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Notes from the political sidelines.
Dec. 23 2005 12:46 PM

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Has executive activism turned the President into a wimp?

80_thehasbeen

Friday, Dec. 23, 2005

Sinking Ship: Hell hath no fury like a branch of government scorned. The Republican Congress didn't mind rolling over for a popular president, but now that the Bush White House is a heavy burden, Hill Republicans are eager to put him in a lockbox.

As Sen. Lindsey Graham tells the Washington Post, "What you have seen is a Congress, which has been AWOL through intimidation or lack of unity, get off the sidelines and jump in with both feet." Some Hill Republicans are calling for a congressional investigation into Bush's domestic spy scandal, while Hill Democrats float words they used to hate, like "special prosecutor" and "impeachment."

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The irony of this congressional resurgence is that Bush could have had all the rubber stamps he wanted if he'd been more careful to stay between the lines. The spy court Bush skirted has been a bigger rubber stamp than Tom DeLay, approving all 1758 requests for secret surveillance last year.

For all the high-minded huffing and puffing about checks and balances, the most interesting question in any presidential scandal is much simpler: Why did he do it? This scandal is a paranoiac's delight, confirming the worst fears of libertarians, communitarians, and vegetarians that the federal government is out to get them. Some conspiracy theorists will no doubt conclude that the Bush administration deliberately overreached in a clever attempt to turn the citizenry against their government.

The black-helicopter crowd can relax. If the Bush White House really cared about spying on Americans, they wouldn't leave it to a few data miners at NSA and gumshoes at the FBI. This scandal has little to do with wars, spies, or laws, and everything to do with presidential power.

From the beginning, President Bush and Vice President Cheney have made a fetish of asserting the power of the executive. They didn't need to. As conservative Bruce Fein told the Washington Post, "Bush inherited the strongest presidency of anyone since Franklin Roosevelt, and Cheney acts as if he's still under the constraints of 1973 or 1974." In different ways, Reagan and Clinton had restored the presidency from its weakened state. Both men showed that a president able to take his case to the country could stare down Congress every time.

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Nonetheless, Bush and Cheney had their own reasons for presidential power building. Both men were CEOs who equated impatience with efficiency, and envisioned a don't-bore-me-with-the-facts, CEO-style presidency. In the wake of Watergate and Vietnam, Cheney had run the White House at its weakest point, as chief of staff to the first unelected president. Bush had suffered his own indignities as governor in a state where the lieutenant governor has all the power.

After the 2000 election, Bush and Cheney didn't want theirs to look like another unelected presidency. So they set out to do Lord Acton one better: Absolute power corrupts absolutely, but you can't blame a guy for trying.

Acting Out: Since the spy scandal broke, the President has been searching for any excuse – whining about leaks, blaming his predecessors, trotting out Justice Department lawyers. Bush should step forward and call his end run what it is: executive activism.

Ironically, the White House has been every bit as creative in twisting the Constitution to support executive activism as the judges it excoriates for judicial activism. Of course, the whole point of going after judicial activism was to defend the Constitution against such creativity. As Dahlia Lithwick suggests, it will be fascinating to watch the Roberts Court handle this first big test of strict constructionism, which ought to oppose executive and judicial activism with equal fervor.

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Judicial activism and executive activism – there isn't room in this town for both of them!

I happen to agree with Bush and Cheney on the importance of a strong executive branch. When partisan and special interests divide us at home and a dangerous, uncertain world threatens us from abroad, we need a strong presidency more than ever.

Unfortunately, Bush and Cheney fail to understand that the extent of a president's power doesn't rest in how far he is willing to stretch the statutes or the Constitution. Presidential power comes from the force of a president's argument, the righteousness of a president's cause, and the support and consent of the American people.

Power is not really a tug of war between the three branches, either. When one branch goes too far, all three branches pay a price for the electorate's disenchantment. What weakened the presidency in the 1970s wasn't Congress and the courts. The erosion of presidential power was the result of presidents who failed in Vietnam and broke the law during Watergate.

