Saturday, January 31, 2004

Threading the Needle Wondering about Dean's road to the nomination? Here's one path.

On Feb. 3:

--Edwards squeezes out a narrow victory over Kerry in South Carolina, with Dean beating out Sharpton for third.

--Clark beats Edwards in Oklahoma, with Kerry in third.

--Dean is the runner-up to Kerry in Arizona and Missouri.

--Dean wins at least one of New Mexico, North Dakota and Delaware, and finishes 2nd behind Kerry in the rest.

On Feb. 4, David Broder reports that the race has become "slightly jumbled." Chris Matthews teases Kerry for failing to consolidate support among Democrats, and Bill Schneider breaks out a poll suggesting that, while voters respect Kerry, majorities still aren't convinced he can win in November.

Meanwhile, Ted Koeppel is quick to point out that, even with Edwards' strong showing, Dean remains in 2nd place in the race for delegates. Joshua Marshall, in a 3am blog post, concedes that Clark's campaign--the Oklahoma victory notwithstanding--is hanging on by a thread.

(Carl Hulse reports Lieberman's departure from the race on page A21 of the Feb. 5 New York Times.)

After a solid week of zig-zagging Zogby polls and tag-team negative Kerry coverage in the pages of The Boston Globe and The Boston Phoenix (all of it expertly spun by Mickey Kaus), David Gergen tells Gloria Borger that the attacks on the Massachusetts senator are, "beginning to take a toll."


On Feb. 7, having spent the better part of the last 10 days campaigning in and around Detroit and Seattle, Dean takes Michigan late into the night against Kerry, and scores a decisive victory in Washington state. (Terry McAuliffe denies asking Al Sharpton to drop out of the race.)

The next night on Charlie Rose, Mark Halperin argues that the notion that Dean's grassroots strategy was overrated was itself overrated.

Building on his Feb. 7 momentum, Dean wins the next day in Maine.

Wesley Clark drops out of the race. Edwards, running low on cash, says he's not even thinking of quitting.

He rejects the argument that he's been thrown off his game by a New Republic cover story examining the years he spent as a trial lawyer. And he denies knowing that Dennis Miller--in a widely-quoted rant--has called him, "the love-child of Captain Kangaroo and Shelly Winters." Or something.

Carol Moseley Braun joins Dean on the campaign trail. Andrew Sullivan begins a blog post with, "I'm not saying I'd vote for Howard Dean, but--" and Jim Lehrer starts the third segment of The Newshour by asking Haynes Johnson, "So Dean isn't out of this thing, is he?"

Edwards eeks out wins in Tenessee and Virigina, narrowly beating Dean and Kerry--who is now reeling from what is widely considered to be his "humorless" reaction to The New York Observer's anonymously-sourced, buzz-generating 2,000 word botox expose.

David Brooks calls Kerry's flippant response to a Dennis Kucinich debate question a "low-point" for the candidate.

Jonathan Chait ressurects his Diary of a Dean-o-phobe blog at The New Republic Online. Ed Gillespie sends off a press release questioning Dean's commitment to family values.

Dean comes from behind to win a nail-bitter in Nevada, catapulting him to a stunning 35-point victory in Wisconsin.

Kerry wins Idaho and Utah, effectively knocking a near-bankrupt Edwards out of the race. Dean's all-volunteer organization in Hawaii delivers a solid victory, orange hats and all.

With momentum on his side, flush with grassroots cash, Dean sits poised for strong showings in New York, California, Minnesota, Ohio, etc. "Sharpen your pencils and get out your calculators," Dan Rather intones the Monday night before Super Tuesday. "The race for the Democratic nomination is finally heating up."

Friday, January 30, 2004

Hard Count If Kerry doesn't run away with the nomination in the next week or two, here's a page that may be worth bookmarking.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

Quick NH Thoughts A lot of news from the Dean camp today--money troubles, firing of Trippi and more. It'll all take a day or so to digest.

In the meantime, my quick take on the NH results: Dean did what was necessary to survive and remain viable--no more, no less. His campaign came back from the brink, and he demonstrated that he deserves to compete in all the contest between Feb. 3 and March 2. Still, the dynamic of the race needs to change radically in the next couple weeks for him to have any real shot at stealing the momentum from Kerry.

