Saturday, February 26, 2005

Will Senator Chris Dodd Please Intervene

President George Bush’s efforts to support democratic movements everywhere in the world – but most especially in former soviet block nations like Ukraine – may come back to bite him in Latin America.

Under the increasingly anti-democratic regime of Vladimir Putin, Russia appears to be sinking back into the ice age of Breshnev styled communism. Putin seems to be especially perturbed that Bush backed pro-Western Victor Yushchenko as president in the former soviet colony. Chavez was warmly received by Putin in Moscow just before Ukraine asserted its independence of its former overlord and gave the boot to Moscow’s preferred candidate.

When the Bush administration recently lodged a formal protest with Russia for having supplied the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chavez with some 100,000 AK-47 rifles, the protest likely fell on deaf ears.

The rifles – to be used, reliable analysts suppose, to support left wing movements in Latin America, and also to arm communist street gangs charged with eliminating political opposition to the Chavez regime – the Venezuelan megalomaniac’s intimate relations with Cuban Dictator Fidel Castro and the possible nationalization of the country’s oil industry, should pique the interest of U.S. Senator Chris Dodd, thought to be an expert on Latin American affairs.

Venezuela supplies about one fourth of the oil consumed in the United States. ''We can't afford to offend the guy,'' said Myles Frechette, a former U.S. ambassador to Colombia. ``If he sells his oil elsewhere, then we have to buy more from the Middle East, which is not necessarily something anyone wants to do.''

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, back from Europe where she had wowed French and German leaders, mentioned Venezuela during her Jan 18 Senate confirmation hearing.

“We have a long and good history with Venezuela,” Rice said, “long ties. I think it’s extremely unfortunate that the Chavez government has not been constructive. And we do have to be vigilant and to demonstrate that we know the difficulties that that government is causing for its neighbors, its close association with Fidel Castro in Cuba.”

On his weekly television show "Alo Presidente," Chavez responded to Rice’s rather innocuous statement by speculating at length about having intercourse with her in terms so sexually freighted and vile that U.S. newspapers refused to print his remarks.

But Rice’s comments on Venezuela were dramatically understated.

Since Dodd in June of 2004 praised the recall referendum that hoisted Chavez into the presidency as "a triumph for the democratic process in Venezuela,” both Chavez and his regime have shown signs of morphing into a Cuban styled totalitarian state.

Commenting on the Russian supplied weapons, one senior U.S. official said, “It’s a Cuban styled dictatorship. He’s arming loyalists and setting them loose to intimidate people at the city block level.” Venezuelan ambassador to the United States Bernardo Alverez claims that the new militias formed by Chavez will be under the control of the military.

Citing intelligence reports, U.S. officials assert that Chavez’s government secretly supplied money last year to aid mayoral candidates of the Sandinistas, still led by former Marxist president Daniel Ortega.

During a sting operation last January, Nicaraguan police and U.S. officials uncovered a criminal network that planned to sell SA-7 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles on the black market to Columbian terrorists. According to published reports, factions in the military sympathetic to the Sandinista party seem inclined to sell the missiles to the terrorists.

Officials fear that the missiles could be smuggled to Mexico and, finding their way through porous borders, be used by terrorists to bring down commercial aircraft in the United States.

Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolanos has pledged to eliminate Nicaragua’s missile supplies, but the presidential office has been weaken by the opposition, and some analysts think that the Sandinistas may have an opportunity to regain power democratically in the next elections. That is exactly what has happened in Venezuela.

It has been nearly a year since Dodd noted during a hearing before the congressional committee over which he presides that “the Bush administration's tacit support for the anti-democratic coup in April of 2002 cast a dark shadow over our ability to act as honest brokers in helping to resolve the political crisis in Venezuela.” Since winning a re-call election, Chavez has given clear indications that he wishes to refashion his government on the Cuban model.