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There may well be times in war when ends justify the means. But just as torture undermines America's cause in the larger war on terror, asserting powers the president does not have to pursue ends he cannot explain is more likely to weaken the presidency than to strengthen it. If Congress is making the President look like a wimp these days, he has only himself to blame. ... 12:43 P.M. (link)

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Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2005

In With the Old: These days, White House strategists have one thing in common with average Americans: They can't wait to put 2005 behind them. The whole year has been one letdown after another: Katrina, Miers, Abramoff, Iraq, FEMA, Palmeiro. Time magazine had to go all the way to Africa to find Americans who had a good year.

If we're all so eager to move on, why won't the White House let us? This week, Washington is roasting the same chestnuts as last year: ANWR, the Patriot Act, and the three sisters of Bushism—resolve, patience, and hard work.

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On Saturday, as he lapsed into another rerun on the Patriot Act, the president offered typical understatement: "The terrorist threat will not expire in two weeks." Translation: If you were looking forward to any new debates next year, forget it—2006 is just a temporary, 12-month extension of 2005.

Never mind the War on Christmas. The War on New Year's will kill us first.

Throughout 2005, President Bush discovered that when he speaks, not much happens. After he spent months crusading for his Social Security plan, the Republican Congress didn't even feel compelled to give it a proper burial. He stood up for Harriet Miers and Michael Brown, only to eat his words a few weeks later.

From the never-ending scandal over 16 words in Bush's 2003 State of the Union to the manhunt for Valerie Plame's leakers, the past year has been a testament to Calvin Coolidge: What you don't say can't hurt you.

Out With the New: Since Bush will never be the Great Communicator, he should try being the Non-Communicator. A White House that did best when aides refused to talk to the press might do even better if the president stopped talking altogether. Democrats would have trouble using his words against him, and he might put that pesky Jacob Weisberg out of business.

Unfortunately, the Bushies seem to have come to the opposite conclusion: The more talk, the better. On Saturday, the president gave what appears to be his longest radio address ever, confirming the domestic-spying program his aides had refused to confirm earlier. Yesterday, he gave the same speech all over again.

Bush delivered the radio address live on Saturday morning. According to my cursory analysis of White House transcripts, that's something Bush had done only eight times before in nearly five years of Saturdays—and only twice in the past three years. Alec Baldwin has hosted Saturday Night Live more often than George Bush has gone live on Saturday morning.

Why start now? The White House probably figures that reporters forced to abandon their Saturday morning routine will at least write the story, albeit grumpily. Moreover, in a live address, the president can talk as long as he wants. Not many radio stations run the speech to begin with, few people tune in—and if drivers fall asleep listening in on their car radio, they can't cause much harm in light Saturday traffic.

This Saturday, Bush took full advantage, speaking 50 percent longer than normal. That does not bode well for next month's State of the Union. While Bush's past State of the Union addresses haven't been stellar, they haven't been long, either—running 50 to 60 minutes. Increase that by 50 percent, and my record for helping Bill Clinton deliver the longest State of the Union in modern history—89 minutes in 2000—could be in danger.

Fireside Chap: Length, like depth, is not one of Bush's strong suits. His strength is pounding, not expounding. As the New York Times points out, Sunday night was Bush's fifth major speech on Iraq in 19 days. Aides told the Times his remarks "were an attempt to drive home the major points of his four previous Iraq speeches before Americans turn their attention to the holidays."

I didn't watch the speech—I was busy heeding the previous conservative call to turn my attention from the holidays to Christmas. But after reading the text, my hunch is that supporters and opponents of the war will have the same reaction that shows up in the latest Gallup Poll: We heard it the first time.

The Times says Bush "asked his viewers for patience." At yesterday's news conference, the president interspersed calls for patience with bouts of impatience. It's hard to tell who is wearier—the president of asking for patience, or the press and the public of being asked for it. If that's the case, every speech canceled is a win for all concerned.

In his report on the White House's new candor offensive, John Dickerson hopes that the president's New Years resolution will show us a kinder, humbler Bush. Frankly, I would settle for a quieter one. The best speech any Bush has ever given was 41's 1988 acceptance speech, in which he said, "I'm a quiet man, but I hear the quiet people others don't." Bush 43 might take a page from his old man: The less said, the better.