Now. That's not likely to happen, but it's more likely than the conventional wisdom would have us believe. (See Kausfiles, The New Republic Online and Andrewsullivan.com for the first of what are sure to be many swipes at Kerry.)

One final point:

The current fundraising "bat" up at deanforamerica.com is the first one I can recall that doesn't have a time limit to it. My guess is that's because, post-Iowa, the campaign didn't know where it stood with its grassroots supporters, and was nervous about setting an unrealistic goal.

The result is that it's taken about five days to raise a million dollars--not the fastest million the camp has raised in the last several months, but certainly not the slowest either.

Read into that what you will.

Monday, January 26, 2004

In Other News An important work by an under-produced playwright will get its New York premiere in early February: Sarah Kane's CLEANSED will receive a workshop from February 9th-11th and 16th-18th. the committee is producing.

All performances are at 8pm at 66 Wooster Street. Tickets are $10. (Call 212-966-4844 for reservations.)

I can't vouch for the company or the production, but I can vouch for the play--it's disturbing and powerful. It's also the bleakest work for the stage I've ever read.

And with stage directions like, "He forces Carl to the ground and cuts off his feet," and , "The rats carry Carl's feet away," it's no wonder that the critic at the Guardian in London called it, "One of the most repellent experiences of my theatre-going life."

A fascinating piece by an extraordinary writer.

But it's not for the squeamish. Consider yourself warned.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

My Pre-New Hampshire Thoughts on Dean I haven't had much to say, so far, about Dean's howling concession and his subsequent dive in both New Hampshire and national polls.

So here's my thinking:

Dean may not be the best nominee for the Democratic party. (I don't think that's clear yet. But I'd concede that it is, shall we say, more than plausible.)

Still, I'm afraid about the damage that'll be done if Dean's grassroots experiment--one of the most exciting things to happen to progressive politics in years--effectively comes to a halt in New Hampshire on the basis of a single over-enthusiastic speech.

If that happens, the hard work, social capital and good will of literally hundreds of thousands of fervent supporters will have essentially evaporated because Dean got carried away with the TV cameras rolling.

So I'd like to see Dean recover. I'd like to see him do well enough in New Hampshire to live on to fight in South Carolina and the February 3rd states, and to have a fresh chance to make his case in the Super Tuesday primaries on March 2.

If Dean can survive through Feb. 3 with a plausible shot at the nomination, he'll have a month to convince voters in some of the biggest, most delegate-rich states (New York, California, Ohio, Washington) to forget about his Iowa concession speech, and to embrace him as the nominee.

If he's unable in that month to beat back Kerry and whoever else is left, it'll only be fair to think of his campaign's grassroots experiment as having run its logical course. He will have tapped into a hunger in the Democratic party, waged a campaign fueled by it, and lost fair and square.

But if Dean's campaign gets short-circuited in New Hampshire--or does poorly enough that the media write it off--a lot of his supporters across the country will feel like victims of an undemocratic sham.

They'll feel that no matter how hard they worked and organized, no matter how many friends and relatives they convinced to come out for Dean, nominating power was ulitmately in the hands of a half-million lucky voters in two little states.

And they'll be right.

Where Are Dean's Peeps? I've been doing probably more than my fair share of New Hampshire monitoring over the last few days, and have yet to see, hear about, or read about any prominent Dean's endorsers doing Granite State campaigning for their man.

No Gore; no Bradley; no Harkin; no McGreevey, etc.

Rob Reiner, it is true, has been out on the trail with Dean. But he belongs in a different category.

What's going on here? It is part of Campaign Manager Joe Trippi's efforts to bolster Dean's insurgent credentials? Are Dean's bigwig supporters experiencing severe buyer's remorse?

Either way, there's a story out there waiting to be told...

Saturday, January 24, 2004

Sneaky Pete? Was there more than meets the eye to Peter Jennings' question to Wesley Clark--in Thursday night's debate--about the charge that President Bush was a Vietnam-era military "deserter"?

