Devil In The Details

Bolton Begins

John Bolton is in the building.

Just three weeks before some 170 heads of state converged on New York for the September 14–16 United Nations summit, which considered the most ambitious set of reforms in the organization's history, the new recess-appointed U.S. ambassador tossed a wrench in the works. Discarding months of diplomatic toil, Bolton submitted a modest 750 alterations to the 39-page text of proposed UN reforms, throwing the negotiations into complete disarray.

Many of these edits were merely grammatical, and some were just petty jabs at the organization, such as eliminating the word “all” from the second paragraph (“We recognize the valuable role of all the major UN conferences …”). But some marked a significant change in the U.S. bargaining position heralded by Bolton's arrival at Turtle Bay.

Perhaps none of these was more obnoxious (and more instructive of Bolton's new influence) than the systematic removal of all 14 references to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) -- and then, their subsequent reinsertion.

The MDGs grew out of a global agreement on aid and poverty eradication, known as the Millennium Declaration, that was signed at the UN's summit in September 2000. The goals that Bolton initially decided the United Nations should not acknowledge are a set of eight development targets that grew from the declaration. These include reducing by half the proportion of people who live on less than a dollar a day and reducing by two-thirds the child-mortality rate by 2015.

B.B. (Before Bolton), the Bush administration had never before been averse to the mere mention of the goals, and U.B. (Until Bolton), the MDGs had not been a target of Bush administration animus. In the last year alone, the nongovernmental organization Citizens for Global Solutions identified no fewer than nine instances in which the administration approvingly referenced the MDGs. Further, in a meeting with NGO representatives shortly after Bolton's edits were reported by The Washington Post on August 25, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns refused to support Bolton's rejection of them. Burns neither confirmed nor denied that the United States was dropping its support of the MDGs, and those in the room came away thinking that Bolton had forged his very own MDG policy ahead of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

On September 6, after two weeks of squabbling and unnecessary hard feelings, the U.S. delegation finally relented, agreeing that the text could reference the MDGs. And so the Bolton era began, initially pitting almost every other nation on the globe against us over our new ambassador's personal opposition to uttering the name of some nonbinding development goals.

We already knew that as a diplomat, Bolton is no Averell Harriman. And now we know that as an editor, he's not exactly William Shawn.

-- Mark Leon Goldberg

Hurricane Of Debt

Last spring, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee offered an amendment to the gleefully punitive bankruptcy-reform bill under consideration in the House Judiciary Committee. Her proposal would have exempted aid and relief money received in the wake of a natural disaster from the income-means test that the new bill would apply to people seeking to file for the less-onerous Chapter 7 bankruptcy. As Jackson-Lee put it when proposing the amendment, to “hurt those who are already suffering from flooding or [a] collapsed roof or house that has gone out to sea is absolutely ridiculous.” In response, the committee's famously avuncular chairman, Jim Sensenbrenner, offered an expansive discussion of the proposal, which consisted entirely of the following: “The question is on the amendment. Those in favor will say, ‘Aye'? Opposed, ‘No'? The ‘noes' appear to have it. The ‘noes' have it. The amendment is not agreed to.”

Fast-forward to Hurricane Katrina's devastation. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the disaster will cost 400,000 jobs nationally. People facing destroyed homes and lost jobs all across the Gulf Coast now face the harsh new realities of the bankruptcy-reform law, which takes effect on October 17. These not only include the strict means test for Chapter 7 filing but also requirements for voluminous new paperwork and for credit-counseling classes for debtors (just what refugees from a catastrophe will want to be spending their time on).

Now, Democrats in the House (led by Jackson-Lee and John Conyers) and the Senate (led by Russ Feingold) are pushing proposals to exempt victims of Katrina, either temporarily or permanently, from the provisions of the new bankruptcy law and to add broader exceptions for victims of all natural disasters. (Coincidentally, a newly published University of Nevada study finds that states hit by hurricanes in the last 25 years experienced an increase in bankruptcy filings at a rate one and a half times greater than that in unaffected states.) If such proposals seem like a political no-brainer for Congress, recall that the Republicans expressed real reluctance over having to delay a vote to permanently repeal the estate tax one week after the hurricane hit, and that they're already discussing ways to pass new tax cuts and pro-industry energy measures under the guise of Katrina relief.

Republicans' immediate reaction to Democratic calls for delaying the implementation of the bankruptcy law was a dismissive scoff. And even if a public outcry eventually prompts a GOP flip-flop, it would only raise the question: If major changes are necessary at the very outset of its implementation, just how hot was this law to begin with?