The White House has fallen into the classic Washington trap of assuming that when people don't like what you're doing, it's a communication problem. The trouble is, failure by any other name will smell as rank. George Lakoff has been selling Democrats a similar line of excusatory repackaging.

Bush gave away the new strategy at Monday's news conference when he said the way to earn back African-American trust was, "Obviously, I've got to do a better job of communicating." Actually, Mr. President, you're doing a heckuva job communicating—compared to the job you're doing governing. Here's a presidential resolution that might make the New Year turn out better: Speak softly, and spare us the big schtick. ... 1:28 P.M. (link)

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Friday, Dec. 16, 2005

Mirror, Mirror: In the 21st Century, it is no longer accurate to say that life imitates art. If that were true, the remake of King Kong would have prompted conservatives to introduce a constitutional amendment to require same-species marriage.

Every week, Will Saletan reminds us how much science imitates life. This week, the gory details of the world's first face transplant showed us how much life imitates science.

Even in the best of circumstances, the idea of a face transplant ranks with eugenics and human cloning in the category of ethical genies most of us would like to put back in the bottle. But as the New York Times recounted on Wednesday, this particular case is riddled with ethics problems that would make Jack Abramoff blush.

It's bad enough that Isabelle Dinoire, the French woman who received the transplant, signed a movie deal months beforehand. Even more troubling, as the Times reports, is the reason she needed a new face: her black lab chewed off the old one after Dinoire overdosed on sleeping pills in an attempted suicide. Friends told the Times that the woman had long battled depression, making her a dicey choice for what may be the most controversial and identity-rattling transplant in history.

To make matters worse, the Times suggests the strong possibility that the face was available for transplant because the donor may have committed suicide by hanging herself. A doctor from the hospital in Amiens where the operation took place says he would have advised against the surgery because hanging would damage the blood vessels too much for the transplant to work. More important, as the Times notes, is the daunting moral burden of one suicide victim staring another in the face every morning for the rest of her life.

Cage Aux Folles: At first, I tried to tune out news of the face transplant as an example of bad science imitating bad art – in this case, the 1997 Nicholas Cage self-slasher film "Face/Off," which impressed David Edelstein but gave me nightmares. Edelstein thought it was "a blast" to watch Cage's face floating in a fish tank after "a state-of-the-art morphogenic transplant." I thought it was like taking popcorn to watch a med student's first encounter with cadavers. Maybe I just have a chip on my shoulder after years of people thinking I just had a Ralph Reed transplant.

But the case of the faceless French women makes me do a double-take for another reason. Let's see … a double suicide, in which the heartless, money-grubbing survivor takes on the face of the victim. Wait a minute – isn't that the perfect metaphor for the current, brain-dead state of American politics?

Deep in despair, the Democratic Party looks for every excuse to hang itself. The Republican Party intentionally overdoses, continues to slumber even as it is becoming permanently disfigured, and finally wakes up in a panic, desperate to find a new face. Blind as ever to ethical issues, Republicans coldly make the case for a face transplant from the only available donor – the Democrats.

At least, that thought crossed my mind as I re-read last month's fascinating Weekly Standard cover story, "The Party of Sam's Club," by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam. Douthat and Salam are bright Young Turks who don't want to become twenty-something Has-Beens saddled with what they rightly call "the intellectual exhaustion of the current majority."

Their basic argument is that after all these years, Republicans should try doing something to help the middle class, instead of just trolling for votes from them. Douthat and Salam acknowledge what John Edwards and other Democrats have pointed out for some time now: "You can't have an 'ownership society' in a nation where too many Americans owe far more than they own." They contend that "the economic anxieties of middle and working-class voters are likely to be the domestic political issue of the coming years."

Many of their proposals come straight out of Bill Clinton's 1992 playbook: a dramatic, pro-family expansion of the children's tax credit; going after health care costs as a way to make health reform pay for itself; scrapping Bush's gooey, do-nothing compassionate conservatism with an ambitious "self-help agenda" of rewarding work. They call for middle-class tax reform that sounds more like Democrats Ron Wyden and Rahm Emanuel than Grover Norquist.

