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Posts Tagged ‘Glenn Greenwald’

On Labor, Primaries, and Pressure

Friday, June 11th, 2010

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I wasn’t really planning on writing on this silly spat between the White House and organized labor over the Democratic primary in Arkansas, but there’s a few different angles I want to address. For starters, while I’ll agree that this never should have been said publicly, and if the White House finds out who the source is they probably ought to relieve them of their duties, let’s get one thing straight; the White House official is right.Labor has every right to do what it wants with its money, but it definitely wasted its resources in this race. For one thing, Halter was hardly a progressive lion, and likely wouldn’t vote much differently than Lincoln in the Senate. For another thing, Arkansas just isn’t a state where labor has a lot of clout, making their backing somewhat less valuable than it might have been elsewhere. Indeed, much of Lincoln’s campaign was premised around attacking Halter for being pushed by national labor unions.

On the other hand, there’s the argument that the message was sent anyway; that incumbents better not cross labor less they make your life miserable. Perhaps, but I think the people pushing this line the hardest are looking at the situation through rose-colored glasses. The bottom line is that incumbent re-election rates are very high in the U.S., and they’re downright astronomical for sitting Senators in primaries. And, of course, Blanche Lincoln is now a mark in favor of re-election. So even if we assume that labor or other factions of the party can give an incumbent a headache in the primary, the simple fact remains that the incumbent is overwhelmingly likely to win the primary, and much more likely to get beaten in a general election (especially if they’re in a conservative state) than in a primary. For someone who’s only concerned about getting re-elected, this isn’t really a tough call to make at all.

On the other hand, there’s the notion of the White House’s ability to pressure Senators, which Greenwald raises again in typically dense fashion. Yglesias and Bernstein dispose of the nonsense in good fashion, but I’d simply add that, again, there’s a very simple balance of power here; while troubled incumbents may want White House backing in elections, it’s at least technically possible for them to win without it. On the other hand, the White House can’t get its agenda through Congress without sufficient votes from members. With 40 Repuplicans lined up to oppose his agenda no matter what, Obama had to keep every Democrat on board for healthcare reform. If Blanche Lincoln refused to support the bill, that was it. There was no clever way out of things; it was get Blanche Lincoln to support the effort or give up on comprehensive reform. Period. The leverage between individual Senators at the tipping point of votes and the White House is always going to tilt in favor of the Senators (at least in domestic policy) because they have votes in the Senate, and you have to get votes in the Senate to pass bills. The question is how do you get those votes. Greenwald wants to imagine a world where you get them by beating marginal Senators with sticks until they’re cowed like powerless children into doing what you want them to, but that world quite simply doesn’t exist. Senators just aren’t powerless, and thanks to the filibuster, they’re holding the trump card more often than not. The national party or various factions of the party might be able to make life difficult for them, hell they may even be able to slay the dragon, but that vote in the Senate means that the Senator is going to be able to return the favor and then some as long as they have it.

And losing primary challenges does nothing to alter that balance.

Are Democrats Conspiring to Betray Public Option?

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

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That’s Greenwald’s theory:

In other words, [Sen. Jay] Rockefeller was willing to be a righteous champion for the public option as long as it had no chance of passing (sadly, we just can’t do it, because although it has 50 votes in favor, it doesn’t have 60).  But now that Democrats are strongly considering the reconciliation process — which will allow passage with only 50 rather than 60 votes and thus enable them to enact a public option — Rockefeller is suddenly “inclined to oppose it” because he doesn’t “think the timing of it is very good” and it’s “too partisan.”  What strange excuses for someone to make with regard to a provision that he claimed, a mere five months ago (when he knew it couldn’t pass), was such a moral and policy imperative that he “would not relent” in ensuring its enactment.  […]

This is why, although I basically agree with filibuster reform advocates, I am extremely skeptical that it would change much, because Democrats would then just concoct ways to lack 50 votes rather than 60 votes — just like they did here.  Ezra Klein, who is generally quite supportive of the White House perspective, reported last week on something rather amazing:  Democratic Senators found themselves in a bind, because they pretended all year to vigorously support the public option but had the 60-vote excuse for not enacting it.  But now that Democrats will likely use the 50-vote reconciliation process, how could they (and the White House) possibly justify not including the public option?  So what did they do?  They pretended in public to “demand” that the public option be included via reconciliation with a letter that many of them signed (and thus placate their base: see, we really are for it!), while conspiring in private with the White House (which expressed “sharp resistance” to the public option) to make sure it wouldn’t really happen. 