-- Sam Rosenfeld

Fool Me Twice …

When is a bipartisan commission not bipartisan? Perhaps when, like the bipartisan, bicameral congressional inquiry into Hurricane Katrina proposed on September 7, it's unveiled by Bill Frist and Dennis Hastert at a press conference Democratic leaders weren't even told about, much less invited to. Or when its membership, all sitting senators and representatives subject to party discipline, will have a clear Republican majority just like an ordinary congressional committee. Or when, just like an ordinary committee, only the majority will be able to issue subpoenas and control the course of events. Or when, just like the GOP Congress of which this commission would be an extension, we can expect it to do nothing in the way of oversight of the executive branch. Instead, under cover of bipartisanship, it will produce a whitewash, scapegoating state and local officials while leaving the Bush administration unscathed.

Democrats have participated in this kind of committee once before, during the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's inquiry into Iraq's weapons-of-mass-destruction programs. Under the leadership of Senator Pat Roberts, the panel insisted on separating the question of flawed intelligence from the issue of faulty administration claims about intelligence, with the latter issue, Roberts pledged, to be explored in a separate report to be released only after the 2004 presidential election. Committee Democrats, led by Senator Jay Rockefeller, signed on to the process -- and wound up signing off on a pre-election whitewash of a report that detailed errors by the intelligence professionals while remaining silent on the conduct of administration political appointees.

So the committee looked at the supposedly false claims made by former Ambassador Joe Wilson but never got around to the key claim that Wilson exposed -- that the documents showing Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger were forgeries -- which the administration used in its rush to war. Having agreed to participate in the report, committee Democrats then felt skittish about raising questions regarding the integrity of the process, a move that's puzzled even some members of Rockefeller's staff. After the election, meanwhile, Roberts quietly announced that the second report wouldn't be written at all, with nary a peep of protest from Democrats.

So far, party leaders don't seem willing to get played for fools a second time. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are refusing to appoint members to a stacked commission, instead pushing for an independent, truly bipartisan panel like the September 11 commission. Media coverage of the move, however, has been fairly clueless -- Aren't the Democrats just being partisan? -- so Democrats may feel pressure to break ranks. One leading candidate for the Rockefeller role is Joe Lieberman, ranking member on the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, whose chair, Republican Susan Collins, has already announced plans for hearings. “What about Susan Collins,” asked one typically blinkered reporter at Pelosi's press conference on the issue. “Don't you trust her?”

If Democrats have any sense, their answer will remain, “No.”

-- Matthew Yglesias

The Outsiders

So what, exactly, are the anti-war bloggers of the Democratic Party looking for in a presidential candidate? Some recent straw polls on leading anti-war blogs have produced some surprising results.

An ongoing MyDD poll, as of 1,339 respondents, found Wesley Clark leading the pack with the support 34 percent of readers. Anti-war Russ Feingold was nipping at his heels at 23 percent, and John Edwards ran third at 11 percent. But Hillary Clinton, proclaimed the Democratic front-runner by virtually the entire chattering class, and well ahead in most polls, garnered only 8-percent support from the blogistas.

Things weren't so different over at Daily Kos. In one August straw poll, Clark led again, drawing 35 percent support from the 8,710 respondents, followed by 16 percent for Feingold and 9 percent for Clinton.

There's just one problem: Clark doesn't support immediate withdrawal from Iraq, which is the defining political issue on both blogs. In an August Washington Post op-ed, he wrote, “[I]t would also be a mistake to pull out [of Iraq] now, or to start pulling out or to set a date certain for pulling out.” If that wasn't clear enough, he elaborated in a speech at the New America Foundation's “Terrorism, Security, and America's Purpose” conference in September, predicting that an immediate retreat would be a “long and bloody” process.

What does all this tell us about the Democratic bloggers? Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos says that the support for Clark is evidence that “we are not an ideological community; we're a practical one.” But how practical is it to back a candidate who's never held elected office, lost his bid last time around, and whose heavily Clintonite '04 fund-raising base will clearly go elsewhere in '08? With their inclinations toward Clark, Feingold, and Edwards, the bloggers look to be tilting in '08 toward the very same type of candidates they liked in '04: political outsiders.

-- Garance Franke-Ruta


“Liberals who think this disaster is going to set off a progressive revival need to explain how a comprehensive governmental failure is going to restore America's faith in big government.”

-- David Brooks, New York Times, September 11, 2005

“The huge bureaucratic government will never be able to protect you. If you rely on government for anything -- anything -- you're going to be disappointed, no matter who the president is.”

-- Bill O'Reilly, The O'Reilly Factor, September 5, 2005

“You know, it's amazing that what worked is private initiative, local leaders, private citizens, and individuals all over the devastated area in Louisiana, and also all over the country trying to get them supplies. What didn't work are the agencies and the bureaucracies with big budgets, big plans; couldn't get them there.”

-- Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter, Scarborough County, September 12, 2005