Dodd, whose interventions in Latin America have in the past been purely reactionary, may now have an opportunity to be pro-active, mount a podium anywhere in the United States, and tell the rest of us precisely how the Bush Administration may thwart Chavez’ larval dictatorship while acting as an honest broker in resolving a continuing crisis in Venezuela that has not been settled through the democratic process.

Monday, February 21, 2005

George Orwell in Connecticut: The Public Campaign Financing Scam

Everyone in George Orwell’s “democratic” Animal Farm, we are assured, is equal. But the pigs are more equal than others.

Inequality in democracies is enforced in one of two ways: either through the extension of special privileges afforded to select groups, or through the unequal application of laws and rules that ought to be applied universally, both of which violate what used to be called “the rule of law,” a series of fundamental doctrines, agreed upon by all, that are necessary to the fair making and application of the laws.

Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr. wants to be sure that, in the universe over which he presides, everyone is equal. But legislators would be more equal than governors.

Williams favors public financing of political campaigns only for governors and other statewide offices but does not wish legislators to be treated equally and has dismissed out of hand any other reforms.

Under William’s rule, the putative benefits of public financing would apply primarily to the governor’s office. The as yet uninvestigated ethical improprieties that may fester in the legislature will remain untouched by regulations that apply primarily to an office held for the last few terms by two Republicans and Lowell Wicker, who transcends political parties.

The present system has helped to give the Democrats a 24-12 edge in the senate, and Williams does not wish to throw his advantages out with the wash water that Governor Jodi Rell proposes to use to scrub Connecticut’s government clean of the stain of ethical impropriety.

Williams’ partiality towards his party – Hey, it comes with the job – caused House Minority Leader Robert M. Ward to snort derisively, “"I think that's hypocritical.”

The governor, dubious about public financing of campaigns, has said she would consider the proposal. But, she added, “If all I see is public financing, another pot of money to help fund campaigns, that's not going to cut it.”

The governor is right to be suspicious.

The reason most often advanced in support of public financing is that tax supported elections will wring corruption out of a system that, time and again, sends the same people into office.

Corruption -- or more accurately “the appearance of corruption” -- occurs when private interests are permitted to select officeholders through political contributions and, it is asserted by those who favor public financing of campaigns, the principle of democratic representation is thwarted by special interest groups with deep pockets.

The buried axiom that gives oomph to the proponents of tax supported elections is that a healthy turnover in government is necessary in democracies. It is assumed that incumbents will lose their stranglehold on elections once special interests lose their ability to shape politics by appointing them to office.

Most of these assumptions are false.

The public financing of campaigns will not lessen the hegemony of incumbents. Quite the opposite; it will strengthen the lock hold incumbents have on their positions.

Mark Brnovich, the director of the Center for Constitutional Government at the Goldwater Institute in Arizona, says that publicly financed campaign systems do not seem to have had any impact on turnover. “More and more candidates are being forced to run with public dollars because of the advantages over privately financed candidates. Thus, I expect incumbent rates to remain high as opponents will not have the ability to outspend any incumbent; this works to an incumbent’s advantage. We also have term limits in Arizona, so that may play some role as well. Interestingly, 17 candidates ran unopposed this year! Last election it was only 6.”

In Arizona, it is not public financing but term limits that pry offices from the prehensile grip of incumbents. Public financing serves only to insure that incumbents will remain in office until they are carried off the stage by the grim reaper or, as happened in Connecticut, driven out of office by the taint of corruption.

Public financing without term limits would defeat the purposes of the friends of democracy who want to recover their government from those special interest groups whose political aims would continue under tax supported elections.

If Republicans were fun loving – not politically shrewd, just fun loving – they would yoke together the proposal for public financing with a proposal for term limits and insist that clean government types should never have one without the other.

Their slogan might be: “If it’s good enough for Arizona, it’s good enough for us.”

A companion bill to the term limit legislation would set up under the offices of the senate’s president pro tem and the House majority leader a safety net to catch the bodies as they come streaming out the windows of the legislative office building.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Prufrockian Politics and the Presumption of Innocence

Dare I presume
To disturb the universe?
– T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

The much fabled “presumption of innocence,” temporarily retired during the darkest days of the Rowland scandal, has been taken off the shelf and given a spit shine by leading Democrats.