The media focus, thus far, has been on Clark's clumsy answer. But it already seems clear that the lasting impact of Jennings' challenge to Clark will be to thrust the still-unresolved issue of Bush's military record back into the public eye.

Left-leaning blogs and pundits are already hard at work using the debate question as a point of departure for lexis-nexis scavenging. (There's a Boston Globe article from the 2000 campaign season, in particular, that seems ripe for revisiting--stay tuned.)

I'd like to think that Bush's military record was bound to get its share of attention during the run-up to the election. But Jennings' question will have the effect of getting the scrutiny off to an early start.

Padilla Watch A federal appeals court has granted the Bush Administration's request to continue the detention of Padilla as it pursues its case before the Supremem Court. (Sorry I missed this one at first.)

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Plame Watch Several news organizations are reporting that a Federal grand jury is now taking testimony as part of the Plame probe.

This doesn't necessarily mean (from what I've been able to gather) that charges will be filed, or that they're even being considered. But it does seem to up the ante.

Too Little Too Late? The Dean team--stunned by the results in Iowa and the fallout over the Governor's growling concession--now faces the challenge of pulling its campaign back from the brink.

Dean may very well recover (the odds are better than the spin suggests) but it's clearer than ever that his campaign squandered a huge opportunity in November and December. (See "The Center Beckons.")

They simply weren't willing to risk anything on Dean's left flank with gestures to conservatives and moderates--even though his left flank was stunningly secure.

If the Dean camp had leveraged some of the press coverage and general Democratic good will late last year by making louder, more prominent efforts to tout their candidate's issue positions on subjects other than the war, my bet is they would've been able to nail down some of the support now migrating to Kerry.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Plame Watch Douglas Jehl reports in tomorrow's New York Times that, "a group of former intelligence officers is pressing Congressional leaders to open an immediate inquiry into the disclosure last summer of the name of an undercover C.I.A. officer, Valerie Plame."

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Marshall Again The Dean camp has, it seems, already decided which lessons it's ready to learn from Iowa--at least that's what an early afternoon campaign trail post from Joshua Marshall suggests:
If you thought Dean in New Hampshire would be anything like his full-throttle speech last night, you’d be mistaken. The crowd is getting a bit more lively now that he’s taking questions and loosening up. But he started the speech calmly, either listless or measured depending on your interpretation.

He said there’d be no red meat (his words), and that he wanted to give a policy speech. He said it would be a “different kind of speech.” And it certainly was.

He didn’t talk much about the war. It was mainly balanced budgets, health care, etc. [...]

So there you have it. Stature, electability and nuts and bolts issues are what matters. Firing up the base is passe.

It's too early to say for sure, but Dean sounds like he may finally, finally, finally be ready to let his impressive Vermont record take center stage.

Let's hope so.

What the Heck Happened? We'll probably never know how the "dead heat" in Iowa turned literally overnight into a Kerrey-Edwards drubbing of Dean and Gephardt.

But one thing that's striking about the result is the failure of the storyline-obsessed mainstream media to come up with even an intelligible theory that accounts for what transpired. The coverage by some of the biggest fish in the pond--the New York Times and CNN--has been especially short on plausible answers.

In a prescient 6:16 pm post last night, Josh Marshall presented something close to an explanation. Not sure I buy it, but it's at least a candidate for the truth.

It will be interesting, in the coming days, to watch Dean adapt to his new circumstances. But unless his advisors know a lot more than the press, he'll have to make his adjustments with knowing precisely what went wrong.

Monday, January 19, 2004

According to Ryan Lizza "[Dean Campaign Manager Joe] Trippi has the name and address of every Iowan he believes will caucus for Dean. He has a guess at what total turnout will be. Given those two variables, he's fairly certain Dean will win." From a Sunday post on The New Republic online.

Friday, January 16, 2004

It's Time for Dowd to Go I've never been a fan of Maureen Dowd. Still, I can understand how, during the Lewinsky mess, many people felt her snarky commentary captured the mood of the moment, and even served a therapeutic purpose.

I don't agree with that, but I can understand it.

