Mourning In America

A New York Democrat on politics, journalism, and the Mets

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Thursday, November 27, 2003
 
Recognizing a W Bush's surprise trip to Iraq was definitely a political win. One we'll no doubt be reminded of frequently in his stump speeches in the coming weeks. I also expect the campaign's ad people -- the ones who had been in a bit of a funk in recent weeks when it became apparent the the May aircraft carrier landing footage would be hard to use in a 30-second spot as long as Americans kept dying -- are already salivating over how they can use these pictures.

The trip was great political theater, and, unlike the aforementioned carrier landing, probably served a useful military purpose, too -- juicing the morale of troops who are tired, and sick of being targets.

It'll be interesting to see the lessons Bush personally takes from the trip, however. My guess is that he'll view the smiles and cheers as affirmations of the picture he's being painted by his aides: Most of the troops are perfectly happy, things are going well, and the press coverage is misleading.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure it's that simple. Ideally, he'll think about why his trip was a needed morale-booster (namely, that the ongoing attacks, and our inability to devise a successful strategy to thwart them, either by boosting our forces in Iraq or recruiting allies). Here's the key quote from the AP story linked above:

"After 13 months in theater, my morale had kind of sputtered," said Capt. Mark St. Laurent, 36, of Leesburg, Va. "Now I'm good for another two months."

Here's the problem: Two more months ain't gonna do it. That's why I'm worried that the President's rhetoric doesn't match the situation. He's right when he says, "we did not charge hundreds of miles into the heart of Iraq, pay a bitter cost of casualties, defeat a ruthless dictator and liberate 25 million people only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins." But he has yet to demonstrate that his administration has a strategy for defeating the thugs before our troops are stretched to the point where further reductions in force are necessary.


Wednesday, November 26, 2003
 
The New Station, Same as the Old Station I made a lunchtime trip over to Ground Zero on Tuesday to check out the new PATH station.

It was a pleasant surprise (although not as much of a surprise as it would have been without the virtual reality tour of the station that was available for the last few months -- the video very accurately captures the new structure).

The station is bright, airy, clean and efficient. It's open to the elements (its walls are mostly wire-mesh screens), so it was somewhat cold, but it's not meant to be a comfortable place for loiterers, so I guess that's OK. Possibly the biggest weakness of the design is the decision to hang banners carrying generally platitudinous paens to the "New York Spirit" over the grids. New Yorkers know they're the cream of the crop -- it feels patronizing to be reminded of it.

But the most stunning thing about the station is the fact that the design is almost exactly the same as the WTC Concourse, pre-9/11. Given a blank slate, the designers chose to re-create what was there before.

Starting from the lowest level, the tracks are laid on the "floor" of the WTC "bathtub" in the same configuration and in the same spots they were pre-9/11. The PATH station has a concourse above the tracks, and a large bank of escalators that is in the same spot the PATH escalators were in before.

At the top of the escalators, you're on the same level as the old shopping concourse -- a reality underscored by the fact that a few yards of minimally-damaged flooring and walls have been left in place where the new station meets the E and N/R subway platforms.

Homecoming? It takes a few moments of walking through the station for the similarity between new and old to become fully apparent. As it did, I was gripped by conflicting emotions -- walking through the station as the parallels struck me was unnerving -- like meeting an old friend whose physical appearance had been dramatically altered.

Realizing that I was standing at the precise point in space where the WTC shopping concourse once stood unleashed a torrent of memories. Looking around, my mind began "seeing" the old "Pastabreak" restaurant and Sephoria perfume store, and the newsstand where I bought a copy of The Jersey Journal on my way to a successful job interview at that venerable paper. At the same time, it makes clear that those sites are gone, and will never be again. Quite an experience.


Tuesday, November 25, 2003
 
Lost in Jargon I've been resistant to the idea that the chief problem with Kerry's campaign is that his tendency to speak in Washington jargon and rhetoric makes him seem too passive to be the kind of "fighter" that the Democrats need to go against Bush next year.

