Sunday, July 25, 2004

Back in Berkeley 

Just got back from a stint of traveling (France, Italy and Alaska were the highlights), and I'm still playing catch-up with the news, but I want to recommend two Atlantic Monthly articles I read on the plane ride back from Anchorage. In the first article, James Fallows warns not to underestimate Bush's debating ability. The man thrives on being (mis?)underestimated. In his 1994 campaign for Texas Governor, Bush agreed to only one debate with incumbent Ann Richards. His campaign worked very hard to lower expectations, pointing out that Richards had gone to college on a debate scholarship and generally implying that Bush was no match for her.

In fact, George W. performed astonishingly well in that debate, deftly turning every question into a reiteration of his core message. Fallows, who watched a tape of the debate, says he was surprised by Bush's eloquence. I was skeptical. Eloquence? That doesn't sound like our president. But before you can cry biased reporting, Fallows admits he is baffled by the contrast between the eloquent Bush of 1994 and the confused muddler of today. Could it be lack of preparation, he wonders? Bush is evidently capable of inspiring speech when he is well-prepared. It's the unexpected questions that catch him off guard. Or perhaps the Bush campaign is deliberately trying to create an image of the president that will induce people to underestimate him. Part of the secret to Bush's "victories" in his debates vs. Richards in 1994 and Gore in 2000 was a skillful lowering of expectations. When everyone expected Bush to fall apart facing champion debaters like Richards and Gore, even a mediocre performance could be spun as a victory.

Sometimes it can be hard to resist making fun of Bush's seeming lack of intelligence or abilities. But in doing so, we may be playing right into the hands of his reelection campaign by helping convince ourselves and others to underestimate the president. Let's not make the same mistake that the Richards and Gore campaigns made. Kerry should walk into the debates ready for a tough fight. He should treat George W. as if he were the same caliber opponent as William Weld in 1996. If Bush turns out to be an easier opponent, so much the better.

In the other excellent piece in this month's Atlantic, Benjamin Wittes presents a very balanced view of the issue of American citizens designated "enemy combatants"and prosecuted under the Patriot Act. For the first time, I understand where the people on the other side of this issue are coming from. That's not to say that I agree with them. If the president is to be given the right to designate American citizens as enemy combatants, allowing them to be detained indefinitely without being charged, at the very least the "enemy combatant" status should be subject to judicial review, and the person detained should have access to a lawyer.

What really surprised me was that John Ashcroft comes across as taking the middle ground on this issue. Although Justice Department lawyers are obligated to take a hard line, arguing that "enemy combatants" are not entitled to legal counsel and that enemy combatant status cannot be reviewed by a court without compromising sensitive information, Wittes claims that Ashcroft is uncomfortable with this extreme stance, and reluctantly takes this position only because of pressure from the Pentagon. Even if Wittes is right, it doesn't relieve Ashcroft of responsibility for a litany of other attacks on our civil liberties, including his sponsorship of the Patriot Act, permitting investigators to spy on library records and lawyer-client conversations, not to mention his role in drafting the far worse Patriot Act II. Still, if Wittes is right, it's comforting to know that even John Ashcroft is not a complete authoritarian, and that his seemingly boundless contempt for constitutional law has its limits.

The bad news is that neither of these Atlantic pieces is available online, and the print issue is a steep $5.95. I paid up because I was desperate for some reading material on the plane. In retrospect, it was probably worth the price. We're spoiled by the amount of free information on the internet, but for the best information, sometimes you have to pay.

UPDATE: (hat tip to sid on Kos) The Fallows piece is still available online: it's not on the Atlantic site, but here's Google's cache.

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