Rep. William Hamzy, state chairman of the Republican Party, was trying mightily to avoid commenting on the recent troubles of Democratic senator Ernest Newton but found he could not hold his tongue after the FBI had carted off the senator’s files.

"I certainly didn't want to jump to any conclusions,” Hamzy said, “but when somebody's legislative office gets raided, that takes it to another level. Once a legislative office is raided by the FBI, there's something to this."

The FBI raided several homes and offices of people connected to Newton. According to news reports, the snoops had been following a trail of federal money paid to Newton’s sister. The FBI was also tracing state money paid to Newton’s employer, a nonprofit association called Partners For Community Inc. of Springfield. The organization operated – apparently, without approval by the relevant zoning committee – an alternative incarceration center in Stratford.

Following several FBI raids, Newton heeded calls to step down from the legislature’s public safety committee, but Hamzy felt that Newton should have given up his title of deputy president pro-tem as well.

The loyal opposition begged to differ.

President Pro Tem Donald Williams, the Democrat Party’s highest ranking leader, never ungenerous in his criticism of Rowland, felt that Newton was entitled to a presumption of innocence and should not have been stripped of his title.

Rowland, William’s pointed out, had been asked to resign only after he had admitted that he had lied about accepting gifts from state employees and contractors doing business with the state.

When applied to politics and science rather than to trials, the presumption of innocence doctrine loses much of its point. A presumption of innocence is necessary at trial because juries must render verdicts based upon facts presented in the courtroom – and no where else. The presumption of innocence serves as a bar to information coming from other sources. In science and politics, conclusions should flow from the facts, but scientific inquiry would grind to a halt if scientists were not permitted to make assumptions. Good scientists -- like good detectives, lawmakers, reporters, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers -- presume and assume, always being careful to test their best guesses by measuring them against a standard of truth.

It is safe to say that if, based upon the activity of the FBI, Hamzy “jumped” to the conclusion that something was rotten in Newton’s Denmark, he was not making a leap of faith. A reporter who suspended legitimate assumptions out of deference to the presumption of innocence doctrine, given the partial information that already has been made available through various sources, would soon be out of a job. It is the business of a good reporter to follow presumptions until they lead to reliable facts.

It is not always true that there is fire where there is smoke; still, it is imprudent – not to say dangerous – to refuse to presume that where there is smoke, there may be fire.

The presumption of innocence is a highly overrated misused doctrine, a form of special pleading used by politicians who have got caught with their fingers in the cookie jar and wish to be presumed innocent because they cannot bear to be torn prematurely from service to the public – and themselves.

The Panglossian optimist begins with the assumption that politicians, men and women who are able by force to wretch money from our wallets, are innocent until proven guilty. He is doomed to reap the whirlwind and surrender his last penny to the modern day equivalent of a highway robber. If government is force – George Washington’s definition – is it not wise to be watchful, alert, and even mistrustful of those who may misuse it to feather their own nests?

The Hobbsian view of things, which begins with watchfulness and mistrust, may end in joyful surprise; for even today there are abroad in the land politicians like George Washington, who serve the public’s interests from selfless motives.

Washington was the man who could have become king, had he wanted to. Reading his farewell to his troops, he apologized for putting on his glasses. He had grown old, he said, in the service of his country. Watching the man who led them through war to peace and liberty struggling with his glasses, the men who served with him – giants all – wept.

Hamilton and Jefferson are the Nitro and Glycerin of American politics. Both men loved Washington, and both recognized him as exceptional – the exception that proves the rule. The rule is: Most politicians are too full of themselves to be useful to others. The Hobbsian knows this, but he is prepared for the exception. And when he meets a heroic man, he is prepared to bow to him.