But yesterday's attack on Judith Steinberg Dean crosses some kind of line.

To maintain the veneer of impartiality, Dowd tempers what is essentially a hatchet job with phrases like "seem to"; "you could easily image"; "many political analysts said that"; and "some...still thought it odd." But Dowd's word choice in two key grafs lets the cat out of the bag:

The first hard evidence most people had that Howard Dean was actually married came with a startling picture of his wife on the front page of Tuesday's Times, accompanying a Jodi Wilgoren profile.

In worn jeans and old sneakers, the shy and retiring Dr. Judith Steinberg Dean looked like a crunchy Vermont hippie, blithely uncoiffed, unadorned, unstyled and unconcerned about not being at her husband's side--the anti-Laura.

Now. Set aside for a moment whether this photo deserves to be categorized as "startling." And set aside, also, whether it makes Dr. Dean look like a "crunchy Vermont hippie."

My question is this: Does the paper of record really want to waste precious column inches on this wardrobe-as-destiny, Page-Six-style gossip?

Then Again Mickey Kaus credibly argues that, however the Iowa numbers turn out, past experience provides ample reason to view the caucus-night returns with skepticism. Sobering stuff.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Hard Numbers Having a hundred thousand citizens of a small, unrepresentative state get together to deliver diatribes at each other is a screwy way to pick the leader of the free world. But like it or not, next week's results in Iowa will be hugely important.

They'll mean different things to different candidates. But perhaps the most interesting question on the table is whether the Dean camp's untested, web-powered organizational approach is capable of paying tangible dividends. We'll finally begin to learn if all those Meetups and handwritten letters to Iowans have meant something or if instead it's all just been an empty exercise.

The rules of the Iowa caucuses--not worth getting into--mean that it's likely for all of the top-tier candidates there (Dean, Edwards, Gephardt, Kerry) to do slightly better in delegate counts than they are polling with Iowa voters (at the expense of Clark, Kucinich, Lieberman and Sharpton).

But if Dean is truly bringing in as many new voters as his campaign would like us to think, he ought to get an additional bump up from how he's been polling. And that's because the preferences of such voters get screened out by pollsters using past caucus attendance to determine whether a poll interviewee ought to be considered a "likely voter."

What does this mean in terms of numbers? Hard to know. Dean has been polling all over the map--from 28% down to 21% in recent editions of the Zogby tracking poll.

My take, though, is that if Dean gets less than 25% of the delegates, the story will be that the power of his grassroots network has been overhyped. If he gets more than 33%, reporters will hype the Dean strategy like crazy. And if he gets somewhere in between...well, the hype vs. overhype debate will live on for another day.

Saturday, January 10, 2004

A Bit of Perspective "There is a disconnect between all the hand wringing among Democratic insiders and the scene in recession-staggered New Hampshire, where Clinton's troubles seem to have helped him find a more personal voice. To him, all the worry [about his candidacy] in Washington seems suspiciously like raging self-interest. 'It wouldn't surprise me,' he told U.S. News last week, 'if people that don't know me very well would prefer to have one of their own [as the nominee]."--Gloria Borger, writing for Newsweek exactly eleven years and eleven months ago, smack in the middle of the Gennifer Flowers episode.

Bill Clinton is (and was) a much more talented politician than Howard Dean. But in the early days of 1992, he was in a far more precarious position than Dean is in today.

Friday, January 09, 2004

The Case For Dean Here's another link to Jonthan Cohn's column explaining why he thinks Howard Dean should be the Democratic nominee.

It's a must-read.

I'm not at all convinced Dean is the best choice for Democrats. I'm not even ready to say that I'll vote for Dean in the New York primary in March.

But Cohn's well-argued piece reminds me why I originally became interested in the Dean candidacy, and why I still believe that, of all the candidates, Dean would make the best president.

Ill Communication "Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill likened President Bush at Cabinet meetings to 'a blind man in a room full of deaf people,' according to excerpts on Friday from a CBS interview."

O'Neil also reveals that his first meeting with the Bush amounted to an hour-long presidential monologue.

Reuters has the scoop. (Courtesy of Drudge.) The interview airs on 60 Minutes this Sunday.

