for first responders in Des Moines is one of the things we have a Homeland Security Secretary for.

* Also from the NYT, David Brooks discusses the judicial filibuster issue, making this dead-on statement as to what is fueling this controversy:

"Right now, most senators want to avoid a meltdown. It's the outside interest groups that are goading them into the fight.

Of course the groups want a fight. The activists get up every morning hoping to change the judiciary, dreaming of total victory. Of course they're willing to sacrifice everything else for that cause."

Zell Miller was basically right about the Democratic Party; it is run by "the groups," organized interests that have specific agendas including stirring up issues they can use in their fundraising, and that demand 100% loyalty from Democratic elected officials. They get it, too, not just from a staff-driven dinosaur like Ted Kennedy or an invertebrate like Patrick Leahy but from every Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. The groups -- NARAL, People for the American Way, the Alliance for Justice, the NAACP, a few others -- decide which nominees get opposed, and Democratic Senators fall into line.

This is the example the Republicans want to emulate. The Democrats have their base to keep excited and mobilized and sending in contributions, and now so do the Republicans. The Bush White House has a little more influence over the GOP's groups -- in this controversy the evangelicals are most important -- but that may only be because some of the conservative groups haven't been at this as long as the liberal ones.

Brooks isn't the first commentator to notice what is going on. David Broder, another pillar of Washington conventional wisdom, wrote a few days ago

"...the interest groups that have mobilized over the judiciary find it very useful to broaden the battleground beyond the Supreme Court....Supreme Court vacancies are sporadic; none has occurred since 1994. To maintain their supporters' interest -- and the flow of contributions that finance their staffs -- the interest groups need more fights. And that is what the regular turnover in the ranks of the appeals courts provides.

It matters not to these groups how much or how little the broad public knows of the records and personalities of these appointees. As long as activists can be convinced they are threats to the system -- or martyrs -- that will suffice."

Now, Brooks criticizes Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist for not accepting an offer from Minority Leader Harry Reid to settle the impasse over judicial nominations short of a smashup over changing the Senate's rules on extended debate. I can't comment on the terms of the deal Reid is said to have offered because I don't know if Brooks' source is right, but what seems crystal clear is that if Frist turned Reid down he did so on instructions from the White House. His determination to be seen not only as the evangelicals' champion but as President Bush's man in the Senate makes it highly unlikely he'd make a decision like this on his own.

* The trouble for politicians inclined to devote themselves to this kind of obsequious water-carrying is that it isn't enough to ensure the favor of groups that demand politicians be with them all the time. Witness what Pat Robertson had to say this morning on ABC's This Week when George Stephanopoulos asked him about potential Republican Presidential candidates in 2008. No transcript is available at this writing, but Robertson mentioned Sen. Brownback of Kansas and Sen. Allen of Virginia. What about Bill Frist?

Robertson just blew him off. He didn't think Frist would be a candidate, and didn't think he'd be a good candidate. Stephanopoulos was rightly astonished at the first observation. But the second is quite right. I'm sure Frist is personally a nice guy, but he's seeking to move up in exactly the same way Democratic Presidential candidates usually do, by trying to assure activists that he is theirs. And just as Democratic Presidential candidates usually do, he looks weak.

* Lastly, on a completely different subject, the NYT Magazine asked Ted Koppel what is wrong with network TV news. Said Koppel:

"That they're giving up some of the very things that can differentiate them from the bloggers and other groups that are getting into journalism. They're giving up, for the most part, on overseas coverage. A lot of it is now being done just on the basis of video that comes in from APTV or Reuters Television, and then some guy sitting in London does a voice-over. That's not the smartest thing in the world."

That's absolutely true. It isn't just the networks that do this, either. The blogosphere rags on the television news operations a lot, often with justice, but in perfect fairness all the network news superstars -- Koppel, Peter Jennings, even Dan Rather -- have shown often enough they know the biggest reason television news is so superficial. It's that the networks don't care that much about news.

Posted by at May 1, 2005 07:59 PM | TrackBack (3)

overseas reporting is bad for profits. since news organizations have been swallowed by large conglomerates, they've been forced to cut back. ABC had just six overseas correspondents in 2002.

