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We Report... You Deride

Saturday, December 06, 2003  
Go Ahead, Make Rush Limbaugh's Day

The good thing about blogging is that it lets anyone argue a position to a mass audience. It also allows a people with a staggering lack of background knowledge to sound off. The recent cry to "Make Hillary Clinton the Senate Majority Leader" is a really good example.

Part of this argument can be traced back to the understandable frustration with Tom Daschle. Calling him the 'worst majority leader ever' is hyperbole-- given the obstacles he faces (an irresponsible, jingoistic House, a fragmenting coalition, highly-organized lobbying, and a "Take No Prisoners" WHite House), I think he's performed fairly well. George Mitchell, who had fewer problems, actually accomplished a lot less.

That said, Daschle frequently misjudges the mood of both his coalition and the mood of the country. When an issue arise, it's the majority leader's job to stake out his party's basic position. Daschle's first public response to an issue often gets blasted by both wings of the party. The liberals and conservatives have to publicly drag him to the spot that he should have been standing in the first place.In an era when the Senate Majority Leader is the last line of defense, that's not acceptable. He'd be doing the party a favor if he stepped down.

But it ain't likely to happen. I studied the history of congressional party leadership in college; only one Senate party leader (Robert Byrd, who gave up the job to take Appropriations, so he could funnel more pork to his district) has ever vacated the positon without leaving the Senate or dying. Assuming Daschle doesn't want to set that historic precedent, the only option is to support the vomitous John Thune.

But let's say he goes. Who should replace him? Dan of Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics has posted twice about this. I agree with his first first response (it's not enough to get rid of him unless you have someone better) in principle. And his secondassessment of the alternatives is about 85% right (I think he's too hard on several good choices).

What's wrong with Hillary? Frankly, everything. There are three traits that have traditionally produced a successful congressional leader (majority leader or speaker-- whips are special cases):

1. Someone in absolutely safe seat. The man or woman has to be able to take a position with absolutely no worries about being re-elected. You can't have someone who has to constantly worry about raising money or how their actions might hurt them in a re-election campaign-- you want someone who rolls up 60-70% majorities, and often has token opposition.

Hillary Clinton will never, ever have a safe seat. She's a polarizing figure who will always face well-funded challengers. She got only 54% of the vote in her first run-- and her opponent, Rick Lazio, was an incredibly inept challenger. If Rudy Giuliani decides that his health problems are a thing of the past, he's got a great shot to beat her next time out. Putting Hillary in a role where she has to espouse consensus positions that she might not agree with ties an anchor around her neck.

(Daschle, by the way, doesn't score as badly on this as some people think-- his vote totals were in the 60's his last two runs (in 1986, he was facing a popular moderate. Tim Johnson's slim majorities create the impression that Daschle is in danger of losing his seat. While you can't be 100% sure what will happen if the wingnuts go after him, I think he''s safe.)

2. Someone perceived to be as non-ideological as possible. If a senator stays with the coalition on a touchy issue, the opponent will always say "How could you possibly vote with this person?" the next time around. You're looking for someone who comes across as centrist, or you lose people at both fringes. And if that happens, the leadership has to hope they can court someone across the aisle-- if they can't, they lose.

You put Hillary in charge, you make it ungodly difficult for anyone in a moderate state to stay onboard in a hot issue. There will be people who are people who'll argue that Daschle is a wild-eyed liberal, but that doesn't fly in most swing states. But it Hillary is running Senate Dems, some of the folks who filibustered W's wingnut judges would have had to bail.

3. Someone who doesn't want to be President. In order to be a good party leader, you have to agree to serve. Hillary won't.

The party leader in both the House and Senate has one job: pass legislation. The good ones have to focus on getting bills through--even if they're not exactly what they personally want to see enacted. Leaders who don't pass bills are seen as weak-- and weak leaders don't get elected.

And if you do pass legislation, what you pass gets held against you in the party primaries. Every compromise shows that you're not a true believer in the principles that made the party great. Rather, you're an opportunist who can't be trusted to lead.

Since the party leader positions were established in 1913, only one (Lyndon Johnson) has ever become president--and that was thanks to an assassin's bullet and the quixotic nomination of Barry Goldwater. Only two other leaders (Alben Barkley and Charles Curtis) ever became Vice-President. Joe Robinson and Charles McNary were VP nominees when their party got smoked.

Meanwhile, a slew of leaders who did their jobs well--Bob Taft, Howard Baker, Everett Dirksen, Mike Mansfield and Hugh Scott--never could get anyone excited enough to want to vote for them when they tried to run. Hey, Bob Dole only got the nomination due to a dearth or alternatives.

The senators who won-- Truman, Kennedy, Nixon--are always the backbenchers. When a nasty issue arose-- the ones that make enemies no matter where you stand-- they were almost always missing in action. Being able to duck let them run with a clean slate.

I don't think Hillary would be much of a presidential candidate. But I know if she gets a leadership role, she wouldn't make any kind of a candidate. And I'm sure someone close to her understands that fact-- which is why she'll never accept a job if anyone were crazy enough to sound her out.

So who should? That's the problem. Dan's post basically sets the following standards: (a) to increase the odds of them spending at least 10 years in the post, under 60; (b) has spent at least one full term in the Senate; (c) is in a safe seat; (d) isn't too liberal; (e) since Nancy Pelosi is leader in the House, male; (f) has done something to distinguish himself or herself.