There’s a few obvious mistakes Greenwald is making in this post. First of all, he’s overstating what Rockefeller said. As I’ve argued before, when you’re trying to make a point around a politician’s statement, you have to be careful to stick to what they actually said, because politicians carefully select their language. Rockefeller did not say he was completely opposed to using reconcilliation to pass a public option, he said he was “disinclined” to do so. What does that mean? I don’t really know, and neither does Greenwald. It’s certainly a pessimistic non-committal, at best, but it doesn’t give you any indication how committed Rockefeller is to this. Would he actually oppose the public option if there were 49 or 50 votes for it in the Senate? I don’t really think so, given the work his office did in writing the strong public option amendment in the Senate, but it’s possible. 

Secondly, Greenwald is constructing a bit of a strawman when he expresses his skepticism that you could get 50 votes for the public option. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’ve certainly been skeptical of the notion that there were 50 votes for it in the Senate, as have, among others, Ezra Klein and John Cole. Really, the only people I’ve seen who were certain there were enough votes for it were the progressive activists who spent the fall demanding Democrats use reconcilliation to get the bill done.

Lastly, Greenwald takes one person’s comment and spins a conspiracy involving the entire Democratic caucus. We’re to believe that, because Sen. Rockefeller doesn’t think using reconcilliation to pass the public option is a good idea, the entire recent campaign among a minority of the Democratic caucus is all a big sham. Aside from the obviously faulty reasoning here, I’m wondering to what extent Greenwald actually believes this. Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown have both signed the letter urging a reconcilliation vote on the public option, does Greenwald think these two Senators are just pulling a fast one on progressives? Does he think Bernie Sanders isn’t actually interested in passing the public option? And if he does (or even if he doesn’t), I’d like to see some actual evidence for his premise, not just more conspiracy theories. One political movement that’s consumed with paranoia and conspiracy theory is quite enough for me.

The Rule of Law is No Excuse

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

Tyler Cowen ruminates on the potential downside of torture prosecutions:

At many blogs (Sullivan, Yglesias, DeLong, among others) you will find ongoing arguments for prosecuting the torturers who ran our government for a while.  I am in agreement with the moral stance of these critics but I don’t agree with their practical conclusions.  I believe that a full investigation would lead the U.S. public to, ultimately, side with torture, side with the torturers, and side against the prosecutors.  That’s why we can’t proceed and Obama probably understands that.  If another attack happened this would be all the more true.

I’m not really sure I agree with this or not, but on that note, I definitely don’t agree with the counterargument put forward (earlier) by Greenwald:

But leave aside the question of whether prosecutions would produce good or bad outcomes.  After all, the notion that the law can and should be ignored whenever we think doing so would produce good results or would constitute good policy was the engine that drove Bush lawlessness. 

This is just ridiculous. At best, it’s a dystopian outlook where outcomes are of no consequence, at worst, it’s the flip-side of the “I was just following orders” defense, wherein “I was just applying the letter of the law” becomes a way to shirk responsibilty for whatever outcomes your choices yield. You can imagine a police officer who decides to hold up someone rushing to the emergency room using it to defend himself when someone dies waiting for him to finish writing a speeding ticket on the side of the freeway. Obviously the torture question is a bit more serious, than that, but at the same time, assuming that Greenwald would agree that rushing to the hospital is a legitimate excuse for taking some leniency with traffic laws, and that police officers should be sensitive to such mitigating circumstances, then he would be admitting that discretion in applying the law is a fundamental part of a nation of laws. Or does Glenn think that local police actually should write citations to people mowing there lawns in shorts between the hours of 5 P.M. and 8 P.M. Monday to Friday?