Douthat and Salam even borrow an idea that David Cameron's New Tories in Britain borrowed from Tony Blair's New Labour, who in turn borrowed it from Clinton's New Democrats: Because so much of the political debate consists of false choices (a phrase borrowed from E. J. Dionne), the party faithful often fall into the trap of a conventional wisdom that has it precisely wrong. Far from it being a contradiction in terms for a party to be committed to principle and innovation at the same time, reform is absolutely essential for a party's principles to survive.

I don't agree with everything these two new conservatives have to offer, and I have my doubts that the transplant will take. In the 2000 campaign, Bush promised to put a new face on his party, but as soon as the movie started, the mask came off and revealed that it was Dick Cheney all along.

But Douthat and Salam deserve credit for recognizing that "the greatest danger facing any political majority is ideological sclerosis." The moment a party in power starts believing it will live forever usually coincides with the moment it is about to be declared brain-dead.

Democrats don't have to wait for a movie deal. If Republicans are so traumatized that they're willing not only to look more like us, but think more like us, we should be happy to help them save face. ... 5:06 P.M. (link)

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Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2005

Wrong Again: Jim Barnes, the savvy political reporter who created National Journal's poll of Washington insiders, sent a tongue-in-cheek e-mail reminding me that last week's 2008 survey was not the first of the cycle:

No self-respecting group of "insiders" would wait until just 25 months out from the Iowa caucuses to weigh in on the next presidential race. Indeed, NJ's Democratic and Republican Political Insiders first ranked their respective 2008 fields last April, a healthy 33 months before actual voters get to say anything.

I foolishly thought the April 2005 poll asked Washington insiders who had won the 2004 election, as a baseline to see whether we're more accurate in hindsight. But the genius of the Barnes poll is his insight that anybody can be wrong about the past—it takes years of Washington experience to be consistently wrong about the future.

A Beltway consensus is often a self-fulfilling prophecy—of doom. For example, back in April, one Republican insider predicted that Arnold Schwarzenegger could win in 2008. The Terminator's career has been in free fall ever since. The Insiders poll could be the next Sports Illustrated curse.

Dim Bulb: There is one primary that should be front-loaded—the Idea Primary. In the run-up to 2004, some of us naively hoped that the fight for the nomination could be a battle of ideas. Instead, it turned into a spirited debate over whether to hate Bush for being a liar, a scumbag, or just a "miserable failure." (Dick Gephardt, who coined that last phrase and even created a Web site around it, had to drop out after finishing a poor fourth.)

In 2008, Democrats won't have Bush-Cheney to kick around anymore. Saying goodbye to your favorite bogeymen isn't as easy as you might think. The last time Democrats contested an open seat, when Reagan was departing in 1988, his name still echoed through the primaries. Democrats sounded like John Birchers who had failed to notice the end of the Cold War.

At the first 1988 primary debate in Houston, everyone recited their tired anti-Reagan talking points, which earned the field the indelible nickname The Seven Dwarves. That year, the Idea Primary took place in the dull, reflected light of dull, unreflective, second-term exhaustion. Al Gore promised to fire Ollie North and turn the White House basement into a child-care center, not a covert arms operation. Mike Dukakis promised "Star Schools, not Star Wars." Even Democratic primary voters found it hard to get excited about driving their children to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for day care and Alpha Centauri for elementary school.

Post-Bush Syndrome could easily turn the 2008 contest into a debate about "What did you do in the Iraq War, Daddy?" As Tom Friedman points out, Democrats are still debating the 1993 vote on NAFTA vote. That means some in the party may still be arguing about the 2002 Iraq vote during the primaries in 2016.

Your Option: Fortunately, some Democrats don't want to be the party of the History Channel. In the current issue of the Washington Monthly, former Clinton speechwriter Paul Glastris has written a brilliant cover story on a Democratic vision that might emerge from the wreckage of Bush's failed ownership society.

Glastris highlights the central flaw in the conservative vision: "They are committed to a strategy of using choice as a Trojan horse to undermine government, yet it's impossible to make choice work in the real world without strong measures from government." In other words, individual empowerment actually has greater potential as a progressive theme, because choice is far more appealing when you're willing to offer voters appealing choices.