Posted by: praktike at May 2, 2005 12:20 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

In no particular order:

Ted Koppel joins a growing list of active network news stars offering up an anemic criticism of network news. Dan Rather told the BBC two or three years ago that he pulled punches in the wake of 911 in part from a sense of patriotism and in part from fear of being "necklaced" by reactionaries, and he offered additional criticisms and mea culpas to Tom Fenton, the now-retired longtime CBS foreign correspondent, in Fenton's new book, Bad News. Fenton observes that the abandonment of overseas news has damaged the US in a number of ways. The continuing failure of people such as Rather, Koppel and Fenton to speak out on the air - to tell the audience that they're getting made stupid by a substandard product that would be recalled or prosecuted if it were subject to consumer fraud or safety regulations - is infuriating. Why wait to speak out firmly until one has no influence? Jerks.

Your point about "obsequious water-carrying" is well taken, but perhaps too narrow: in the current climate, the majority is so taken with the urge to feed their radical base that obsequious water-carrying has become their definition of compromise. It isn't enough that Democrats move off a particular position in search of common ground; rather, they must surrender. That's at the heart of the judicial filibuster fight. Republicans have stripped the minority of the procedural roadblocks, principally the "blue slip" and the anonymous hold, that the GOP used so liberally in blocking Clinton court nominees, and now they want nothing less than the abolition of the very concept of an opposition party in the Senate.

In some universes, "groups" are known as "constituencies." Generally speaking, troublesome Democratic constituencies are not intent on creating, say, a socialist state, while the most troublesome Republican one does seem intent on creating a theocratic one. The process may be similar, but the scale doesn't balance.

The Bush administration is leaving the Homeland Security funding formula for Congress to sort out because at heart, they still don't believe a Homeland Security department was necessary - and they're probably right - or that the particular types of programs at issue are especially valuable for preventing or responding to terrorism, which may be about half true.


Posted by: weldon berger at May 2, 2005 12:33 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

re: nyc v. little-rock security funding.

Sounds like profiling to me... :-) But, it's the nature of the system we have. For all the peer review in science grants, NSF funds are distributed geographically proportional to congressional representation accurate to a couple of digits, with only a few exceptions.

Anything else would require judgment. Something not found in government (judgment implies discrimination and trust in same, in the absence of absolute facts.. a no no).

Posted by: Ari Tai at May 2, 2005 05:40 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The idea that the GOP hasn't been captive to interest groups (while these groups hold Democratic politicians on a leash) is laughable to say the least.

For ages, the GOP has been saying "how high" anytime a whole bunch of pressure groups (big business, the NRA, among others) said "jump".

The American Taliban is just one more interest group that the GOP realizes that it has to kowtow to --- and the other pressure groups aren't happy about it because it means they get less attention.

Posted by: p.lukasiak at May 2, 2005 12:58 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Leahy, from the populous state of Vermont? wrote the original funding formula, A senator from a small
midwestern state, now holds the Appropriations
slot. However, if Osama's october pronouncement
is any indication, he intends to target red states as
well as blue ones

Posted by: narciso at May 3, 2005 02:10 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

While I do think you make an interesting observation with regards to how Democrat Presidential candidates are selected. You're pretty out of touch with how the Republican party operates.

The Republicans today are the Democrats of the 1970s with regards to how much influence these interest groups have on the politicians. You really have to go back to 1984, when the religious right felt they were the source of Ronald Reagan's election win and then felt he didn't pander to them enough. They ran Robertson in 1988 to prove how important they were, and he scared the bejesus out of them.

Their influence since then has become quite extreme, especially as they have worked to oust all moderate and liberal Republicans from the state parties. The reason Frist is weak is really that he's not a True Believer and the religious right doesn't feel they can count on him. Frist is a Presbyterian, and they're aligned with the antichrist as far as the religious right is concerned.

No offense, but living in New York and London you've probably never met these guys and don't know them. Come to the midwest sometime, and I'll introduce you.

Posted by: Radical Moderate at May 3, 2005 09:44 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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