The question then isn’t so much whether discretionary authority exists, but what circumstances make it proper to decline to prosecute. In particular it seems the question is whether the unlikelihood of earning a conviction, or the likelihood of producing a bad outcome in the larger society, is a legitimate reason to decline to prosecute someone. With regards to the former, I think the answer has to be yes. Especially considering double jeopardy protections, if a prosecutor thinks that someone has committed a crime, but feels that a conviction is unlikely, I would argue that he has a  duty not to bring charges, because doing so would prevent action if and when a conviction was more likey (assuming he’s right on both counts). The latter is a bit of a stickier question, but I would imagine there are some circumstances in which the potential cultural outcome is so dire as to compel the use of discretion, although such situations are certainly rare.

But what’s most troubling is Greenwald’s apparent lack of concern for the outcome of actions. Greenwald could certainly disagree with the premise that prosecutions are likely to produce bad outcomes, but I haven’t seen him make those arguments. Rather, I’ve seen him make arguments like the one above, that the question is completely irrelevant. Greenwald should respond to Cowen, and clearly articulate whether he agrees with Cowen’s conclusion or not. If he doesn’t, that’s certainly fair, and Greenwald can make that argument (and again, I’m not really sure if I agree with Cowen or not). But if he does, I don’t see how a logical person can rectify calling for an action you believe will produce bad outcomes. At best, it belies someone who is far too attached to rigidity, and unable to process exigent circumstances or concerns. At worst, David Broder is right, and Greenwald just wants vengeance against political opponents, consequences be damned. And I don’t want David Broder to be right.

Wherein I Concede McMegan is Right

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

As a rule, I try to avoid agreeing with Megan McArdle but, broken clocks and such, I must concede that she is right in this post critiquing Glenn Greenwald, particularly this graf:

Glenn Greenwald once lashed out at me for asking an “ignorant” question on a topic I admitted I didn’t understand.  A petty person would point out that his post on Larry Summers displays not only ignorance, but a total lack of awareness of any gaps in his understanding.  (emphasis mine).

Putting aside the discussion of whether or not it’s true that the only people who really understand finance market issues are people whoare seemingly too close to the industry as to be unbiased (I think they are, but that’s not really material), I think this is a rather succinct, deadly accurate critique of Greenwald’s style, which is basically to assert a series of premises upon which to build an argument, and then to plow forward at breakneck pace to obscure any sort of quibbling with the underlying premises. It’s great rabble-rousing if you agree with Greenwald, and I’m sure you’re glad to see someone making your point so forcefully, but it’s not so good if you disagree with him. Worse still, it’s really not good if you agree with Greenwald on the fundamentals, but feel like he’s missing a point or going a bridge too far, especially if that’s built around a misconception of what he simply treats as a given (doubly so because he’ll turn his fire-breathing on you if you deign to point it out). As such, I feel like “Glennzilla” tends to be ignored more than he should be by all but a legion of netrooters who rarely disagree with anything he says. Not that that’s a bad bit of positioning, mind you, just ask Limbaugh.

On the substance of Summers, I think McMegan is simply more right than Glenn. Summers was basically an academic and policy maker for his entire career, prior to a scandalous departure from Harvard that seemed to have doomed his career in public life, at which point he entered the private finance world to make a lot of money. Whatever you feel about Summers policy positions, to use this as evidence that he’s unethically close to Wall Street interests doesn’t seem to me, in relative terms, to be quite accurate. This, in fact, is one problem I have with jumping onto the anti-Geithner bandwagon when it’s heavily couched in criticism of his “Wall Street ties,” even though Geithner has never worked in private finance, and has been a technocrat for his entire career. The closest he’s come to working on Wall Street was a stint running the New York Federal Reserve Bank. It’s perfectly fine to make the argument that moneyed interests are invariably linked to government and that Geithner and Summers are more caught up in that than most, but somehow I get the feeling that’s not the argument being made or, if it is, that the people making it are ok if the audience comes awa with a misconception, so long as they come away agreeing that Geithner and Summers are Very Very Bad.