UPDATE: I seem to have misinterpreted part of the original Reuters story--it appears that it was O'Neil who delivered the hour-long monologue, not Bush. So O'Neil was making a point about the president's lack of intellectual engagement, not his long-windedness.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

Networking I made it out to a Dean Meetup last night at The Kettle of Fish--a bar in Manhattan's West Village--to see what all the fuss was about.

A friend and I arrived late, and found ourselves in a back room stuffed with seventy-five youngish folks who were silently, motionlessly taking in Al Gore's endorsement of Dean on one of the bar's TVs.

It was an odd way to begin my first encounter with what's supposed to be one of the more energized grassroots movements in recent history--watching dozens of people staring zombielike at a CSPAN rerun.

But things picked up considerably from there.

Once the video was over, people perused literature and wrote letters to registered Iowa and New Mexico Democrats. Mostly, though, they drank, chatted and mixed--the atmosphere was more casually social than earnestly political. Deaniacs were primarily there, it seemed, to hang out with other Deaniacs.

A couple thoughts.

1. The conventional way to join a political campaign is to show up at a stuffy office in response to a call for volunteers. You spend a couple of hours licking envelopes, and maybe you return to do the same thing a few times a month. If people at the campaign grow to like each other, you might even find yourself going out for drinks after hours with a group of co-workers every now and then.

The internet, however, has allowed the Dean camp to reverse this progression--it helps them get even the most casually curious Dems in the door by keeping the stakes low and the atmosphere relaxed. This "drinks first, drudgery later" idea is in itself powerful, with potentially large organizational dividends.

2. The people I met at the Meetup were all left of center, and for many of them Dean's views on Iraq were crucial. But contrary to the image of the Dean "base" circulating in the press, the Meetup didn't seem to attract many fervent activists or raging liberals--even in a hotbed of far-left liberalism like Greenwich Village. In fact, people seemed as intrigued by the phenomenon of the Dean campaign as they were about the candidate himself.

This gets back to Jonathan Cohn's point that, ideologically-speaking, Dean has conceded very little to the left wing of the Democratic party, and therefore owes it very little. There just isn't much basis to believe that people like the ones I met last night will desert Dean in droves once he fills out his left-leaning rhetoric with centrist specifics.

And so the Dean camp has the space--and time--to get to the right of Bush on a number of issues--Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and the deficit, for starters.

They've accumulated a lot of good will with their supporters. Let's just hope they don't wait too long to spend it.

Complacent Conservativism Peggy Noonan has a column out today that begins with the following graf:
I want to like Howard Dean. I don't mean I want to support him; I mean I want to like him, or find him admirable even if I don't agree with him. I want the Democratic Party to have a strong nominee this year, for several reasons. One is that it is one of our two great parties, and it is dispiriting to think it is not able to summon up a deeply impressive contender. Another is that democracy is best served by excellent presidential nominees duking it out region to region in a hard-fought campaign that seriously raises the pressing issues of the day. A third is that the Republican Party is never at its best when faced with a lame challenger. When faced with a tough and scrappy competitor like Bill Clinton, they came up with the Contract with America. When faced with Michael Dukakis they came up with flag-burning amendments. They need to be in a serious fight before they fight seriously.

I'm not sure which is more intriguing--the notion that Peggy Noonan might actually believe this crap, or the belief on her part that people will take this brand of smug, patronizing, self-congratulatory drivel at face value.

But commentary like this (Jonah Goldberg and Andrew Sullivan have penned similar columns) also points to something else: People like Noonan don't get--or don't want us to know that they get--the Dean phenomenon.

Look--I'm not about to predict a Dean victory in November. I'm not even ready to say the election will be close. But what is clear to me is that anyone willing to write him off this early doesn't have a firm grasp on the 2004 electoral landscape.

And that's good news for Democrats.

Losing Their Religion The New Republic has endorsed Joe Lieberman for the Democratic nomination.

The magazine has been drifting rightward for the past few years. But I think it's fair to say, now, that it's time for Marty Peretz to join the Republican party and get it over with.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Padilla Watch As expected, the Justice Department will appeal the recent ruling requiring the Bush Administration to release Padilla from military custody.