Those rules eliminate everyone but Rhode Island's Jack Reed. And he's actually a superb choice-- aged 54, in his second termMasters in Public Policy from Harvard and a Harvard Law Degree, former Army Ranger who taught at West Point, serves on Armed Services and is already a deputy whip. Rolled up a 63% majority in his first term and won almost 3-1 in 2002.

Barring that--- hey, I'd like to be married to a swimsuit model who is a life member of Mensa, an accomplish jazz pianist and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. You takes what life offers. Chuck Schumer is an awfully gifted candidate--and since he's been in Congress for years, he didn't just fall off the turnip truck. Nevada's Harry Reid and New Mexico's Jeff Bingaman would make good bridges to the Rocky Mountain states, they're already in the leadership and they aren't as undistinguished as Dan makes them sound. Pelosi has done such a nifty job that you might want to tap Dianne Feinstein and see if history repeats. And both Jon Corzine of New Jersey and Mark Dayton of Minnesota have real interesting long-term potential.

Finally, I don't want to start a whole big thing about this-- which is why I don't have comments-- but why is it wrong to say that women shouldn't control both slots? We don't have a problem putting two men in charge, do we? White men are opting out of the Democratic Party in droves-- it might be time to say "Hey, if you're gonna go, go."

11:09 PM

When Did We Start Playing Jeopardy?

I see Raggedy Andy has his panties in a bunch again. Howard Dean made the type of mistake that a lot of of smart people make, and Sully decides that he's unfit to be president as a result.

I believe the last word on this issue-- at least it was when a wingnut got caught in this type of crossfire-- is ''The person who is running for president is seeking to be the leader of the free world, not a Jeopardy contestant."

My guess is that-- in the four years since he failed to name the leaders of Chechnya, Taiwan, India and Pakistan-- W. has probably learned the name of Pervaiz Musharraf (he has met the guy) and the first name of the Taiwanese leader. But I'd lay even money he still misses the other two.

Did Howard Dean say something unconscionably stupid when he kept saying "Soviet Union" for "Russia" when asked how we could keep nuclear equipment out of Iran? Only in a political sense. Any governor who runs for president is presumed to know nothing about foreign affairs until he proves otherwise. Dean made a mistake that every opponent will throw in his face.

But why he did it? And how could he do it? According to recent studies, there is a perfectly sensible reason. Bright people tend to store information conceptually-- the specific term used to refer to the item is secondary.

If the name for the item or concept changes, it's much harder for those people to remember it. For example, I am aware that the NFL's "Houston Oilers" moved to Tennessee, but I still forget in casual conversation. (I have the same problem with "African American" for 'black" just like my parents used to sometimes call blacks "negroes".)

There are differences between the Soviet Union and Russia. Russia isn't run by Communists, they don't have colonies, they're not spending immense amounts of money funneling arms and foreign aid to totalitarian regimes and I don't continually worry about them trying to take over the world or getting into a war with them.

That said, it's still a regime with immense resources that aren't being harvested, an inept and brutal government, a standard of living much, much lower than it should be, staggering levels of corruption, lack of respect for the rule of law and a foreign policy driven in part by a chip on the shoulder about the west's opinion of itself.

In other words, I've modified my opinion of the place, but I wouldn't say it's changed that much. The China of 30 years ago is actually a much more different place than the Soviet Union.

Update: I found a copy of the introduction to The Seven Sins of Memory (the best introduction to the subject) online. This page introduces the concept that Dr. Schacter calls "blocking", in which the author mentions "Proper names of people and places are especially vulnerable to blocking... we can’t come up with a proper name or a common name, yet often can provide a great deal of information about it, including the initial letter and number of syllables."

8:41 PM

Sunday, November 30, 2003  
A Foolish Consistency

Well, at least Glenn Reynolds's credulity isn't confined to politics. He just touted the biotechnology version of the Douglas Feith memo.

The company in this New Scientist article claims it can recreate anyone's stem cells from one pint of their blood. If they can, the process would reshape medicine as we know it. There would be no need to harvest stem cells (a costly process) or mess around with embryos (also costly and it also gets the fetal rights wingnuts upset). It might let doctors eliminate "everything from heart disease to Parkinson's disease" simply by implanting healthy cells at afflicted spots.

It would also mean that every other molecular and cellular biologist in the world has been barking up the wrong tree, and that most of what science believes to be true about cell development in the human body is wrong.

The article notes this, and also points out that the claim is published in Current Medical Research and Opinion, a publication whose insights are in such high demand that its web page admits it is "distributed free of charge to medical schools, medical libraries, selected hospitals and research institutes and practitioners throughout the world."

After stating that none of the recognized experts in the field believe these claims, the article adds:

"For many researchers, alarm bells ring loudest over the failure of TriStem to get such groundbreaking results published in a leading journal. They also ask why Abuljadayel has had no permanent academic position."

Hmmm.... why can't the inventor get a teaching position at a prestigious university, which would pay her salary and give her access to topnotch lab facilities and plenty of bright grad students to use as slave labor?

I blame liberals. Why do these people hate America?

11:22 PM

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