Is may be presumptuous to assert that neither Rowland nor Newton will be collecting many bows from posterity. But let us dare to presume.

Monday, February 14, 2005

The Iraqi Elections: Bush and His Critics

After the elections in Iraq, reliably liberal columnist for the Chicago Sun Times Mark Brown, wrote “…it’s hard to swallow, but what if it turns out Bush was right, and we were wrong? If it turns out Bush was right all along, this is going to require some serious penance.”

And fellow liberal syndicated columnist Richard Cohen went so far as to entertain the possibility of a Bush revision, which recalls T.S. Eliot’s line in The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock: “Time, there will be time/ For visions and revisions/ That time will soon erase.”

If democracy begins to set forth shoots in Iraq and environs, Cohen believes that historians may be much kinder and gentler towards Bush than have Cohen and his cohorts in their columns.

To be sure, there are die-hards.

George Soros, the multi-millionaire moneybags of the anti- Bush movement and the founder of the Open Society Institute remains unrepentant – and, indeed, oblivious to the possibility of a democratic society in Iraq. Soros is a follower of Karl Popper, a philosopher and celebrant of what has been called “the open society.”

Prior to the elections in Iraq, Soros denounced in uncompromising terms Bush administration plans for democracy in Iraq. “To claim that we are invading Iraq for the sake of establishing democracy,” Soros said in a March 2003 Washington speech, “is a sham, and the rest of the world sees it as such. It is not merely that the Bush administration policies may be wrong; it is that they are wrong,” an assertion that did not leave Soros’ mind open to the possibility that some administration policies might have been right for the wrong reasons – or, at the very least, fruitful and leading to the open society that Soros hopes to advance everywhere in the world.

In a widely printed Jan 26 article, Soros said he agreed with Bush’s Wilsonian goal of spreading democracy. Soros wrote that he had “devoted the past 15 years to attaining” such a goal… Mr. Bush is right to assert that repressive regimes can no longer hide behind a cloak of sovereignty. But intervention in other state’s internal affairs must be legitimate.”

In days following the election, when most newspapers were full of reports showing courageous Iraqis standing in long lines preparing to exercise their franchise to vote, Soros’ web site made no reference to the elections. When asked by a reporter why Soros had maintained a sullen silence, Soros spokesperson Michael Vachon said, “He had been traveling since January 30 on various foundation projects and hasn’t had occasion to comment.”

Web sites make it possible for busy financiers like Soros to comment wherever in the world the smell of money takes them, and it seems small of an open minded philosopher not to join in celebrating the attainment in Iraq of a goal Soros had advanced for nearly 15 years.

Michael Moore was yet another joyless, tight-lipped holdout.

On the day prior to the elections in Iraq, Moore’s site directed its readers to a story in the New York Times headlined “A sinking Sensation of Parallels between Iraq and Vietnam.” That story would not have occasioned doubts in the minds of Brown, who was tipped by visuals showing jubilant Iraqi’s voting in favor of Soros’ “open society.” On the day following the elections, Moore’s site provided a link to a left wing Nation article entitled “Occupation Thwarts Democracy.”

The die-hards, in fact, are prisoners of their own rhetoric. “The Iraqis who have risen up against the occupation,” Moore has said, “are not ‘insurgents’ or ‘terrorists’ or ‘The Enemy.’ They are the REVOLUTION, the Minutemen, and their numbers will grow -- and they will win.”

Time and events have outstripped the outworn partisan rhetoric.

Here is a report from the Iraqi street from an observer closer to the action than Soros or Moore; the speaker is Thaer Sunni, an engineer who lives in eastern Baghdad: “The street was crowded since 7 a.m. I woke up to the voices of the people on the street – I did not expect such a number.”

“Everybody feels that he is human today and can have a free voice,” Sunni said. “No one wanted to lose his chance. I think today will show these terrorists lost their chance in this country. But I want to say one thing: I want to thank the U.S. soldiers for bringing this to Iraq. Without them, we would always have to vote for Saddam Hussein.”