Is North Dakota In Play? That's one of the questions raised by Howard Dean's recent swing through the Peace Garden state.

The short answer?

Probably not.

Even in his 1996 re-election bid (with Ross Perot running interference) Bill Clinton lost North Dakota by nearly six percent.

That said, six percent in North Dakota is only about 18,000 votes.

Now, I don't know if there are 18,000 disenchanted, persuadable voters in the state (let alone the larger number that'll be needed to make up the ground Dean loses because of his positions on gays, Iraq, etc.)

But if Dean's grassroots strategy is all it's cracked up to be, and if his progessive base is as energized as it seems, the Democratic result should be better than the 61%-33% spanking that Al Gore received last time around.

Dean Watch The New Republic Online is reporting that Howard Dean will soon unveil a middle class-friendly "tax reform" proposal to supplement his plan to wipe out the Bush tax cuts--a plan whose details will insulate him from the charge that his fiscal strategy involves raising taxes on the middle class.

Over at TNR Online, Adam B. Kushner welcomes this development (as do I) but categorizes it as a transparent flip-flop. And we're likely to hear the "flip-flop" charge from others as well.

But what's going on here isn't as simple as that.

Dean has always maintained that he wants to cancel the Bush tax cuts. But he never stipulated that this would be his last word on fiscal policy.

Think about it: Did Dean really mean to commit himself--almost two full years before the election--to a narrowly-tailored, unamendable fiscal program?

Unless someone can show me where Dean promised that repealing the Bush tax cuts would be his one and only proposal dealing with taxes, it's silly to accuse him of having reversed himself.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

"Stridently Secular" That's how Jodi Wilgoren, in today's New York Times, describes the tone of the Dean campaign prior to the former governor's recent pronouncements about Jesus, Job et. al.

Strident is defined at dictionary.com as "loud, harsh, grating, or shrill; discordant."

Has Dean secretly been berating Muslims on their way to the mosque? Mocking Jews from the stump? Pelting churchgoers with tomatoes?

Does Wilgoren know something the rest of us don't?

Saturday, January 03, 2004

Sim Primary The Dean website is now featuring a link to a bizarre computer game. Don't they realize they already have the computer geek vote locked up?

Friday, January 02, 2004

Can He Play the Big Rooms? Ryan Lizza has an even-handed piece [subscription required] about Dean and the Deaniacs up on the New Republic website.

Lizza emerges from a DC-area Dean house party encouraged to learn that the people excited about the former governor aren't all rabid fanatics.

But he's also careful to observe that the Dean camp had a lot easier time moving from asterisk-territory to 450,000 supporters than it's had moving from 450,000 to the 1,000,000 backers that campaign guru Joe Trippi predicted Dean would have lined up by the new year. (On the website the tally currently stands at 554,902.)

It's still very much an open question, in other words, whether the Dean phenomenon has legs.

And On The Eighth Day Wondering about God's early take on the 2004 election? Pat Robertson has the scoop. (Courtesy of Druge.)

Thursday, January 01, 2004

Defending Norquist Grover Norquist, president of the right-wing Americans for Tax Reform, has taken a lot of flack for an on-air exchange he had in October with Terry Gross on NPR's "Fresh Air."

On the left, his remarks were greeted with that special strain of glee that seizes liberals when they think they've caught a member of the opposition stepping over the line of propriety: Think Newt Gingrich whining about his seat on Air Force One. Think Trent Lott fretting about Strom Thurmond's failure to win the White House.

As Norquist was repeatedly mocked, though, I found myself more or less agreeing with his core argument (even if I think he could have used a less incendiary example to make his case).

More important, in the period since the Norquist-bashing has subsided, I've grown convinced that, when read carefully, his statements offer a singular lesson to Democrats on navigating the politics of taxation. And his words speak volumes about why progressives lost the estate tax debate.

Here's the relevant section of the now-infamous transcript (I've chopped it down a bit):

GROSS: We're talking about, for instance, the elimination of the estate tax. The estate tax is only paid by somebody who gets over $2 million in inheritance. That's a line people don't cross a lot...

