Much has been made of Scott Brown’s (R-Mass.) election to the U.S. Senate, since by taking the seat held since time immemorial by Ted Kennedy, Brown has effectively squelched congressional Democrats’ “filibuster-proof” 60-seat majority. This has been interpreted variously as rank ineptitude on the part of Brown’s Democratic opponent, former Massachusetts state Attorney General Martha Coakley, and as a “referendum on health care reform” by voters angry with Democratic inaction since they won their majority two years ago.

Lost in these analyses are the different sets of implications for any Democratic coalition in the Senate. Counterintuitively, 59 may be a more powerful majority that 60, at least from the perspective of Democratic party leadership.

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I figured I ought to expand on the constitutional theory from my last post. It’s a point of some debate, at least within the public at large, and I’m really not sure what case law exists (if it does at all) to expound on the subject (although I’m reasonably sure there has been quite a bit of it).

During her keynote speech to “Tea Party Nation” in Nashville Saturday, former Alaskan governor and media sideshow Sarah Palin elicited cheers when she complained vociferously about the fact that a Nigerian man from Yemen named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab — now more commonly-known (and more easily-pronounced) as the Underwear Bomber — has been granted legal representation in criminal proceedings against him stemming from his failed attempt to blow up a passenger jet as it landed in Detroit Christmas day.

Our U.S. constitution,” she called it, pointing out veterans in the audience, and derisively lambasting the president for extending its protections to non-citizens.

I hate to project too much into anything Palin says, because I’m not convinced she does a whole lot of deep thinking about it, but the fact is, her statement expresses a very specific — and foundational — legal theory on what the constitution is and how it works. This theory, roughly, is that by virtue of being a United States citizen, a person is granted specific rights that he or she would otherwise not have. Being a citizen of the United States is like being a member of an exclusive country club — by becoming a member, you gain access to things like the nice golf course, the well-appointed bar, and Miranda warnings. The key element here is that citizenship theoretically confers upon someone something they didn’t have before.

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I had initially decided not to watch Sarah Palin’s speech to “Tea Party Nation” Saturday night. Unfortunately, being the political rubbernecker that I am, I caved in and eventually watched nearly the entire address.

My first instinct was the correct one — it was a thing to be skipped. Palin deals in warmed-over conservative feel-good cliche, and she had at least 46 minutes worth of those Saturday evening, addressing the attendees of the “Tea Party Nation” in Nashville, who had each paid something like $600 per ticket.

Palin had clearly been prepped, but felt enough in her own element that she seemed to go “off-script” occasionally, often losing track of where she was in a sentence, and escaping by adding a string of dependent clauses which she would use to trail off wistfully before launching into a new statement.

Predictably, she made countless references to Ronald Reagan — which brings me to her first instance of where Palin should have felt a strong sense of cognitive dissonance. Early on in her speech, she lambasted President Barack Obama for the administration’s response to what has come to be known as the Christmas Day Panty Bomber incident. She decried the fact that the would-be bomber, one Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, has been granted legal representation. She drew cheers as she repeatedly stated that Abdulmutallab had “lawyered up,” and suggested that he will now not be providing law enforcement with intelligence about where he was trained, who he had worked with, or if any more plans for attacks were in the works.

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Since finishing my master’s degree in political science, I’ve been engaged in the thankless task of job-hunting. If it goes on much longer, I might turn this thing into an “unemployed journalist” blog, which will track the travails of your humble narrator through his inevitable let-downs and negative response emails.

In the meantime, though, I’ve found a couple golden opportunities (which I will not share here, since I am not about to start making the competition for them any worse than it already is). One, in addition to requiring the standard resume and clips, also assigns homework: critique the politics and features section of a recent edition of the publication.

That is today’s “To-Do” item; it will follow a haircut and run to the store for supplies.

Matt Drudge has been a mainstay of the Non-Mainstream Media since he “broke” the Monica Lewinsky story on his site (after having it “leaked” to him by Newsweek, whose owners wanted to see how the story would “play” before running with it themselves). Mark Halperin (co-author of the recent political scoop-fest Game Change, which is currently on my bedside table) has apparently referred to Drudge as “the Walter Kronkite of his era,” according to his Wikipedia page.

But Drudge is actually a partisan hack. I know this is not actually a shock to anyone with a modicum of intellectual honesty, but I figured an illustration from today would be apropos.

This evening, here is what his lead headline looked like:

Drudge's front page, 1/28/2010Oooo! What could be going on?

Well, let’s click the link and find out what the story has to say. Obama must have really screwed up to be reversing himself on this New York City terror trial thing, huh?

The headline, “PAPER: OBAMA ORDERS JUSTICE TO MOVE TERROR TRIAL OUT OF NYC” links to this New York Daily News story: “White House asks Justice Department to look for other places to hold 9/11 terror trial.”

Okay, just to review, here’s Drudge’s headline link:

“PAPER: OBAMA ORDERS JUSTICE TO MOVE TERROR TRIAL OUT OF NYC”

Reading the actual story — the story Drudge himself linked to — we find out that he could not have written a less-accurate headline.