McMegan is also obviously right to note that the idea that Summers would have seemed like a likely choice to be put into a high position in an Obama administration in April of 2008 is just laughable. Simply put, Summers was still a pariah at that point, and remained one until he enjoyed a rapid comeback after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Moreover, with the economic problems not seeming quite so tragically stark, I’m not sure a need for “star power” in these positions would have been felt, and I think it’s likely that either Jason Furman or Austan Goolsbee would have Summers’s position. But the rapid economic downturn necessitated a top line of economic officials with a higher profile. And, of course, the idea of high profile public figures and/or former government officials bringing in 6 figure payouts for speeches is hardly unusual, nor something that is widely seen as improper. It’s ok if Greenwald thinks it is, in fact, improper, but even then he shouldn’t be trying to give the impression that the practice isn’t common and, largely, seen as being an ok thing to do in a number of policy fields. To do so is simply rank intellectual dishonesty.

Why Glenn Greenwald is Insufferable

Saturday, March 21st, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

I don’t actually have a problem with this post, even the parts I don’t necesarily agree with, but at the same time my prism is skewed right at the outset by Greenwald’s insistence on deriding the people he’s arguing against as “elite.” But if Daniel Drezner and Noam Scheiber are “elite opinion makers” and Greenwald and former Secretary of Labor and semi-regular Sunday morning show commentator Robert Reich are, presumably, not, then what exactly is “elite” even supposed to mean? And this is, I think, where Greenwald makes himself his own worse enemy, his reliance on these dismissive characterizations of people who don’t see the world exactly as Glennzilla does. Which is a shame, because I think he has a lot of good things to say, but unless you already agree with his premise, you inevitably have a hard time taking him that seriously once he’s constructed such a laughable framework for his argument.

Political Speak

Monday, March 9th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

Following up on my last post, it occurs to me that the most obvious answer for the “discrepancy” between what Ezra Klein and David Brooks were told by anonymous sources inside the White House; they weren’t contradictory at all. Sounds like a stretch but consider the clips Greenwald uses to build his case. First, from Ezra:

What people at the White House have told me on Social Security — and what I wrote in the post she’s referencing — is that there’s no intention to touch Social Security in the foreseeable future. It’s not a priority and it’s not a political winner. . . . The problem, they say, is health care, not Social Security, and that’s where the White House is focusing.

And from Brooks:

Besides, the long-range debt is what matters, and on this subject President Obama is hawkish.

He is extremely committed to entitlement reform and is plotting politically feasible ways to reduce Social Security as well as health spending.

Now, at first blush those statements certainly seem mututally exclusive. But it’s important to remember that it’s politicians giving these quotes, and adminitration officials are always going to choose their words carefully, and that because of that you really need to parse what they say before you do something definitive like publish a blog post about them. So let’s game these out. On the one hand, someone told Ezra Klein that the administration was going to use the fiscal responsibility summit to make the arguement that Social Security was more or less sound, and that healthcare reform was much more important for our fiscal stability (they did), and that there was no political room to make changes to Social Security at the moment (which seems fair enough), and so there were no plans to do anything with Social Security for “the foreseeable future.” It’s important to remember that the source is hedging, as administration officials are always going to do. Anyone who sets some sort of concrete proclomation about the future years out isn’t in a position to be informed on these things, because political actors of that caliber just don’t do that. And what was told to Brooks is even less specific and substantive. Basically we’re told, second hand, that Obama is “extremely committed” to something, and that something is defined very broadly as “entitlement reform.” Indeed, we don’t even know if the sources mentioned Social Security themselves, or if Brooks embellished somewhat. The more I think about it, the more it seems that anonymity is a rather large red herring here, at least in Brooks’s case, and the larger issue is the sloppy and ambiguous write up of a completely empty quote he got.