NORQUIST: ...I think it speaks very much to the health of the nation that 70-plus percent of Americans want to abolish the death tax, because they see it as fundamentally unjust. The argument that some who played at the politics of hate and envy and class division will say, 'Yes, well, that's only 2 percent,' or as people get richer 5 percent in the near future of Americans likely to have to pay that tax. I mean, that's the morality of the Holocaust. 'Well, it's only a small percentage,' you know. 'I mean, it's not you, it's somebody else.' And this country, people who may not make earning a lot of money the centerpiece of their lives, they may have other things to focus on, they just say it's not just.

GROSS: Excuse me. Excuse me one second. Did you just--


GROSS: --compare the estate tax with the Holocaust?

NORQUIST: No, the morality that says it's OK to do something to do a group because they're a small percentage of the population is the morality that says that the Holocaust is OK because they didn't target everybody, just a small percentage. What are you worried about? It's not you. It's not you. It's them. And arguing that it's OK to loot some group because it's them, or kill some group because it's them and because it's a small number, that has no place in a democratic society...The government's going to do something to or for us, it should treat us all equally...

GROSS: So you see taxes as being the way they are now terrible discrimination against the wealthy comparable to the kind of discrimination of, say, the Holocaust?

NORQUIST: Well, what you pick--you can use different rhetoric or different points for different purposes, and I would argue that those who say, 'Don't let this bother you; I'm only doing it'--I, the government. The government is only doing it to a small percentage of the population. That is very wrong. And it's immoral.


Is his example a bit icky? Is it in bad taste--or worse--to compare a tax regime, whatever it is, to the slaughter of millions?


And yet, if you distill Norquist's argument from his overblown rhetoric, what he's saying is this: There's something deeply distasteful, in a country where "equal protection under the law" is a grounding principle, about government policies whose best defense is that they affect only a tiny minority of citizens.

And I can't disagree with that.

What's more, while I tend to respond by yelling at the TV when I hear Republicans trot out the phrase class warfare, I'm also uncomfortable (as, I suspect, are many moderates) with the kind of naked appeal to economic interests that the "Don't worry--only the super-rich have to pay it," argument represents.

So there. I've come clean.

Still, that said, there is, of course, much more to the case for the estate tax--and higher taxes for the rich, in general--than divide-and-conquer politics. In fact, my guess is that if you asked Al Gore, for example, why he spent so much time stressing the limited impact of the estate tax during the 2000 campaign, he would say something like this:

I never tried to justify the estate tax in terms of the fact that it was shouldered by a tiny percentage of the population. That's nonsense. But I did go out of my way to correct misinformation spread by loud, committed, well-funded people like Norquist. Remember, the Republican party spent a tremendous amout of time and money working to convince middle class Americans that the estate tax was massively burdensome, destined to cripple the economy, and designed to ruin the American way of life as we know it.

And, what's worse, the media basically bought it. Instead of reporting on the size, distribution and economic impact of Bush's tax cuts as proposed, they focused on whether or not a girl had to stand at the back of a Florida classroom.

So I was facing an uphill fight. It was crucial to get the truth about the estate tax out there, and that's what I did.

That argument is utterly defensible and eminently reasonable--at least as far as it goes.

The problem, I'd submit, was that neither Gore nor any other prominent Democrat ever supplemented this argument with a moral defense of the estate tax--in terms (for example) of basic fairness or intergenerational justice.

Then again, it's not hard to see why those kinds of arguments weren't made.

The truth is, it's much easier to tell middle class Americans, "Don't worry--you're in the clear," than to get into a sticky discussion about the risks to equality of opportunity posed by the concentration of massive wealth in just a few hands.

But with Democrats failing to find a moral vocabulary within which to counter the arguments made by Norquist and friends, the battle came to look like one of principle versus pure expediency. Norquist's notion of fairness--built around the idea that Ally Hilfiger has an unalienable right to inherit billions tax-free--may be nutty, but it was the only conception of fairness on the table.

In a society with deep egalitarian roots, it's no wonder that the side speaking in terms of justice and equality won the day.

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.