In the first edition of the story (which as of this writing had been updated at least once), the Daily News explained that what had actually happened was that someone from the White House had asked (a little different than “ordered”) Eric Holder’s Justice Department to “look into” the “possibility” of another venue than the federal district court in lower Manhattan.

This specific verbiage is scrubbed from the “updated” version of the story (which includes more quotes from various NYC officials, a couple unnamed sources, and New York’s Sen. Chuck Schumer), but nowhere does even the new story indicate that anything other than a consideration of alternate locations is going on, or that these alternate locations are actually outside the city of New York.

Drudge’s headline is misleading in almost every choice of words (other than, perhaps, “PAPER”).  Let’s parse it, shall we?

OBAMA — No, it was actually “White House officials.”
ORDERS — No order to move the trial has been made, simply an examination of other possible venues.
JUSTICE — This is technically accurate as long as you take “Justice” as shorthand for “Justice Department,” but it’s less confusing to use “DoJ.” As it reads now, “Justice” sounds like the term for a federal judge, implying that the president has “ordered” a specific judge to move the trial, which would of course be out of order… which is exactly the implication Drudge is trying to convey.
TO MOVE — See “orders.”
TERROR TRIAL — Can’t really fault these two words, although they’re deliberately salacious.
OUT OF NYC — Again, the Justice Department isn’t necessarily considering a move out of New York City.

Since Drudge isn’t really a “journalist,” per se, but merely a “news aggregator,” his job is to point people to stories. To do that, his stock in trade is headlines. In every news writing and editing class I’ve ever taken, an error in fact results in a 25-point deduction from an assignment’s score. With three glaring errors in fact in this headline, that gives Drudge a total of 25 percent for this lead item… a resounding F.

UPDATE: Well, looks like the DoJ is caving after all. That doesn’t excuse Drudge’s precipitous headline, which was still wrong at the time.

In my last post, I wrote:

The more I think about this, the more I think that the whole speech makes a lot more sense if there is some kind of credible commitment from Pakistan on the table that we don’t know about just yet. It’s sheer speculation, but think about it — a smaller-than-recommended number of troops for a pretty large cost when budgets are already busted thanks to a tanking economy and a healthcare bill in the works… it seems almost silly unless Obama has some kind of arrangement in the works with Pakistan. And it bears repeating — it’s Pakistan that will ultimately determine the success or failure of this operation.

That was during Obama’s speech at West Point, on Monday. This morning, Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke with several network morning shows. The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder reports:

On the Pakistani nuclear issue, says Gates: ” “Well I think I’ll just leave it that based on information available to us we’re comfortable.”  Translation: we know whether the nukes are, and we’re going to seize them if anything destabilizing happens, even though we’ll never admit this, and even though Pakistan’s military doesn’t think we know.

I’d say this lines up nicely with my hypothesis above, although I’d disagree with Ambinder’s “translation.” Pretending that the Pakistani military “doesn’t think we know” something that Gates might by slyly alluding to on an American national network broadcast is a little naive, I think. Rather, I think it’s fair to speculate that Gates is uncomfortable going into particulars about any knowledge of or arrangement concerning Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, but his language on the subject suggests that something is going on, and my own personal guess is that the nukes are part of some deal regarding Afghanistan that the U.S. is currently working on with Pakistan.

We’ll see. Or, I guess, I hope we’ll see, because I’d love for a prediction I made publicly to turn out to be 100 percent correct.

Okay, I just watched President Obama’s speech on the new Afghan war strategy at West Point, and here is my initial reaction:

Cons:

– 30,000 additional U.S. troops seems like an insufficient number to bring Afghanistan back from the tipping point it’s currently on.
– $30 billion per year seems like a pretty low estimate for what the war will cost
– Obama’s optimism for meaningful help from NATO allies seems unfounded

Pros:

Well, not a whole lot, really. It is a concrete plan (mostly), and it involves a timetable. Other than that,

– Adds a “civilian surge” (i.e., humanitarian aid and economic incentives) and a diplomatic angle that involves Pakistan
– Basically grounded in realism
– Consistent with campaign promises

My own feelings on the subject are that if the war in Afghanistan is to be “escalated in order to end it,” then a more appropriate number of troops would have been Gen. McChrystal’s recommendation for something on the order of 70,000-80,000. “Go big or go home,” in other words. But the fact of the matter is that the war will not be won or lost based on the size of the troop surge. The real problem in Afghanistan isn’t necessarily tactical (although, tactical problems certainly exist), it’s geopolitical, and has a lot to do with Pakistan’s willingness (and ability) to cooperate with U.S. goals for their neighbor and the region.

UPDATE: The more I think about this, the more I think that the whole speech makes a lot more sense if there is some kind of credible commitment from Pakistan on the table that we don’t know about just yet. It’s sheer speculation, but think about it — a smaller-than-recommended number of troops for a pretty large cost when budgets are already busted thanks to a tanking economy and a healthcare bill in the works… it seems almost silly unless Obama has some kind of arrangement in the works with Pakistan. And it bears repeating — it’s Pakistan that will ultimately determine the success or failure of this operation.

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