Glastris makes the important point that having too many choices can be as paralyzing as too few and that a proposal won't fly unless it factors in the most likely choice, which is not choosing at all. He notes the remarkable success of 401(k) plans with automatic enrollment, which lets workers "opt out," but covers them in the more likely event that they can't make up their mind.

American politics is once again stuck in the endless loop of what E. J. Dionne long ago dubbed "false choices." Washington makes progress whenever someone finds a way to bridge that divide, as Clinton did on crime, welfare reform, and balancing the budget, and as Bush has gone out of his way to avoid doing on taxes, energy, and national security.

In an "opt-out" world, false choices get left behind. For example, liberals and conservatives agree that we pay more for health care because millions of uninsured people are outside the risk pool, but the two sides can't possibly choose between their respective prescriptions.

The opt-out dramatically increases the potential for both sides to get their way. Imagine a health-care plan that required (and helped pay for) individuals to purchase health insurance but allowed them to opt out. Conservatives can no longer say that's government telling everyone how to live their lives; liberals can't say that's government throwing the vulnerable to the whims of the market.

In the same way, an opt-out might open the door to more sweeping visions of tax reform. Tax-reform schemes almost always founder because they create losers, often inadvertently. Under any tax-reform plan, no matter how progressive, you don't have to be the next Josh Bolton or Gene Sperling to find a few sympathetic families who will pay more than they do now—even if the overwhelming majority are better off. The result: We're stuck with the tax code we have, not the tax code we wish we had.

In theory, a carefully drawn tax-reform plan could opt its way to victory. Instead of suffering death-by-anecdote at the hands of sympathetic losers, give the losers the option to continue to pay taxes under the current system. Giving people that choice would cost the government some revenue and make it harder to put accountants out of business. But it might also enable tax-reform proponents to have a debate they can win: how their plan will help sympathetic winners at the expense of unsympathetic losers. In return for letting some people hold on to outdated complexity, we could offer most Americans a choice they don't have now: more progressivity and simplicity.

Opt-outs won't solve everything. Some choices are real, not false, like no longer spending money we don't have. But any proposals that enable us to opt out of the tired debate over how much we won't miss the Bush administration will help get the Idea Primary off to a good start. ...  1:55 P.M. (link)

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Monday, Dec. 12, 2005

Dating Game: This weekend, a Democratic National Committee task force on presidential primaries and caucuses issued its recommendations for the 2008 calendar. Unfortunately, the group didn't have the power to make the change that would do Democrats the most good, which would be to have the 2008 election right now.

The chairs of the task force, Rep. David Price and former Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, have been around long enough to know that more often than not, tinkering with the calendar does more harm than good. The primary calendar has been to Democratic politics what the Bowl Championship Series formula is to college football: constant recalibration in an effort to keep one step ahead of common sense.

In 1982, the creation of "superdelegates" helped secure the nomination for Walter Mondale, who lost 49 states. In 1988, the creation of a southern Super Tuesday produced a cakewalk for the very northern Michael Dukakis, who lost 40 states. In 2004, the DNC's plan to front-load the contests to crown an early winner before Republicans could define him handed John Kerry the nomination before he had defined himself.

With that litany of unintended consequences in mind, the Price-Herman commission wisely avoided any grand schemes to fix everything. The change that attracted the most attention—squeezing in a caucus or two between Iowa and New Hampshire—will probably have little impact on those two states' longstanding role in narrowing the field to a frontrunner and one or two underdogs. Except for Iowa, caucuses never carry as much weight as primaries and shouldn't, because far fewer voters actually take part.

Less-noted changes have more potential to create a real race: getting rid of mega-state primary days like Super Tuesday, and awarding more delegates to states with late primaries. In 2004, so many early contests were so close together that it produced a domino effect: After winning Iowa and New Hampshire, John Kerry lost only three state primaries the rest of the way.

