Fire Up the Favor Factory

In the Senate, the Republicans have just elected pork barrel champion Trent Lott (R-MS) to be their second-ranking leader.  I guess the GOP wants to get a headstart on losing the 2008 election. 

Over in the House, the battle over the majority leader’s position is being fought between John Murtha (D-PA) and Steny Hoyer (D-MD). According to the Washington Post, Murtha is a corruption-tainted supporter of the recent orgy of congressional earmarks, while Hoyer is a more moderate and sensible choice for leader.

But let’s not get too excited about Steny Hoyer. In a 2004 story, the Washington Post portrays him as an unapologetic champion of bringing home federal spending goodies to his Maryland district. Indeed, he is one of the 10 most prodigious porkers in the House. When asked whether Congress ought to end pork barrel spending, Hoyer said “I hope not…pork barrel is in the eye of the beholder.”

Richard Haass on Iraq and U.S. Foreign Policy

The German publication Spiegel has posted a lengthy interview with Richard Haass, current president of the Council on Foreign Relations and former director of policy planning at the State Department during George W. Bush’s first term.

Haass is not an anti-Bush partisan hack. Given his Republican leanings, and recognizing that his uniformly bleak assessment of the state of U.S. foreign policy is not aimed at scoring political points for the Democratic Party, that makes his assessment of the state of U.S. foreign policy all the more sobering. He concedes that President Bush still has over two years in office, and that crises may come along that will allow the president to re-shape his legacy. As it now stands, however, “the world is not a safer place.” And the situation is not likely to improve any time soon.

Here are some notable excerpts:

On Iraq:

SPIEGEL: Mr. Haass, were the election results a message from the voters to President George W. Bush that it’s time for US troops to be pulled out of Iraq?

Haass: The mid-term election is a signal of widespread popular dissatisfaction with the course of the Iraq war. But it should not be read as a signal of support for a particular alternative. Nor will it lead most Democrats in Congress to call for a quick and complete withdrawal of US forces. Instead, it will reinforce the likelihood that American policy will be adjusted. We can anticipate force reductions and redeployments and possibly a greater emphasis on diplomacy, both within Iraq and with Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran and Syria.

[…] 

SPIEGEL: Is Iraq still winnable for the United States?

Haass: We’ve reached a point in Iraq where we’ve got to get real. And this is not going to be a near-term success for American foreign policy. The Iraq situation is not winnable in any meaningful sense of the word “winnable.” So what we need to do now is look for a way to limit the losses and costs, try to advance on other fronts in the region and try to limit the fallout of Iraq. That’s what you have to do sometimes when you’re a global power.

On an emerging Iraq syndrome: 

SPIEGEL: The disaster of the last years leads many Americans to doubt the military strength and moral superiority of the nation. Is this country on the verge of a new isolationist phase?

Haass: The danger is an Iraq syndrome. The war is one the American people weren’t quite prepared for: They had not been told it was going to be that difficult and expensive. After the military battlefield phase, they thought it was going to be easy. So this has proven shocking. Nearly 3,000 Americans have lost their lives. Maybe 15,000 - 20,000 Americans have been wounded. Hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent. It has been disruptive on many levels. The danger is that the United States now will be weary of intervening elsewhere, like the cat that once sat on a hot stove and will never sit on any stove again.

On the Bush legacy:

SPIEGEL: Can you remember a time when US foreign policy was confronted with so many challenges and difficulties?

Haass: The short answer is: No. During the Cold War, the United States faced a single challenge that was greater than any we face now. But I can’t think of a time when the United States has faced so many difficult challenges at once. What makes it worse is we are facing them at a time when we are increasingly stretched militarily. We are divided politically. We are stretched also economically, and there is a good deal of anti-Americanism in the world. It’s a very bad combination.

[…]

SPIEGEL: Will Bush leave the world with more problems than he found when he came into office?

Haass: Most likely. That said, the administration still has two years to go, so it is too early to judge. All you can say is that it’s sobering where we are. As of now, you would have to say the world is not a safer place.