One does not expect Sunni – or anyone like him – to appear in future Michael Moore films. The real division in American politics on Iraq’s future does not lie between those who predict a democratic or totalitarian future for the country; the real division is between those who are willing to work for democracy and those who prefer failure to success.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Gov. Rell's Budget, Democratic Opposition

During her budget address, Gov. Jodi Rell embarked on a spending spree with a smile, even as she announced that “We must not embark on a spending spree of new programs and policies.” The governor pledged $1.3 billion more for transportation improvements, $5.5 million for universal pre-school pilot programs, $57 million more for public education, $20 million for embryonic stem-cell research, and on and on…

Rell surprised many of her Republican well-wishers by raising what used to be called “sin taxes’ and popping the lid on the state’s spending cap in an effort to gain revenue from the federal government by taxing nursing home property; this after the governor wisely pointed out that, from the point of view of costs to taxpayers, there is little difference between the three forms of government – municipal, state and federal – since the same citizen shells out money for all three tax collecting agencies.

A Democratic leader came closer than he may have wished to the truth when he said that it was a “ deja vue all over again” budget reminiscent of the Rowland years, when gimmicks and political posturing were all the rage.

The Democrats, unsurprisingly, were not satisfied, for they had previously announced through their leaders an intention to engineer a raid on the pocket books of Connecticut’s millionaires and were somewhat disappointed to learn that the “firewall” preventing their despoliation of the state’s “gold coast” did not disappear with the hasty retreat of John Rowland from the governor’s office. Their millionaire’s tax remains a consummation devoutly to be wished by champions of the little people.

Even Huey Long, defender of the hard pressed working man, felt compelled to point out from time to time that government services should be broadly based. “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me,” Long taunted the crypto socialists of his day, “tax the man behind the tree.” Everyone would dearly like someone else to assume what should be his financial obligations; it’s only human – alas, all too human – for me to want millionaires to pay my taxes, so that I can afford payments on my mortgage.

For as long as they have controlled the executive office, Republicans have been adept in public displaying their putative virtues while indulging their secret vices. But that sort of thing catches up to you – in the long run. In the long run, says the hedonist, we are all dead. And in the long run the fellow who wants the guy behind the tree to pay his taxes discovers, to his dismay, that he is the guy behind the tree, death and taxes both being unavoidable.

It ought not to be enough to say that the state Democrat Party wants the guy behind the tree to be a millionaire, while the Republican Party wants him to be a middle class citizen willing to pay – but not too much – for what he consumes in state services.

Why do Democrats generally want millionaires to “pay their fair share”, and why do Republicans generally want tax payments to be broad based?

Because, dear children, Democrats traditionally have been committed in principle to progressive taxation, while Republicans traditionally have been committed to small and responsible government. There is a direct relationship between increases in spending and the growth of government.

Progressive taxation, pushed beyond a certain point, leads to a tax consuming, spending leviathan that gobbles up the fruits of all our labors. When the pain of tax increases is distributed broadly, resistance to tax increases will be broad based. When only millionaires assume the burden of paying for spending increases, only millionaires will complain of spending increases – and they are a minority of the voting population.

The Democrats will oppose the budget cuts Rell has proposed and argue that the tax increases are regressive. Sin taxes – on cigarettes for example – impact the poor disproportionately not because the poor are any more sinful than the middle class or the upper crust, but because they cannot as easily afford to support their bad habits.

The opposition was already in full flower the day following Rell’s budget address.

Noting that Rell had proposed a $3 co-pay for low-income Medicaid recipients, Rep. Gail Hamm told Rell’s budget director, Robert Genuario, “It looks like the nice lady you work for has sent us a mean budget. And House Majority Leader Christopher Donovan, making reference to Rell’s proposals to increase medical premiums for poor families and eliminate medical and cash assistance for legal immigrants, hated to say it, but said it anyway: “These are some familiar Rowland proposals. I feel confident we will be united in opposing these cuts.”