Long ago, before Democrats started endlessly reforming the nomination process, the old system had one genuinely exciting feature: late primaries that were winner-take-all. In 1968, when Robert Kennedy beat the late Gene McCarthy by a whisker, and in 1972, when George McGovern beat Hubert Humphrey 44 percent to 39 percent, the winner-take-all California primary was the decisive blow. Although McGovern wrote the party rules that would eventually lead Democrats to replace winner-take-all primaries with proportional representation, a floor fight to uphold the winner-take-all rule saved his first-ballot victory at the 1972 convention.

Of course, McGovern managed to lose 49 states, which suggests that like most primary reforms, "winner-take-all" is a relative term.

Early and Often: The DNC commission had a furious debate about whether to force Iowa and New Hampshire, now likely to take place on Jan. 14and Jan. 22,2008, to wait until Feb. 5. Again, we can probably thank them for doing nothing. Considering that presidential candidates will start declaring their candidacies right after the midterm election in November 2006, actual voting in Iowa and New Hampshire may be an even more eagerly anticipated arrival than bird flu vaccine.

With no incumbent president or vice-president in the field for the first time since 1952, both parties have the chance to create a thrilling, wide-open contest. Now that the DNC has chosen not to pioneer new ways to screw it up, the rest of us will have to do our part, too.

For starters, it might be time for a horserace non-proliferation treaty. This past week, the National Journal e-mailed its first 2008 poll to Washington insiders in both parties. I take part because I like Jim Barnes, the NJ reporter who created the poll, and because it serves a useful purpose: If the inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom is always wrong, it's all the more important to gather a statistically valid sample.

During the 2004 primaries, I had a perfect record in the National Journal poll: Like most participants, I never predicted the right result. We're like the losing contestants in the movie Quiz Show: We guess the wrong answer every week so the winner looks like a bigger surprise than he otherwise would.

This year's 2008-in-2005 poll presents a new challenge. Insiders specialize in being wrong about next week or next month. The law of averages makes it much harder to guarantee that we will be wrong about what will happen three years down the road.

Together, We Can Do Worse: If we put our heads together, I'm sure we can still figure out a way to get it wrong. We do have one advantage: We don't even know who will run. Pre-season polls are notoriously unreliable in any sport. Imagine how far off they'd be if coaches and sportwriters had to vote three years in advance and didn't know which colleges would have teams.

If you're going to guess wrong with consistency, you need a system. Here's mine: First, I use my decades of political experience and the latest public poll to figure out the frontrunner. With savvy insider flair, I promptly write off that candidate as a hothouse creation of Washington professionals who stands no chance in the real world. Then I panic and start to wonder whether every other Washington insider is thinking exactly the same thing. After all, people who live in hothouses shouldn't throw stones.

Fortunately, self-doubt gives way to a firm conviction that while I may not have been right the first or second time, the third time is a charm. To be sure, I still have no earthly idea who will actually win, but I know that as an insider, whichever candidate I pick to win cannot possibly win—and whichever candidate I am confident will lose is sure to come close to winning.

This system worked brilliantly in 2004. I was consistently wrong—but more important, I was able to pick the wrong result ahead of everyone else. I knew Howard Dean couldn't win—he was at the top of the insiders poll for weeks—but I predicted that John Kerry wouldn't win Iowa when most insiders were still stuck on the idea that John Edwards wouldn't win it.

Why stop now? The blogosphere has made so much inside scoop available that anyone who wants to be an insider can become one. That gives all Americans a greater voice in political punditry. But it also means we Washington insiders have lost our monopoly on being wrong. Sure, we're still better at it—we have years of practice—but the rest of world is catching up fast. Twenty years ago, Jack Germond and the "McLaughlin Group" had exclusive rights to the conventional wisdom. Now anybody with cable TV and a computer can play "Howard Fineman: The Home Edition."

In the run-up to the 2004 primaries, the Internet conventional wisdom was every bit as wrong as the Beltway CW. In fact, the two became so closely intertwined, it was difficult to tell them apart. Bloggers learned the hard lesson that insiders always learn, then promptly forget: Voters make up their minds by watching the horses, not the horserace.

I haven't worked out my system for 2008, but I'm ready to start guessing wrong: President Fitzgerald—you heard it here first. ... 11:59 A.M. (link)