 

Apocalypse Cancelled

Remember in the 1990s, when the rainforests were alleged to be disappearing and forests of all kinds were being clear-cut around the globe at such an alarming rate that mass species die-offs were inevitable and the planet’s lungs would soon give out lest we, I don’t know, turn the globe into one giant Ted Kaczynski National Forest

Well, it turns out that this is yet one more doomsday predication that won’t likely pan out.  According to an article that appears today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 22 of the 50 countries around the world with the most forestland saw forest acreage expansions over the past 15 years, and most of the rest are transitioning from deforestation to reforestation.  Now that’s out of the way, let’s move on to the next “end is near” prognostication ….

Hollywood - Green Thyself!

Next time you run across some self righteous, moral preening Hollywood-type going on about the environmental doom that awaits us like the Gaian sword of Damocles lest we turn away from our gluttony, our self interest, and money-grubbing capitalist ways, keep this in mind: a recent study has found that the movie industry is the second largest source of pollution in LA. 

A Turn of the Revolving Door

According to the Hill Climbers section of today’s Roll Call,

Brian Zimmer is saying goodbye to Capitol Hill to join the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.  According to a statement, AAMVA is an association that “actively promotes traffic safety and uniformity among North American jurisdictions.” Zimmer starts today as the company’s new senior vice president of identity management.
Before making the jump, Zimmer worked for the past five years as senior policy adviser and investigator for the House Judiciary Committee. There he helped investigate and conduct the committee’s oversight on issues such as fraud prevention, border security and counterterrorism, among others. 

Specifically, Brian was the Judiciary Committee’s lead staffer on the REAL ID Act, our national ID law.  He is a committed and motivated proponent of that cause.

AAMVA is well recognized (by those who care to follow these issues) as a proponent of driver regulation, national IDs, and even internationally uniform ID systems.  Since at least the late 1930’s AAMVA has been pushing regulatory control of drivers and driving.  As I note in my book, Identity Crisis, “Before September 11, 2001, AAMVA promoted a national identification card as a solution to illegal immigration.  After September 11, 2001, it promoted a national identification card as a solution to terrorism.  If national identification cards are a hammer, AAMVA sees every public policy problem as a nail.”

AAMVA collects about $1 per driver per year (roughly $13 million) for its part in administering the Commercial Drivers License Information System.  AAMVA would make much more as the administrator of databases required by the REAL ID Act.

Brian is a nice guy and, as I say, dedicated to his cause.  His new employment provides a window into AAMVA’s role in the national ID debate.

The “Do Nothing” Congress Can, and Should, Do Something Good on Trade

Make no mistake, the incoming Congress looks like it will be less amenable to trade liberalization than the last. Many friends (or, at least, non-enemies) of free trade in the last Congress have been replaced by “fair-trade” Democrats who have lamented the trade policies of the Bush Administration and seem keen to provide more “oversight” (read: populist obstructionism) on trade issues in the future.

However, rather than pass laws on warrantless wire-tapping and the like, the 109th Congress can make a positive contribution to U.S. policy in its last, dying weeks and vote in favor of granting “permanent normal trade relations” status to Vietnam. That would strengthen the bilateral relations between the United States and Vietnam, and bring economic benefits to both nations.

Holding up the passage of that bill before the elections was Sen. Mel Martinez (R- Fla.), concerned about the treatment of Thuong Nguyen “Cuc” Foshee, a Florida woman detained in Vietnam on suspicion of terrorism. Mrs Foshee was, however, released for health reasons and is due to return to the United States today. That paves the way for a House vote on the issue this week and, hopefully, a Senate vote soon after.

Vietnam’s accession to the WTO has already been approved by the WTO membership, and a bilateral market access deal between the United States and Vietnam was sealed in May 2006. Vietnam would not, however, need to extend most-favoured-nation tariffs to the United States until Congress granted PNTR. Unless and until then, U.S. consumers and companies would not be able to take full advantage of Vietnam’s accession to the WTO. A market of more than 82 million people, growing at an average rate of 7.5 percent over the last decade, seems too good an opportunity to risk on a year-to-year basis (the current schedule for granting most-favored-nation status to Vietnam).