It’s the same blame game, but a different administration.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Flipping Paulding:Judge Chatigny Syndrome and Michael Ross

It seems only yesterday that Michael Ross – a supremely narcissistic fellow according to one psychiatrist – had convinced all the relevant courts that, yes, he did want to be executed and, no, he was not incompetent.

But that was before U. S. District Superior Court Judge Robert Chatigny, whose decisions in the Ross case were three times rebuffed by appellate courts, got on the phone and, fortified with information provided by several lawyers whom the appellate courts determined had no standing in the case, flipped Ross’ lawyer, T. R. Paulding.

What a difference a day makes.

Chatigny having threatened to deprive Paulding of his law license should it be determined at some point in the future that Ross was incompetent to forego further appeals, Paulding prove most obliging. The day after Chatigny threatened to deprive Paulding of his livelihood, Ross’ defense lawyer threw in the towel. Citing a “conflict of interest,” Paulding consulted with his client, who agreed to a new competency hearing during which “death row syndrome” would be addressed.

Paulding described the conflict of interest as a disparity between Ross’ interest in foregoing further appeals and his own responsibility in presenting to the court any and all relevant evidence.

Chatigny was instantly proclaimed courageous by anti-death penalty agitators. Immediately after Paulding’s curtsey in the direction of Chatigny, Connecticut’s judiciary committee, studded with some of the state’s most persistent death penalty abolitionists, held a hearing during which a number of people fulminated against the death penalty and urged that it be replaced by life terms in prison without parole for serial killers such as Ross. Family members of Ross’ victims, much in the news lately, did not speak to the legislators or offer an opposing and balanced view.

The struggle to end the death penalty as we know it in Connecticut has now begun.

It is not often that an appellate judge is able, through threats and expostulations, to effectively subvert the decisions of higher court justices. This unprecedented turn of events raises a number of questions.

It must be presumed that Ross’ interests did not disappear when, following Chatigny’s harangue, Paulding decided to arrange a new competency hearing. Ross still wants to forego his appeals. Chatigny and the half dozen lawyers who flipped Paulding during their phone conference have insisted that Ross is not competent to make such decisions.

If Ross’ interests remain the same as they were before Paulding assented to a competency hearing, who is to represent his interests?

Is Paulding any longer capable of advocating in favor of Ross’ competence? The question is especially pertinent because Paulding has said that a review of new information provided by some of the lawyers who participated in the teleconferencing call initiated by Chatigny had convinced him that a new hearing on Ross’ competence was necessary. Do Paulding’s doubts undermine his effectiveness as an advocate for Ross’ interests?

Do the doubts entertained by Paulding extend to Ross’ ability to waive his right to refuse such a hearing? If Ross, by reason of mental deficiency, is incapable of making a rational decision to forego appeals, why is he presumed capable of making an informed decision to agree to a hearing on his competence?

The current position of the anti-death penalty crowd is that Ross is suffering from death row syndrome. Despite Chatigny’s assertion that he is conversant with current literature on the subject, the psychological disorder has only recently made its appearance in courts as a rational for overturning death penalties both in Europe and the United States.

The syndrome may kick in at any time, leaving its victims incompetent at a moment of maximum advantage – for lawyers and others who favor the abolition of the death penalty.

When Ross last appeared in Judge Patrick Clifford’s court and agreed to a hearing on his competence, he appeared to be the most mentally agile person in the room.

"I will participate in any competency hearing this court orders, to protect his license,” said Ross, referring to Paulding. "That's the only reason I'm doing it. (Chatigny) put a guilt trip on him, that's what this is all about, and it's wrong.”

Judge Clifford – whose decision in the case, supported by a Supreme Court decision, was effectively reversed by Chatigny’s intervention -- also offered his condolences to Paulding.

"I apologize from the bench," Clifford said. "It's been a difficult time for you. You've been criticized by your fellow defense lawyers and threats of the loss of your law license by a federal judge. It's a very difficult situation."

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