But his endless banging of the "restricting the growth of Medicare spending" drum in yesterday's debate might be enough to change my mind. It's a meaningless phrase. At the end of the day, who cares how much you spend -- what's important is what services you provide to seniors. The whole point of Democrats' demands that the Secretary of HHS be allowed to negotiate favorable prices with pharmaceutical companies is to hold down spending while stretching benefits. This should be encouraged!

I happened to be in Washington when this phrase first came up, in the debates leading to the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. It was used by Democrats to tar Newt Gingrich as anti-Medicare. But in that case, he was trying to cap spending without accompanying guarantees of service.

In the end, Gingrich lost the battle, but taxpayers won the war. The policy changes in that bill (not the simple spending caps that Gingrich wanted, but serious new protocols for reimbursing hospitals for certain procedures) did turn into an extremely powerful brake on the growth of spending in Medicare Part A (which pays for hospital stays by the elderly). But even as outlays to hospitals fell dramatically (more dramatically, in fact, than the bill's drafters had ever intended), services to seniors were unharmed.

The Nagging Question Why couldn't Dean manage to expose the silliness of Kerry's focus on specific language and state, in plain English, his committment to hold the line on benefits? The best he could come up with was "I'd like to slow the rate of growth of this debate," which sounded like a capitulation. Why didn't we get something like this:

Medicare is a huge customer for the drug companies, and when I'm in the White House, we're going to make sure we get the volume discounts we're entitled to. It's not rocket science. It's something Wal-Mart and Costco do every day. This president won't do it, because his campaign is too addicted to their drug money. I will.

John, Dick: It doesn't matter how much you spend. It's how much you get for the seniors of this country. I think we can get more and spend less, and that's what I promise to do.


Sen. John Edwards actually came close to this kind of a response. He set forth a few concrete examples for cost-cutting measures (competitive bidding, egads!), and then chiding his competitors for beating on each other without setting forth a positive vision of where they'd lead the nation. He's speaking in a vacuum in this race, but he might make a pretty good VP candidate someday soon...

 
Look Out, Messengers! While the President was visiting Britain, he was fond of observing, in response to the endless questions about anti-Bush protests in London, that he enjoyed watching people exercise free speech, and then adding (rather snarkily), that "they now have that right in Baghdad as well.”

Now that he's safely back on U.S. soil, however, the First Amendment appears to be losing some of its allure. Yesterday, the Saudi-owned TV network al-Arabiya was ordered to close up shop by the Iraqi Governing Council, and its journalists were threatened with fines and expulsion if they continued to work. Lest anyone think this was just the work of a too-eager-to-please Iraqi bureaucrat, the action was defended in Washington by a State Dept. spokesman.

The network's crime? Broadcasting a tape that purportedly carried Saddam's voice. The fact that the tape was delivered to, and broadcast from, the network's offices in Dubai, and not the Baghdad bureau, appears to be of little import. IGC officials said the network might be allowed to resume its work if it first signed a letter promising "not to promote violence."

The questions come fast and furious. Do they really think the cost of this move (in blown credibility for our paens to democratic values) is worth the potential gains? More specifically:

  • Do they really think that shutting own a single media outlet would prevent Saddam from finding someone to air his tapes?
  • Do they really think that even if it did, keeping him off the air would impinge on the lines of communication among the insurgents, rendering them helpless?

  • Finally, do they really think they can keep telling the U.S. public that these poorly-thought-out, knee-jerk reactions are part of a coherent strategy -- and that the public won't eventually catch onto the fact that these guys are stumbling around without a clue? The 2004 election doesn't have to be about foreign policy strategy -- even Howard Dean supports using the military to go after terrorists [scroll down to Nov. 18]. It's about execution. These guys can't get it right. Others have to make the case that they can.

    Old Friends? The more cynical among us will no doubt compare the al-Arabiya silencing with the tactics of the former rulers of Afghanistan, who we rightfully deposed in the first act of the "War on Terror." But there's no reason for that comparison, is there? I mean, I'm sure it's just a coincidence that the current holder of the Iraqi Governing Council's rotating presidency is: Jalal Talabani.