It’s also important to consider that these are two different things. While Brooks is publishing second hand conjecture about things Obama is committed to doing “in the long term,” at least one of the issues Ezra addressed, the nature of the fiscal responsibility summit, has been proven to be accurate. That should pretty clearly tip the scale, at least for now, in Ezra’s favor, and cast more skepticism in Brooks’s direction. When adding in that the quote Brooks relayed didn’t really say anything and leaves a football field’s worth of political wiggle room (the nice thing about committing to “the long term” is that you can always come back and claim that things are just different down the road), I don’t really think it’s helpful to give the two equal weight. Clearly, Ezra has infinitely more credibility than Brooks at this juncture, and giving them equal credence is a false equivalency. That it helps build the desired case against anonymous quotes doesn’t really change that.

Talk Radio Liberals Watch: Always Right

Monday, March 9th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

With the budget coming out and some more substantive things in the hopper, I promise I’m going to scale back these type of posts, but this missive from Jane Hamsher is simply too egregious to let go. The matter in question goes back to the run-up to the fiscal responsiblity summit, when a lot of progressives, notably Hamsher and Digby, were absolutely foaming at the idea that the Obama administration was going to cut social security. Someone in the administration talked to Ezra Klein, and told him that social security was not going to be on the table, and that they were going to explicitly argue that healthcare reform was a much more pressing need than anything related to social security, which, coincidentally, is exactly what happened.

Without sugarcoating things, what Hamsher is doing is straight out of Orwell. Ezra’s source was completely accurate, at multiple points, but Hamsher makes multiple references to Ezra being “lied to.” Karl Rove couldn’t pull off that sort of up-is-downism with a straight face. Moreover, Hamsher references a completely unsourced, even anonymously, throwaway line from a New York Times report about Obama’s relationship with labor as evidence that she is really right, which is, obviously, pretty ironic, but also underscores the real point to Hamsher’s post.

Hamsher is employing an old right-wing trick, in which the writer is always right, no matter what happens. If it turns out that they’re spectacularly wrong, it’s really just proof that they’re right. Digby, I’m sad to say, has been using the exact same slight of hand to avoid facing up to, well, being completely, loudly, wrong. To wit, most people would look at the discrepancy between what Ezra reported and what Digby/Hamsher were screaming about and conclude that Ezra is well sourced, and Digby/Hamsher were somewhere between wildly inaccurate and slightly paranoid. But, to hear Hamsher and Digby tell it, they were never wrong, rather it was their efforts who forced the administration to change course. So, on top of being right all along, they’re also Very Important People. There’s a word for this; delusional. I like Digby as a writer (Hamsher not so much), but she doesn’t have the political influence to push a local state legislative candidate, let alone to move the White House. I mean c’mon.

I don’t really care much about the anonymous source question (and neither does Hamsher, as she lays bare, she ust picked up Greenwald’s critique to take another shot at Ezra because she’s pissed off he was right). I think Greenwald is being a bit flippant, and doesn’t seem to have considered the fact that the sources can always hang up on the reporter if the latter refuses to grant them anonymity. Or maybe Greenwald thinks that’s a preferrable alternative, although I wouldn’t agree. I also tend to agree with Ezra; there’s no reason to burn a source that’s giving you accurate information. If you feel like you have a source who is routinely lying to you, then yes, you should probably burn them, because that’s a story in its own right. But in this case, not only was Ezra’s source not lying, he wasn’t even mistaken. He was exactly right, something that is understandably a foreign concept to Hamsher.  But what really disturbs me is the reaction. Hamsher’s post has nearly 70 responses, mostly uncritical of her ridiculous post (and glaring contradiction). Ezra’s response has 30 responses at the moment, nearly half of which are critical of him. And again, for posterity’s sake, in the initial question Ezra was right, and Hamsher was spectacularly wrong. But at least in the narrow segment of commentors on the matter, opinion seems to have lined up behind Hamsher anyway. And that’s very troublesome, and makes me question whether the progressive movement will crumble on itself even faster than the conservative movement did.

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