Apart from securing those economic benefits as soon as possible, however, a diplomatic embarrassment is ripe for the avoiding. President Bush is due to visit Hanoi from November 18-19 for the annual APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) leaders meeting, at which the Doha round is due to be discussed.

My colleague Dan Ikenson has some concerns about the concessions made by the administration in order to secure the PNTR passage (see here), but this bill is one that the lame-duck Congress can, and should, pass quickly. Apart from the tangible economic benefits it will bring, it will have powerful “signal value” that the United States is still engaged on trade.

What the Exit Polls Said

The election is over, and the time has come to determine what the voters said by looking at the exit polls. Here’s what I see in the data served up with two caveats.

First, “the people” don’t say much except “No.” Of course, “no” to the ruling party also means “yes” to the alternative, in this case to the Democrats. But there is no collective mind that instructs the government in any detail beyond “no.”

Second, I’m going to compare 2006 exit poll data to a similar survey in 2004. But there are two differences. The electorate in the 2004 presidential contest was about 50 percent larger than the turnout last week. Many of the differences between 2006 and 2004 you are going to hear about in the next week or two will be relatively small. For example, self-described conservatives made up 34 percent of the voters in 2004 and 32 percent this year. That difference may just reflect the relative propensity of conservatives to vote in presidential and midterm elections (or it may just be random variation). (I can’t compare 2006 to the last midterm in 2002 because of problems with the latter poll). For this reason, I’m only going to pull out of the data largish differences between 2004 and 2006.

In general, the 2006 electorate was not all that different from the 2004 group. However, there are some differences:

Self-identified independents (26 percent of the vote) went from a 48-49 Republican-Democratic split to 39-57 favoring the Dems.

In 2004, 84 percent of self-identified conservatives voted for the GOP. This year 78 percent did.

Self-described moderates split 45-54 Republican-Democrat in 2004. This year the division was 38-60 against the GOP.

45 percent of the electorate said in 2006 that they attended church once a week or more. The GOP lost 6 percent of that group compared to 2004 while the Democrats were up 4 percent.

The Republicans also were down 5 percent among Protestants and 8 percent among Roman Catholics. Just over 80 percent of voters identify as Protestant or Catholic.

Asked about the importance of various topics, 67 percent said Iraq was either extremely or very important. 82 percent said the same about the economy; 74 percent said the same about corruption and ethics.

What does it all mean? The GOP lost significant support among independents, moderates, conservatives, and the pious, especially Roman Catholics. Each of these groups is a significant part of the electorate.

The question of the independent is especially interesting. 26 percent of the electorate told exit pollsters that they were independent of party. Earlier studies suggest only about 10 percent of the electorate are actually independent, and they are less likely to vote. Most “independents” do vote for one of the major parties whatever they say to exit surveys. My guess is that the GOP lost the votes this time of a lot of self-identified independents who normally vote Republican.

Exit polls do not ask people whether they are libertarians. My thought – yet another guess – would be that libertarians might identify themselves as independents in party and either as moderate or conservative in ideology. If so, the GOP lost their vote too.

Commentators often say the Republican party is a balancing act between economic libertarians and social conservatives. A GOP majority is always precarious: what pleases economic libertarians must alienate social conservatives and vice-versa. In 2006, the Republicans’ conduct of government along with the Iraq war alienated both aspects of its base along with many other voters who are not attached to one of the parties.

The picture is not all bleak for Republicans in 2008. In 2004, President Bush won two-thirds of the open and formerly Republican House districts that elected Democrats in 2006. Many of them could return to the GOP in 2008.

Democrats will have two years to dig in their incumbents in. If they can hold their majority in 2008, I would not bet against a Democratic House for a generation.

Finally, a strange result. When exit polls asked “Will the Democrats make American safe?,” fully 29 percent of Democrats answered “no.” The party apparently has yet to convince on national security.